The University of Oklahoma elected to retire its “Little Red” mascot, a caricature of a Native American known as "the dancing Indian," in 1970. Soon enough, other NCAA schools with equally stereotypical and racist nicknames, such as Marquette University and later the University of North Dakota, began to follow suit. The University of Illinois is another school on this list, but it didn’t just drop its “Chief Illiniwek” mascot and the racist gameday “traditions” that came with it. Taking it a step further, it dramatically raised the profile of its program in American Indian Studies, while a similar occurrence happened at Dartmouth College, whose mascot was formerly the “Indians.”
The institutions mentioned above all reside at the university level, but K-12 schools are equally involved in the dropping of racist nicknames towards Indigenous peoples. Until this year, K-12 schools and NCAA schools were the only institutions taking action with name changes, while the professional sports teams with mascots equally as racist sat in silence, refusing to put some (literal) respect to their names.
The reasoning behind the accusations of racism towards the Washington Redskins’ name seems obvious at first: it promotes a stereotype centered around Indigenous peoples’ skin tone. However, the origins of the NFL team’s name stoop to a much deeper and darker level than one might believe. According to the Change the Mascot Campaign, “[Redskin] refers to the literal ‘red skin’ bounty hunters would collect in order to be paid for the number of Natives they slaughtered. These men would murder Native people then rip the skin from their bodies in order to receive payment.” So, the demand from Indigenous peoples for the Washington Redskins to change their name wasn’t just driven by the stereotype itself, but by the traumatizing and painful history which looms behind it.
For the Cleveland Indians, the origin and reasoning behind their name and its racist nature is a little more hazy compared to the Washington Football Team. The MLB team didn’t start out with this name, so it is believed by some that its inception was driven by the desire to gain profit and attention through the mockery of Native American culture, while others argue that it was a “nod” towards or a way to “honor” Louis Sockalexis, an Indigenous baseball player drafted in 1897 by the team that was then known as the Cleveland Spiders.
Regardless of which, or if, either of the theories behind the name is true, the ways in which the team chose to use it and the controversy with which it was met indicate just how offensive it is towards Native people and culture. 1954 marked the entrance of the “Chief Wahoo” moniker, a logo for the team which depicted a cartoon “Indian” with bright red skin, a feather atop its head, and an inordinate smile said to be derived from the "Little Indian" cartoon character borne out of comic books.
This image was viewed as utterly racist to Indigenous peoples, as its appearance perpetuated the crass “red skin” stereotype while its name seemed to mock Indigenous language and names. The “Chief Wahoo” symbol did meet its end at the start of the 2019 season, but the removal only applied to team jerseys and not to merchandise. The team also chose to continue its use of the “Indians” nickname; that is, until the murder of George Floyd shed a bright light on the prominence of racism in all facets of life, including the world of sports.
After years of ignoring calls from protesters and critics to change its name, Washington’s NFL team announced on July 13 that the Redskins no longer existed, and that it would now be referred to as the Washington Football Team on a temporary basis. Less than a month ago, Cleveland’s MLB team also announced that it was eliminating its team name after putting it under review, and similarly to Washington, would temporarily be known as the Cleveland Baseball Team.
While public opinion did play a significant role in these decisions, flying under the radar were numerous lawsuits which, overall, found that a team can’t profit from a racist trademark. This pressure, which had been applied for numerous years by Indigenous peoples and social justice groups but never amassed to systemic change, had finally reached a point where the call for large-scale change was both understood and achieved. However, the memory and, as some see it, “legacy” of these names and images will persist well into the future, as racism is something that is stained into the fabric of the world.
As we look to the Indians and Redskins as nicknames of the past, it is worth noting just how many sports teams continue to have, and refuse to drop, racist nicknames and traditions which serve to mock and belittle Indigenous people and culture. The Kansas City Chiefs out of the NFL were named in honor of Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle, a white man to whom “Chief” was simply a nickname, but American Indian rights activist Suzan Harjo and others believe that “the context is problematic,” as the team still chooses to use various pieces of Indigenous people and culture in an offensive and stereotypical way.
While Kansas City did make a statement pledging to ban fans from wearing American-Indian themed face paint and Native regalia such as headdresses to games in August of 2020, it have persisted in its use of such racist "traditions" as the “Arrowhead Chop” chant and the appearance of “Warpaint” the horse during games.
In professional sports, the teams which sit alongside the Kansas City Chiefs in their refusal to let go of their racist mascots and/or traditions are the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL and the Atlanta Braves of the MLB. Perhaps most prominent on the collegiate stage are the Florida State Seminoles, who in addition to a handful of other schools including San Diego State University (Aztecs) and Central Michigan University (Chippewas), continue in their use of Indigenous peoples and culture as a mascot.
The high schools, colleges, and professional sports teams who have elected to eliminate nicknames and traditions that proved racist to Indigenous peoples and cultures allowed society to take a massive step in the right direction. For other teams with Native American mascots, whose stadiums and facilities all exist on stolen land, it is clear that the time has come for them to follow suit. This is particularly necessary given contemporary circumstances: as Maulian Dana, an ambassador at large for the Penobscot nation in Maine, told the New York Times, “You can’t support these athletes protesting racism without looking at this racial slur on one of their teams.”