Since Europeans first arrived in the Americas, native peoples have been decimated. In North America, where assimilation was rare and conquest or theft of land has been the norm, things were particularly harsh. Stereotypical depictions of natives as violent warriors helped legitimise this process, as did a series of derogatory names such as “redskins” and “savages”.
The legacy of this is still apparent in US sports, particularly the capital’s American football side the Washington Redskins. As the team comes under growing pressure to address its name, it is worth taking a look at how such a prominent position institution came to be known by a racial slur.
American popular culture has had a cartoonish view of natives since the late nineteenth century, when white boys and men in particular created an imagined version of an idealised past where “savagery” was ultimately tamed by white “civilised” progress.
Yet, the very performance of “going native” also took place against a climate of fear of white racial degeneration. Reclaiming the native as part of a national story was used to enhance the white male experience. As a boy growing up in the States in the 70s my friends and I played the game of “cowboys” and “indians” as we chased each other through the woods. The cowboys always chased the indians.
This idea of Native Americans, however, did not include an exploration of actual history and culture, but of “savage” resisters to white settlers and threats to westward expansion.
Framed as villains in numerous movies that focused on the “indians” imagined as “wild” and warrior cultures, most Americans only knew this version of their native peoples. Out of sight other than as curiosities for tourists, space was created for the use of native peoples as sporting mascots and team names as they evoked an imagined savagery that could compete with teams with names such as lions, tigers and bears.
What’s in a name?
With the rise of commercialised American university and professional sport, many chose names with Native American connotation. Examples abound in the four major professional sports of baseball (Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians); American football (Washington Redskins; Kansas City Chiefs); basketball (Golden State Warriors); and ice hockey (Chicago Black Hawks). The Indians’ mascot “Chief Wahoo” has been used since 1915, with its current, and clearly demeaning, image remaining constant since 1952.
After a 2006 ban on hosting tournaments in 18 universities using what were deemed “offensive” Native American mascots, some began to drop their names. The University of Illinois, for example, eliminated its stereotypical mascot “Chief Illiniwek”, named after the area’s original inhabitants who were forcibly relocated during the 1820 and 1830s. From 1928 to 2007, “Chief Illiniwek”, a white student dressed in stereotypical costume performed an “Indian war dance”, at half-time of university basketball matches.
Unlike college teams, professional sports franchises in the US are privately owned (only the NFL’s Green Bay Packers have a form of public ownership), however, and are thus harder to regulate legally.
Redskins’ racial history
The team that has come under the most fire in recent years is the Washington Redskins – the most valuable franchise in the NFL and one of the richest sports teams in the world.
Washington has a history of racial controversies. It was last NFL team to field an African-American player, in 1961. The team’s then-owner, George Preston Marshall, was a notorious racist who resisted using black players and, as Washington was the southernmost NFL team into the 1960s, the Redskins became the team of the South. Games were broadcast by radio all across an area where racial segregation was still the norm.
Current team owner Dan Snyder has responded to calls for the team to change its name with an emphatic “never”. But opposition has been gathering renewed steam during the past three to four months, culminating in Barack Obama suggesting last month that Snyder should consider changing the name.
This was followed by long-time NBC television sports commentator, Bob Costas, discussing the matter at halftime of an NFL game. Costas said of the term “Redskins”:
It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present day intent. It is fair to say that for a long time now, and certainly in 2013, no offense has been intended. But, if you take a step back, isn’t it clear to see how offense might legitimately be taken?
As a network broadcaster covering the NFL, Costas clearly walked a fine line, but his comments were a big step forward in furthering public debate.
Indeed, on 30 October NFL officials met with Native American representatives to discuss the issue, though neither League Commissioner Roger Goodell nor Washington owner Dan Snyder were present.
Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Nation summed up the issue well: “Washington’s team name is the very word our people, American Indians, heard when they were threatened at gunpoint off their land and onto reservations.”
Snyder’s position remains defiant. In a letter to team supporters on 9 October he stated the team could not ignore its 81-year history, though he will continue to listen to public concerns.
Notions of superiority
The issue of Native American mascots highlights the ways in which sport can often obfuscate social problems, help us forget our history and reinforce notions of superiority. Stereotyping entire groups of people and demeaning them through perpetuating an imagined culture that never existed serves to legitimise white male privilege and power.
That this has been allowed to flourish for decades in the national capital of the self-styled center of freedom, the very place where the fate of Native Americans was sealed and the theft of their land legitimised should be cause for global public outcry and bring shame not only to the owners and team in Washington but to the entire National Football League and those who support the continued imagined savagery of Native Americans.
The tide is shifting and the city council and other groups who want the name changed have intensified pressure on the team and the NFL. The San Francisco Chronicle has recently instituted a policy of not using “Redskins” when referring to the team, joining other publications like Slate, Mother Jones and the Washington City Paper.
Once the mascot issue has been resolved, however, it is important not to forget the history of genocide, neglect and abuse suffered by native peoples in North America. We must develop ways to respect actual cultural traditions and create a broader understanding of Native American peoples. Sport should be part of this process, uniting people rather than dividing them.