Superbowl 2014 is less than a week away. As many in the country gear up to watch the game—and/or the commercials and the half-time show—there is much buzz about the sport. Most of that has focused on the weather and the possibility of moving the game to a day with not plagued with freezing cold or blowing snow (April, anybody?), and of course lots of talk about the two teams, the players, the strategies—basically lots of football chat I don’t understand. Even those who are not football fans are usually aware that the game is coming and talk about their plans for the day. Lots of organizations that have no association with football build off of the event in various ways. Pittsburgh’s local independent music station is hosting an alternative “souper bowl” including a fundraiser for a women’s shelter. This time of year is a reminder to Americans that football holds a spot in our cultural milieu. Which also means it is a great time to talk about one of the problems plaguing the sport—the use of racist mascots.
Last fall Mother Jones announced that they were joining a few other news organizations in their decision to stop referring to the Washington Redskins by name, as a small but significant gesture meant to protest the continued use of the racist term. When I first read the story on Facebook I was thrilled and thought “It’s about time!” Despite decades of protest from American Indians and non-native allies, the Washington pro-football team continues to use as its mascot a term that most consider a pejorative against Native Americans. The issue has recently received new steam as a result of a federal lawsuit, Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc., in which a group of five American Indians are fighting to have the trademark rights removed from the team. Daniel Snyder, the current owner of the team, has responded that the team will never change its name, arguing that it has a longstanding tradition and the fans know what the name represents. Do they? And if they do, does that make it ok?
I first learned about the fight to get sports teams to stop using native mascots during a class I took in college about the American Indian Movement. I was somewhat familiar with the topic already, being part Cherokee myself and attending a college that had a nickname based on a Native American tribe (The University of Utah’s Running Utes). By the time I was in college, the University of Utah had already dropped the use of a native mascot and urged students to not dress in native garb. There are new rumors that they will be dropping the name altogether and adopting an entirely new mascot.
My firsthand experience with the mascot issue continued when I completed my predoctoral internship at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, a school that continues to struggle with mascot related turmoil. U of I had an 80-year tradition of using a native mascot, Chief Illiniwek, which they “officially” dropped in 2007 after the NCAA deemed it to be an offensive use of American Indian imagery. The NCAA banned the school from holding any postseason event until they changed the mascot. Before this time, students would don buckskin outfits and perform made-up dances at athletic events. I say that they “officially” dropped the mascot because during my time on campus (in 2008-2009) you would have been hardpressed to guess who the mascot was if it was not Chief Illiniwek—“Chief” gear was everywhere. Students wore regalia with the chief image, yards had signs saying “keep the chief”, and like most college towns there were numerous small shops filled with college gear—most of it had the chief on it.
During my time at the University of Illinois I served as the liaison between the Counseling Center and the Native American House, a cultural and resource center on campus. The center brought in the renowned Cheyenne-Arapaho artist, Edgar Heap of Birds, whose installation piece on campus was vandalized five times. There was a student group whose sole mission was to reinstate Chief Illiniwek as the mascot. The atmosphere was often charged with tension around the issue—it was a challenging place to be Native American.
Change is hard. People often only see things from their own perspective. Many of the students at U of I had family members who had attended the school. They grew up watching the school’s sports teams, hearing stories about family members’ adventures, and looking forward to one day becoming a “Fighting Illini”. As Snyder said of the Washington team—the fans saw the name as part of the tradition. While they genuinely felt a sense of loss of not having the mascot they anticipated, that loss is far outweighed by the costs of keeping the mascot.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the removal of all American Indian mascots and symbolism from schools, organizations and athletic teams. APA has referred to numerous research studies which demonstrate the harmful effects of native mascots on American Indians. The practice also reinforces stereotypes about Native Americans and traditions of oppression against entire groups of people. The fact that so many White Americans think that Indian mascots are “not a big deal” or that tradition should overrule the requests made by many Native American individuals and nations reminds us all that privilege is a powerful weapon. Snyder and many of the students who fought for a native mascot at Illinois argued that such mascots are a way to “honor” a group of people. Just for future reference, if a group of people assert that a practice and/or a term is offensive, continuing its use is not honoring them.
The fact that the football team housed in our nation’s capital continues to hold tight to using a racial slur as a name is a disgrace. It is time for the team to make a change that many other professional sports teams, schools, and universities have chosen to do. It is time for fans to step back from their desire to support tradition and see the need to support human dignity. At the end of the day, isn’t the right for equality for all the bigger American tradition?
So this year when talk of Superbowl Sunday rolls around, consider opening up a dialogue about retiring Native American mascots. The issue may not trend like a Janet Jackson half-time show, but let's see what we can do if we put our minds to it.
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