Slurs in Sports: Native American Sports Team Names and Mascots

The culture that many of us have been brought up in makes us attached to an over-caricatured, outdated vision of Native Americans, and many sports teams mascots support that.

Pradyoth Velagapudi, Managing Editor

As you cheer on your favorite major league or school sports teams, have you ever thought about how so many are named for Native Americans? Some of these names are extremely controversial, but many people don’t want them changed; most people don’t consider that sort of thing racist. Today, I ask, “Why not?”

The Washington Redskins are perhaps one of the best-known examples of a major sports team with a controversial name, with many groups pushing to have it changed. The word “redskin” is a much debated one; “Merriam-Webster Dictionary” defines it as a “usually offensive” term for a Native American, and many people agree. However, a poll taken in 2016 by the National Annenberg Election Survey found that 90 percent of those who identify with a native tribe do not object to the team name, and seven out of 10 Native Americans do not think that the term “redskins” is offensive to Native Americans in any way. This poll was immediately cited by the team owner, Daniel Snyder, who also said that he’ll “never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps,” according to the Washington Post.

Personally, I don’t think this is the kind of thing that can be measured with a poll. When you reference an entire diverse culture with a single, dictionary-defined racial slur, can you really go and ask them if it bothers them? No matter what the results were, to me, this is a topic that goes much deeper than a simple poll. It is not a just a harmless name: it is summing up an entire culture with a stereotype from the 1800’s. When you say the word “redskin,” it implies a cartoon version of Native Americans that is forced into the public eye by movies, popular culture, and, of course, sports teams. Whether or not it is seen as a racial slur, it’s still harmful to stereotype a culture in this way.

In addition, it really is a dictionary-defined racial slur, whether or not it was originally meant to be one. Throughout history, the word “redskin” has been used to deride Native Americans, no matter what people say its origins were. Even the “n-word” started off as a harmless reference to African-Americans, but its usage over the years has turned it into a word that not everyone is comfortable with now (and requires me to censor it here). Would you feel comfortable cheering on a team and wearing a T-shirt for it that features a racial slur, even though most African-Americans today say they are fine with it? Most people wouldn’t. But people are fine with the word redskin! This is not necessarily personal prejudice at work—this is just the culture that most people have been brought up in. A culture where Native Americans are stereotyped, caricatured, and diminished in status so much that they stop becoming people and become an outdated and incorrect idea, a mere concept of a colorful and diverse culture.

Why do widely-accepted “rules” suddenly become hazy when applied to Native Americans? Why does a dictionary-defined racial slur become “just a name?” Why does the Cleveland Indians logo, which is blatantly derogatory, suddenly become “just a logo” or “just a picture?” By the way, the name “Chief Wahoo” for Cleveland Indians logo is a misnomer. Chiefs have a full headdress, and braves have a single feather; therefore, “Chief” Wahoo is actually a brave, according to Walter Goldbach, the designer of the logo (who still defends the logo today). However, the Cleveland Indians, unlike the Washington Redskins, are slowly beginning to pull the controversial Chief Wahoo from their merchandise and stadium decor and replacing it with a block letter “C.”

And why do people call the indigenous peoples of North America “Indians?” I know “Native American” is not accepted by as many people, but it’s still better than calling them the same thing as an entirely different group of people (from India). The argument that India was called “Hindustan” during Christopher Columbus’s time, and “Indian” for North American natives comes from the Italian words “En Dios” (or “Under God”) is not entirely accurate. The entire continent of Asia, including the Indies, were all referred to as India. When Columbus arrived, and thought he was in India, he therefore referred to the natives as Indians; evidence of this lies in the fact that Europeans named the Caribbean islands the West Indies. Also, the phrase “En dios” does not appear often in Columbus’s writings. But I digress.

Many people have said that naming sports teams after Native Americans is not offensive; rather, it is a form of honoring and immortalizing them. But like I said, do these sports team names actually honor Native Americans, or does it only serve to remind people of the toy, the 19th-century fantasy, that we have turned them into? “We the People of the United States” have committed nothing short of cultural genocide over the course of centuries, and we “honor” those we have conquered under our oppressive boot by depicting our sports teams with racial slurs, adding insult to injury to those we have already done so much harm.

So the next time you cheer on a sports team named for indigenous peoples, think a little deeper about what exactly the name and the mascot is implying about native cultures.