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Evolving Views on Native American Team Names and Mascots

March 02

On July 2, a decades-long debate over the use of Native American team names reached a turning point. FedEx, the title sponsor of the NFL stadium in Landover, Maryland, issued a one-sentence statement saying it had "communicated to the team in Washington our request that they change the team name."1

The next day, the franchise said, “In light of recent events around our country and feedback from our community, [we] are announcing the team will undergo a thorough review of the team's name."1 In a follow-up statement on July 13, the team announced it would be “retiring the [previous] name and logo upon completion of this review.”2

After conducting a formal review, the Cleveland Indians announced on December 13 that they will change their name.3 “That leaves primarily the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, and the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team,” said Frank Morris of National Public Radio (NPR). “The three teams all claim to venerate Native Americans.”4

Opinions regarding sports team names are strong and varied. As 2020 was a banner year for the issue, this post will explore some of the evolving views on Native American team names and mascots.

Sports Team Names as Positive Recognition

In 2013, the Washington Post ran this letter to the editor, from a reader who self-identified as a college graduate: “I wish that Native Americans would recognize the honor of having a sports team named after them,” the writer said. “Teams choose Native Americans as mascots and role models because people admire these people. We view them as strong and courageous with many other positive qualities, not as negative stereotypes. As a white woman, I cannot walk a mile in the shoes of Native Americans, but I admire their way of life and religion more than those of most groups I see today.”5

Last year, regarding the Cleveland Indians’ announced review of their name, Tony Henson spoke to Ohio’s Spectrum News 1. "Obviously, sports teams choose their nickname for something that is positive that they want to be associated with," he said. "Generally, Indians are considered to be a warrior, strength, and all of the admirable qualities that you would want to have."

The report noted that Henson, who is part Cherokee, was with the Native American Guardian’s Association, an advocacy group that supports teams keeping Native American-themed names. He believed the name "Indians" can provide a chance to educate people about Native American culture and history.

"We see positive Native American imagery and sports as a powerful way to remain visible and relevant in mainstream America. And also, we feel like there are great opportunities for partnerships, especially between sports teams and educational institutions that have a native theme.”6

Response from Team Leadership and the Public

Dan Snyder bought the Washington Football Team—then playing under another name—in 1999. In a brief interview in 2013, USA Today asked if he would ever consider changing the team name.

"We will never change the name of the team," he replied, calling himself, "a lifelong [team] fan,” and noting that, “I think that the [team’s] fans understand the great tradition and what it's all about and what it means. We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”7

Just a week before that interview, the Denver Post reported that “a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows that nationally, [the Washington team’s name] still enjoys widespread support. Nearly four in five Americans don’t think the team should change its name. Only 11 percent think it should be changed, while 8 percent weren’t sure, and 2 percent didn’t answer.”8

Although 79 percent favored keeping the name, that represented a 10-percentage-point drop from the previous national poll on the subject, conducted in 1992 by the Washington Post and ABC News just before the team won the Super Bowl. Then, 89 percent said the name should not be changed, and 7 percent said it should.

In 2013, “several poll respondents told the AP that they did not consider the name offensive and cited tradition in arguing that it shouldn’t change.”8

“That’s who they’ve been forever. That’s who they’re known as,” said a woman from Osceola, Indiana. “I think we as a people make race out to be a bigger issue than it is.”8

A Pivotal Moment in Team Names

What happened to bring about a change that significant in just seven years—from 2013, when 79 percent supported keeping the name, to the team’s announcement in 2020?

"What changed was the murder of George Floyd," said Crystal Echo Hawk, the founder and CEO of the advocacy group IllumiNative. "And it changed everything in this country."

"The origin of that name is rooted in murder and violence and genocide and hate," she said last year. "It's a dictionary-defined racial slur, full-stop."4

A strong plurality of the buying public agrees with her. In the week that culminated with the Washington team’s announcement, AdWeek reported that 87 investment firms and shareholders worth $620 billion sent letters asking FedEx, Nike, and PepsiCo to stop doing business with the team if it didn't find a new name.

The letter to Nike cited the Black Lives Matter movement and said that "we are witnessing a fresh outpouring of opposition to the team name. Therefore, it is time for Nike to meet the magnitude of this moment, to make their opposition to the racist team name clear, and to take tangible and meaningful steps to exert pressure on the team to cease using it."1

Summing it up, Doug Farrar wrote in USA Today, “The [team] didn’t change their name from that offensive moniker until there was massive pressure from advertisers and minority shareholders. Owner Daniel Snyder had said for years that he would never change the name, and he held fast on that for 20 years until money talked.”9

Speaking to NPR, Emory University marketing professor Mike Lewis said, "I think we've reached a point where [the name] is now more of a burden than a benefit to the team."4

The Long-Term Influence of Sports Team Names

The impact of a team’s name transcends money, and the question of how to move forward affects teams and communities nationwide.

