Native American Mascots & Team Names Need to Stop

Starting with the Washington Redskins of the NFL. Sure, they have no “economic” incentive to change their name–it is not the job of capitalism to instill values–but this is one of those things that we are going to look back on in 40-50 years (hopefully a lot sooner) and think, “Wow, look at what complete racist idiots we were back then!” Think about it. Can you imagine a pro sports team today called the Alabama Blackskins?

“Redskins” is not any different, and it has been a very long battle to change the name.

The organization may argue they have no economic incentive to change, but that argument is about as dumb as molasses… didn’t slave owners try to make that case? ‘We’d lose money, so we can’t stop, duh!

Unfortunately it’s not limited to one NFL team… college sports teams (including my alma mater) still use Native American names and/or mascots.

“But what if the tribe agreed to it?”

It’s not that simple.

Can you imagine the backlash a tribe would get if they refused? How would they be seen in the community? There is a power-differential at play here. Institutional racism.

Mainstream sports media has played into this problem as well. A few years ago Sports Illustrated ran an article about a “study” they did that purported to show that there really wasn’t any controversy, and Native Americans were generally in favor of the Redskins, and the Fighting Sioux, and the Indians. SI also refused to release their research methods… hmm…  Also good reading, if you’re interested (and this is from a professional journal): Of Polls and Race Prejudice: Sports Illustrated’s Errant “Indian Wars.”

I went to the University of Utah. I saw the “Runnin’ Utes” play in the 1998 Final Four with my father. It is one of my most cherished memories. Later on I graduated from the U. I was a Ute.

Only I wasn’t. I don’t own any part of the name, and I have not paid the price to be a member of the tribe. I got all the fanfare and affiliation and pride without all the baggage. Schools like the U giving out some scholarships in exchange for the supposed “agreement” between with the school doesn’t make it better.

A professor who studies these issues compared it to a chocolate covered turd. Changing the mascots to something less offensive while keeping the name covers the turd with chocolate. The problem is still there.

I’m convinced that eventually these names will ALL be changed and will be shut away in the “what a bunch of dumb racists we all were” category. Perhaps this is why I have a *little* more patience for people like Brigham Young, for example, who banned blacks from receiving the LDS (Mormon) priesthood, because they were “cursed.” That took until 1978 to be reversed.

Will these changes take as long? Maybe. There may not be any religious dogma involved, but there is a lot of money and a lot of emotions wrapped up in this issue.

We need a willingness to talk with others without arguing. We need to talk with people close to us, and those within our sphere of influence. I’m still a bit shell-shocked due to my positive feelings associated with the name of my favorite basketball team.

Many of us DO have great memories associated with these teams.

That doesn’t make it right.

About shenpa warrior

"Patience is not learned in safety." View all posts by shenpa warrior

20 responses to “Native American Mascots & Team Names Need to Stop

  • Emily

    I may just be trying to justify the ambivalence I have about this issue but I think it’s complicated. Sports (some more than others) is a sort of ceremonial / ritualized battle, and teams gravitate toward names and mascots that they feel reflects the ‘warrior’ archetype, human or animal. Which is why I love the Oregon State Beavers and the Santa Cruz Banana Slugs. And the fierce Cardinal on those helmets down in AZ.

    Are the Vikings or the Spartans, for example, acceptable mascots because their people weren’t victims of a several centuries of genocide and abuse at the hands of white men? Or just because Vikings are ‘white,’ which means white people don’t see them as even having a ‘race,’ which makes us feel safer?

    At any rate, I completely agree that the Washington R_______s are way, way overdue for a name change. But if tribes agree to the use of their names by a school or team, isn’t it a little bit patronizing to second-guess their decision? To make assumptions about their rationale?

    I think the most important thing, which you are accomplishing with this post, is to keep issues of race on the table. Society is not colorblind, and pretending it is allows a lot of insidious inequities to fester. You might find my organization’s Race Equity Project blog interesting (I’ve linked it to my name below) where I occasionally post under the perhaps ethnically inappropriate moniker “Hamachi.” I don’t know why they decided to have everybody use nicknames (though I see that practice may now be ending, speaking of name-changes), but that was the first thing I could think of. Must have been hungry that day.

