We Need To Stop Using Native Images and Names In Sports

Joanna Schroeder explains the horrible and inevitable outcome of using Native images and names as mainstream team mascots, as displayed by an Alabama high school last weekend.
Publish date:
November 21, 2013
The Good Men Project, activism, insensitivity, combating prejudice

Want to start an argument at a party? Ask people what they think about changing the names of pro sports teams like the Cleveland Indians or the Washington Redsk*ns.

Last month I wrote about a poster from the National Congress of American Indians that showed the racist absurdity of naming a sports team after an ethnic or racial group. It showed the Cleveland Indians hat next to hats that used similarly offensive caricatures of Asian Americans and Jewish people.

That post went massively viral. It turns out that the poster is more than a dozen years old, but since so much attention has been paid to the Washington Redsk*ns name of late (including a statement by President Obama saying that if he were the owner he would think about changing the name), the theme is current and close to many people’s hearts.

Despite massive support (100,000+ reads within a few days), I received threatening, insulting, racist and downright ridiculous comments and emails. In at least 100 of them (none of which were allowed to appear on the article), I was called the C-word, the B-word, a moron, an uppity feminist cow, and told to “grab a pan and get back in the kitchen” where I apparently belong. I laughed at the lack of originality in every single one. At the same time that I was laughing at the idiots who are dumb enough to think racism and sexism is funny or clever, I was humbled in realizing that I would never fully understand how much worse these comments and emails would have been had I been a person of color. Or how much more it all hurts if this is your history.

One outcome of using Native images and names in mainstream sports that I didn’t cover last month is the seemingly unavoidable use of offensive, insensitive and racist displays of “team pride” from fans of the opposing team.

Recently, Bill Murray (whom I loved so much up until this point) tackled Lee Corso, who was dressed up as a real life Chief Osceola (video and great commentary here, at Newsy) in some sort of anti-FSU Seminoles display of sporting pride. As odd as that was, racist depictions of Native people being speared through the head or even burned are fairly common. We have chosen not to show those images here, due to the immense amount of hurt they cause people, but one quick Google search will turn them up.

One shining example of this horrific stupidity and insensitivity happened this past weekend in Pinson Valley, Alabama at McAdory High School — their opponents were called The Indians.

This is the sign that McAdory High School allowed to be displayed* at the game:

Now, it’s not fully these kids’ fault that they think this is acceptable. Their whole lives they’ve been seeing racist images in sports. They’ve probably only heard about the Trail of Tears in passing. Perhaps a single page of their history book is dedicated to the ethnic cleansing that happened on the land we now call home. They’ve also most likely been fed lie after lie about the “heroism” of Christopher Columbus every year since kindergarten.

The shame here should be on the school’s administration and these kids’ parents for allowing racism like this to be displayed so proudly, and for allowing their kids to be so ignorant.

Do these people not realize that this is the history of a living people who are still hurting from the atrocities committed against them less than two hundred years ago?

From Wikipedia:

The Trail of Tears is a name given to the ethnic cleansing and forced relocation of Native American nations from southeastern parts of the United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The removal included many members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, among others in the United States, from their homelands to Indian Territory in eastern sections of the present-day state of Oklahoma. The phrase originated from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831.[1]

Many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease and starvation on the route to their destinations. Many died, including 2,000-6,000 of 16,542 relocated Cherokee.

Let’s not just focus upon the deaths (and that number is only from one of the many tribes involved, therefore the death toll is grossly under-represented). Let’s also focus on the fact that the government walked into people’s homes and took them away. In today’s era of “Stand Your Ground” where an unarmed child is shotlegally for merely walking in the general vicinity of somebody’s home, an era when our home is our castle and we won’t let anyone take that away from us, we need to imagine tens of thousands of families being forced from their homes—men, women, babies, the elderly and the infirm—at gunpoint, and forced to walk to new land… legally.

Thing is, Americans do know how it feels to lose thousands upon thousands of people due to hate, don’t we? We know how it feels to be changed forever by the heartless massacre of thousands of our own.

Now, stop for a moment and consider a sign at an international sports event that read, “Hey Americans, get ready to leave in flames, just like on 9/11.”

Let that sink in.

What could be worse? What could hurt worse than using that in a friendly rivalry? I can’t think of much. And the entire world (including myself) would be outraged.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is essentially what you are saying to Native people when you abuse the memory of the horrors endured by their ancestors.

It hurts to really think about it, doesn’t it? It also hurts to think about The Holocaust, The Middle Passage, The Crusades, The Congo under Belgian occupation, slavery, and all other genocides around the world. But if we don’t think about these things, if we don’t talk about The Trail of Tears, if we don’t purposefully teach our kids about the genocide that happened on American soil so very recently, then racism like what happened this weekend at McAdory will happen over and over again.

The horror of the genocide committed against the indigenous and First Nations people of North America is not a joke. The images of Native people do not belong to us, as white folks, and it is our job to make this stop.

It’s time to speak up against the use of Native images, names and iconography in mainstream sports. This has to end.

Reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project. Want more?

Poster Puts the Racist Iconography of the Cleveland Indians Into Embarrassing Context

NCAI’s report on Racist Sports Teams Reminds Us What Little Progress We’ve Made

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