After endorsing the Washington name change on the grounds that the old version is a slur, Forbes’ Eric Macramalla went on to say, “There are also some team names, like the Indians and Chiefs, that are not slurs, but still perpetuate a stereotype: the brave and bloodthirsty, noble savage warrior, dressed in loincloth and feathers, ready to scalp the enemy. Indigenous people are not one-dimensional, mythological creatures. They are modern peoples, with proud histories, who occupy all walks of life. As Professor Daniel Cobb of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has said: they are people with a past, not people of the past.”

“And they are people. When we use names like ‘Indians’ and ‘Chiefs’ and ‘Braves’ alongside ‘Bears,’ ‘Lions,’ ‘Tigers,’ ‘Cardinals,’ ‘Cubs,’ etc., it hints at a zoomorphication of Indigenous peoples that underlies these team names. The use of these names as a sports team moniker in that context can be dehumanizing. And it spawns behavior that is profoundly disrespectful, including fans appropriating sacred symbols of honor such as eagle feathers and headdresses and converting them into costumes.”10

A member of the Tulalip Tribe, University of Michigan professor Stephanie Fryberg has spent years studying the psychological effects of Native stereotypes and logos on Native Americans and non-Natives. She found that exposing Native American teenagers to Native sports mascots decreased their self-esteem, lowered the achievement-related goals they set for themselves, and diminished their sense of community worth and belief that their community can improve itself.

“[It] actually lowered Native high schoolers’ self-esteem more than giving them negative statistics about [Native American communities], like high suicide rates, depression, dropout rates,” Fryberg said in a July interview for Politico. “That really gives you a sense of how powerful the imagery is.” Her studies have also shown that the use of Native mascots increases suicidal ideation and depression among Native Americans.

The effects extend beyond the Native American population. “The research shows that the use of Indian mascots increased stereotyping of Native people as ‘primitive,’ ‘aggressive’—'savages.’ It leads people to dehumanize Native people. And there is also evidence that when exposed to Native mascots, white college students are more likely to discriminate against other people of color. The only benefit to using Natives as mascots is that we have research showing that whites get a boost in self-esteem.”

It’s not just the Washington team, the interview notes. It’s not just Chief Wahoo, the minstrelish cartoon logo that the Cleveland Indians shelved in 2018. It’s not just pro franchises like the Atlanta Braves or the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s much more pervasive than that—and it’s state-sanctioned.

“We have thousands of schools in this country with Native mascots,” Fryberg said. “What is the goal of school? Is it to give kids a chance to be their best selves, to choose whatever career path they want? If that’s truly what educating our children is about, then there’s no place for Native mascots in schools.”

“Americans need to ask themselves, ‘Why do I want to hold on to something, especially if I know the science tells us it’s harmful to that group?’ Either you really want to honor Native people or not. Just say it: You don’t care, and you don’t want to honor Native people. You’re fine if it hurts them. You just want to ‘play Indian.’”11

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  1. Retrieved on January 5, 2021 from npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/07/03/887087674/washington-redskins-say-team-name-will-undergo-a-thorough-review
  2. Retrieved on January 5, 2021 from abcnews.go.com/US/washington-redskins-change-years-backlash/story?id=71744369
  3. Retrieved on January 5, 2021 from apnews.com/article/cleveland-indians-changing-name-mlb-a6108c71a739ec37b3863e72536aa22f
  4. Retrieved on January 5, 2021 from npr.org/2020/07/11/889874026/the-racial-justice-reckoning-over-sports-team-names-is-spreading
  5. Retrieved on January 5, 2021 from washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-native-american-mascot-is-an-honor/2013/10/09/260952e8-2f95-11e3-9ddd-bdd3022f66ee_story.html
  6. Retrieved on January 5, 2021 from spectrumnews1.com/oh/columbus/news/2020/07/09/what-s-in-a-name--for-the-cleveland-indians--it-s-become-a-national-debate
  7. Retrieved on January 5, 2021 from usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/redskins/2013/05/09/washington-redskins-daniel-snyder/2148127/
  8. Retrieved on January 5, 2021 from denverpost.com/2013/05/02/washington-redskins-shouldnt-change-their-name-poll-finds/
  9. Retrieved on January 5, 2021 from touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2020/08/20/kansas-city-chiefs-issue-statement-intend-to-keep-their-nickname/
  10. Retrieved on January 5, 2021 from forbes.com/sites/ericmacramalla/2020/07/04/a-simple-test-to-decide-whether-a-team-should-change-its-name/#71d71b2e2725
  11. Retrieved on October 19, 2020 from politico.com/news/magazine/2020/07/16/native-american-team-names-psychology-effect-redskins-indians-sports-logos-366409