  • Steve

    This is something I kind of go back and forth on. On one hand I do find it unfortunate, but also, I hate boring old team mascots (ie mine is Panthers). But I do agree with Emily, where would we draw the line? And there ARE some American Indians that DO like the team name. It’s the one place in this society people still think of them (although probably not really, since with all the talk of the Redskins here in DC, it barely registers in me that it’s about Native Americans). In many regards, the name has become more synonymous with the team, not as a group of people. The dangerous part is the actual, costumed dressed mascot. Those play up stereotypes more than the name usually. And that Standford Fir looks quite phallic to me! haha.

  • adamf


    I agree, it IS complicated… and part of this problem is the fact of the “ritualized battle” – it perpetuates one of the prevalent stereotypes of Native Americans, that of the noble warrior (the others being the “savage” and the “broken Indian” or alcoholic, etc.). The North Dakota Fighting Sioux used to have a rabbit or something for a mascot… unless that rabbit was from Monty Python then I can see why they wanted something more fierce. But therein lies the problem. They may or may not have consented 20 years ago, but now they don’t like it anymore, and how nice do you think the fans are towards the tribe now? That logo was stamped into every step and seat in their arena.

    As for Vikings or Spartans (or “Fighting Irish”) – those examples are also different because there are a LOT more examples of white people, or Irish people, in society. Native Americans are much more likely to be stereotyped in these cases. One interesting note about the SI article was that ALL the photos of Native Americans were decked out in their religious/ceremonial clothing, which is a decent representation of how we think of these people in society – we DON’T notice them unless they’re drunk, or look like warriors at our football games.

    “But if tribes agree to the use of their names by a school or team, isn’t it a little bit patronizing to second-guess their decision? To make assumptions about their rationale?”

    That is a great question, and one that we all posed to the professor. Unfortunately the issue isn’t that simple. We have to look at under what conditions they consented, who holds the power in the negotiation, what the consequences would have been if they don’t (and look at the current issue in North Dakota), what “consent” even means, and look at how Native American people have been treated in our history. They have “agreed” to a LOT of crap over the years. They have often “agreed” to move to reservations, or send their kids to boarding schools. I think it feels a bit like burying our heads in the sand if we assume that their written consent clears up the issue… like it’s supposed to make us all feel better about it.

    Thanks for the link. I am interested!

    For sure, there are some who like their names being used. No argument there, other than the fact that some people like it doesn’t mean it’s right, or that most people like it. As far as we know from research so far, the majority of Native Americans do NOT seem to be in favor of it.

    I agree, the actual mascots are the worst.

  • Emily

    One of the things I loved most about my football team was that we were named for an epic emotion: the Redding Rage. Universal, powerful, alliterative…too bad we never won any games.

  • adamf

    That is a great name, but yes, kind of like my basketball team, The Slammers. None of us could dunk.

  • Brad

    Well said Adam. Jesse would be proud.

  • adamf

    Thanks Brad! As he said, I’m trying to speak within my “sphere of influence.” 🙂

  • Stephen M (Ethesis)

    “Are the Vikings or the Spartans … ” In theory a mascot is supposed to embody your virtues. As a blond of Greek descent (50%) I really disliked being a “Spartan” as it stood for dark haired interlopers who enslaved the fair haired natives to me.

    The problem with the drunk and fighting Irish is just that it is an entire motif. The strong point to it is that it has become a point of pride.

    It is not the use of any symbol as a mascot, it is the way the symbol is used. Titus, verse 15 comes to mind, but it is the inverse. Anything can be made into a good symbol or a bad one, or just about anything (I’m not sure chocolate covered turds could make the positive transition).

  • salth2o

    What if it was the washington redNECKS?

  • adamf

    Lol, well, I suppose that would be better than the Washington BLUEnecks! 😉

  • Stephen M (Ethesis)

    Or what about the UCSB Banana Slugs?

  • adamf

    Banana slugs… fear them!!!! 😉

  • MH

    Ok, I’m late to the party, but I just want to put my 2 cents in. As I recall, The Seminoles of Florida State have 2 groups of Seminoles that have weighed in on their use of the Seminole name. If I remember correctly, it seems the Florida tribe is ok with the use of the name, while the Oklahoma tribe is not. So, do they need unanimity?

    If I’m not mistaken, the Fighting Illini of Illinois do no have permission of the tribe, but are still using the name anyway.

    Finally, I think there are quite a few white team mascots: Cowboys, Rebels, Sooners, Cornhuskers (I don’t think Neb was a slave state anyway, and the logo is a big white guy holding a corn cob), Minutemen, Cavaliers, Raiders, Torerros. A few others are colorblind (though probably originally white), Admirals, Colonels, Midshipmen, Patriots, Pirates, Buccaneers.

