Take Me Out of the Ball Game

Sarah Mae Martin is frustrated. The high school freshman is part Choctaw and part Lakota and although she hasn’t been in very many teepees, she knows that they are very sacred places. “They're for being quiet and praying and opening your mind,” says Martin.

It makes sense, then, that the 14-year-old resident of Broken Arrow, a town outside Tulsa, Okla., hates going to football games at the nearby Union High School, home of the Redskins. Not only is the Union mascot a Native American boy in a headdress, but at the pre-game shows Martin has been to, she says it’s not uncommon for students to erect a fake teepee as a prop and climb the so-called teepee polls in a plume of fake, machine generated smoke.

“It feels like my race is being used as a prop,” says Martin, who has spoken in front of the Union school board on several occasions. When she does so, it’s been as a representative of the Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism, a group that has recently gotten fed up with arguing with school boards and is now working to pass a Senate bill in Oklahoma called the Native Mascot Act. The act is focused on eliminating the mascot names "savages" and "redskins" from all public schools, in an effort to “protect Oklahoma’s children from the consequences of racism.”

Forty years after the civil rights battles of the 1960s, Native Americans and civil rights advocates are still fighting a decades-old battle to end the depiction of American Indians on football helmets, basketball courts and team jerseys. They say such images foster a shallow and inaccurate understanding of Native American cultures, reinforce stereotypes of the noble savage or red-faced warrior, and encourage racist behavior among sports fans.

Oklahoma is not the only state where this battle is being fought. This January, California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg re-introduced a similar mascot bill for the third time. She too is focused on banning “redskin” from Golden State schools, as it refers to the way Native people were scalped, beginning in the 1600s, by white settlers who were paid by the government for killing Indians.

Despite these and other important gains in the past 40 years, there remain nearly 2,000 schools in the United States with Native American sports mascots. In a country increasingly aware of racial tension and stereotypes, many seem to have forgotten about the original victims of American racism: the original Americans.

Respect or Caricature?

Why haven’t Native Americans benefited from the larger move towards civil rights in this country? Opponents of these mascots point out that comparable depictions of other ethnic or religious groups in sports would never be embraced in our culture.

“Can you imagine a team named the Blackskins? That would never be allowed. These mascots are one of the last vestiges of racism allowed in the U.S.,” said Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the national Indian rights organization Morning Star Institute.

Many sports fans profess as much devotion to their teams’ racially-charged Indian mascots as to the players themselves, insisting that the mascot is a tribute to this country’s native peoples. Supporters point out that there are many Native Americans who say they are not bothered by their likeness on a jersey or football helmet. Perhaps the most famous group to have willingly lent its name to a sports team is the Seminole tribe in Florida, immortalized by Florida State University’s Florida Seminoles.

But critics of the Florida Seminoles point out that while the team logo and mascot uniform are sanctioned by the Seminole tribe, the behavior of sports fans at home games is not. The school’s respectful tribute to the Seminole nation, crafted so carefully in collaboration with the tribe, crumbles quickly when keyed-up sports fans start hollering ‘war chants’ and doing the ‘tomahawk chop’ at halftime. Advocates for change also argue that the consent of some Native Americans does not lessen the hurt and embarrassment felt by others, all so that sports fans can have an image to rally around.

“There are happy campers on every plantation,” said Harjo, an American of Cheyenne and Muscogee descent. She is certain that the majority of Native Americans oppose the use of their identity in team names and mascots, and that the evidence lies in Morning Star Institute’s long court battle with the Washington Redskins over its name and noble-savage mascot. “Every major national Native American organization supports our position, and in our years of litigation against the Washington Redskins, they have not been able to produce one Native person in court to support them.”

Part of the problem, says Jacqueline Johnson, of the National Congress of American Indians, is the complete inaccuracy of most representations by sports teams. “You’ll see icons or pictures that are not reflective of the people or cultures,” she says. “They become caricatures, and that’s offensive in itself, as it would be to any other race if they were caricatured.”

Strange bedfellows

In recent years, the coalition of groups working nationwide to eliminate Native American stereotypes in sports has expanded to include the National Education Association, the National Organization for Women (NOW), the American Jewish Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a slew of other civic and religious groups.