    And then there are those with religious connotations, Red Devils, Sun Devils, Blue Demon, Demon Deacons, Devils.

    As I recall, PETA doesn’t like animal mascots: Tigers, Bears, Gators, Falcons. What’s left? Heat, Jazz, Suns, Avalanche, Hurricanes, and Magic?

    Personally, I think Red Storm, Green Wave, and Stanford Cardinal (the color, not the bird), are kind of lame mascots (then again, so is Cornhusker.)

  • adamf

    Thanks for joining the party, MH. 🙂

    I may have said it in an earlier comment, but “white team mascots” don’t pose the same problems. We have plenty of representations of white people, and I don’t think mascots like “cowboys” perpetuate any stereotypes/discrimination.

    As for PETA, they can eat it, lol. That was a joke, but seriously, that is a different issue imho, and in no way should they compare, if they have, animal mascots to Native Americans.

    I get the idea that some of the other names are kinda lame (see: Banana Slugs), but obviously that’s not a good argument to keep mascots that perpetuate stereotypes.

    Incidentally, a conversation on this ensued IRL last night at a family party. Some relatives of mine were talking about how “lame” it was that the Utes now have a Hawk instead of an “Indian” for their mascot. I spoke up and I think took them off guard a little–my main point being, it’s NOT the simple issue that we want it to be, i.e. did they (the tribe) approve it or didn’t they, or should we be PC or not, etc. There are a lot of things involved with this.

  • Ben Zeeman

    I disagree with this, but I have to point out that racism has everything to do with intention, and nothing to do with taking offense when none is meant. I believe that fighting things that were never intended to be racist is doing the opposite of what many people intend. To acknowledge the idea that being an Indian warrior without earning it is somehow racist, but being a white knight without earning it is somehow noble perpetuates the idea that one is more noble than the other.
    I am not into sports, but I still know of no professional team that decided to find a group of people they hate, and make that the name of their team. The problem is not racism of those who chose the name, but the racism of those finding a problem with it. It make absolutely no sense to disqualify noble historic warriors (or mean and vicious for that matter) because of the color of their skin. PERIOD. This is the same thing that makes affirmative action obsolete and inherently racist. Affirmative action implies that because of the color of your skin, you must have come from poverty, therefore because you are of a different race, you are not capable of overcoming adversity on your own, and therefore are entitled to special help, while others because of the lack of color in their skin, are not entitled to the same special help. Yes I will admit that affirmative action was based not on discrimination, but on good intentions to help minorities. WE WILL NEVER BE WITHOUT RACISM AS LONG AS WE CONTINUE TO SEGREGATE PEOPLE BY SKIN COLOR! Remember
    The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

  • adamf

    Your idea “not continuing to separate people by skin color” is a common one among white folk. I get that, and have been there myself. Isn’t it great that as a white person, we don’t have to think about our skin color every day? We don’t have to be separated by color?

  • Abdur Rauf Gray Wolf

    I AM a member of the M.C.A.R S.M. Here in Michigan. I am Black Foot, Cherokee, Irish, & Germen. The use of native mascots needs to stop. Its wrong to use my people as mascots. We the people need to let our voices be herd. We need to speak out on this.

  • shenpa warrior

    Thanks for the comment and for adding your voice – we DO need to speak out. There is a misconception that native Americans are generally all in favor of the mascots and etc.

  • Indian Football Helmets

    Very good information. Lucky me I came across your blog – “Susanne Bellenhaus large feet” by chance (stumbleupon). I’ve book-marked it for later!

  • Pine Mountain Walker

    To add a little controversy, possibly, it seems that mascot names are just another trinket to offer to a group of people that in reality, have had their land and lives devastated and forever changed. Give back the land and name the teams whatever you want from the land you came from. History cannot be turned back, but it seems that these are things people think about AFTER they’ve conquered and destroyed a people and in time decided to soothe their guilt a bit. A nice gesture, but it won’t solve the problem any more than renaming blacks over and over will give them equal standing. Alternatively, allow the government to be run by American Indian tribes. But we would soon return to warring again. The spirit of war is not quenched in the United States. When we stop warring we will demonstrate we are done controlling others for our benefit or “necessity.” We only pet the tiger once we’ve tranquilized or killed it… Is there another way in this world? It seems doubtful, but it’s a nice sentiment. One worth truly having the courage to follow through on…

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