National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy said the issue falls well within the scope of NOW’s mission. “NOW got involved with the Native American mascot dispute because one of our six key issues is to eliminate racism,” Gandy said. “We wanted to lend support to our allies in the Native American community.”

Opponents of Native imagery in sports won an important ally in 2001, when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights weighed in on the debate. In a statement issued on the subject, the Commission concluded that the stereotyping of Native Americans in sports is a regrettable reminder of one of the more embarrassing chapters in American history. “These references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping,” the Commission stated. “They are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.”

Changing hearts and mascots

In the decades-long effort to eliminate racial stereotyping in school sports, students have always figured front and center. In the late 1960s, Native American students at a large Midwestern university mounted the country’s first successful campaign to discard an offensive school mascot. The school was the University of Oklahoma, nicknamed Big Red, and its mascot was a whooping Native caricature by the name of Little Red. Sports fans and the university administration countered that the mascot was not offensive, but in 1969 the Native American students and their allies stepped up the pressure, organizing a petition and a sit-in in the university president’s office. By 1970, Little Red was no more.

In the 35 years since Little Red, nearly 1,000 of the roughly 3,000 Native references in American sports – from middle schools to the major leagues – have been eliminated. Among the long list of schools that have abandoned racial stereotypes of Native Americans are some of the biggest names in the country: Stanford, Dartmouth, St. John’s, Syracuse, Miami of Ohio and the public school systems in both Los Angeles and Dallas.

At colleges and universities across the country where sports reign supreme, the people most resistant to change are often the alumni. In North Dakota, the State Board of Higher Education scrapped plans to formally review the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux mascot after an alum threatened to withhold a $100 million donation from the school.

Harjo believes alumni who side with the Native references are often fighting to hold onto their own beloved college experiences as much as the mascots they so vehemently defend. “Many of the alumni and the older people have this romanticized idea of how great school was and everything associated with it,” she said. “It’s kind of weird, but their identity is shaped by these things, and they grew up in a time when racism was more permissible and less apparent – unless you were on the receiving end.”

For the same reason, Harjo says, students are essential to the process of reflecting and starting anew. “Students are pivotal because they’re not clinging to the past,” she said.

It is this fresh perspective and candid humor that has brought a group of Native and non-Native students at the University of Northern Colorado so much attention. In 2002, they formed an intramural basketball team called the Fighting Whites and set out to raise awareness of racial stereotyping in sports through a new mechanism: satire.

The novel approach worked. Within weeks, the name Fighting Whites was being dropped in the Washington Times, CNN, Fox News, and Jay Leno’s opening monologue on the Tonight Show, breathing new life into the decades-old national debate over racism in sports.

Today, one of the biggest scholastic umbrella groups in the country – the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA – is in the process of drafting a report on Native names and images in college sports. The report will be based on self-evaluations completed by NCAA member schools with Native American mascots. While the NCAA has stopped short of banning such representations of Native Americans, it has, in the past, urged member schools to discontinue their stereotyping in team names, logos and mascots. And Robert Vowels, chair of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee, says the position of the NCAA on the issue is crystal clear.

“Cultural diversity, integrity of education, civility, honesty and responsibility – all these things are addressed in the NCAA constitution. So even though the NCAA might not be writing new legislation [regarding Native mascots], there’s legislation on the books that we feel addresses these issues of color, creed, and national origin,” Vowels said. He expressed confidence that the upcoming establishment of a new national-level Office for Diversity and Inclusion will “ensure attention to issues like the mascot.”

Johnson, who has experience working for change along these lines, believes it’s important to incorporate authentic tribal education into any plan to change a mascot.
She stresses “making sure tribal leaders are invited to school events and presented in a way that’s respectful,” adding: “For example, when my son was going to school and they played lacrosse, we made sure the school had an educational component that explained where the game came from and where it is today. It’s harder to do those derogatory chants when you realize that those people are your friends and neighbors and they’re sitting there beside you.

Johnson also believes that students wanting to initiate a review of Native mascots at their schools need to be in an environment with the right information. It’s about, “not just talking amongst themselves, but sitting down with the Indian students and having candid conversations,” she says. “Far too many schools don’t include regular Native American educational curriculum about the heritage. Too many of our students grow up with the romanticized version of tribes from the past without knowing about what’s happening today.”

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