Appropriation (?) of the Month: Seven lessons from the Native American sports mascot controversy

Florida State University mascots, Chief Osceola and Renegade

By Brian Egan

Debate about the use of Native American imagery or symbols and the representation of Native peoples in sport has been with us for decades.

Particularly evident in popular media, this discussion concerns the widespread use of team names and mascots that reference Native American identity or culture, as well as fan behaviour associated with these symbols or representations. Typically, this debate pits those who see this appropriation of Native American culture as highly problematic or offensive against those who view these practices as harmless or even as honouring Native peoples and their cultures.

Over the past year the “Native American mascot controversy,” as this debate is sometimes called, reached a new level of intensity, due in no small part to the high-profile and ongoing controversy over the Washington, D.C., National Football League (NFL) team, whose nickname, the “Redskins,” many consider to be a racial epithet. Using this particular case as an entry point, I explore the contours of this ongoing controversy and what it tells us about Native Americans’ continuing struggle for self-determination and recognition in the context of the modern settler state. I offer seven lessons we can take from this debate.


1. Names do matter

Contrary to the popular children’s saying about sticks and stones, names do matter and can do harm. An important part of Native peoples’ struggle for self-determination and recognition has revolved around the appropriate use of names and terminology. Replacing the imposed term “Indian” with names seen as more appropriate—such as “Native American” or “First Nation”—or insisting on the use of specific tribal names (e.g., Sioux, Seminole), is seen by many Native Americans as an important symbolic step. In general, over the past few decades this new terminology has been broadly accepted and is now in wide use. In this context, the continuing use of “Redskins” as a team name stands out as clearly inappropriate, a fact that is increasingly recognized by both sports journalists and aficionados. During an October 2013 national television broadcast of a Washington game, for example, veteran sportscaster Bob Costas concluded that the team name was indeed “an insult, a slur.” Around the same time, media outlets across the United States agreed to stop using the team name, with one journalist referring to the team as “the Washington football club whose team name I refuse to utter.” Even President Obama waded into the controversy, saying that he would consider changing the name if he owned the team. When even the mainstream media and the President see your team name as a racial slur, it is well past time to change.


2. Playing Indian is offside

As with fashion designers, sports fans love to “play Indian” and with similar and predictable results. Fans of the Kansas City Chiefs, a professional football team, show up to their team’s games in faux feather headdress and war paint. The same goes for fans of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, who paint their face in a likeness of the team’s mascot, “Chief Wahoo,” a manically-grinning caricature of a Native American. Fans of the Atlanta Braves baseball franchise perform a collective and rhythmic “tomahawk chop” at key moments in their team’s games. For the Florida State University “Seminoles” football team, a more elaborate ritual is performed at the start of each home game: the team mascot, “Chief Osceola,” played by a non-Native student dressed in Native costume and riding an appaloosa pony, races onto the field and thrusts a burning spear into the turf, to the rapturous cheers of the home crowd. The “Indian” constructed through such performances is a familiar stereotype or caricature: colourful and war-loving, primitive and savage, noble yet doomed. Such generic constructions come to dominate the popular imagination and obscure the reality and complexity of modern Native American life. Playing Indian is offensive and should always be whistled down as offside.


3. Sports and politics do mix

Bob Costas’ very public critique of the Washington team name sparked an immediate and strong response, ranging from those who wholeheartedly endorsed his comments to those who saw no problem with the team name and viewed this simply as a case of “political correctness” run amok. Interestingly, some of those who endorsed Costas’ position expressed disappointment that he voiced this opinion in the middle of a football game, saying that they preferred not to have politics mixed up with their sporting pleasure. This perspective references an enduring idea of the nobility and purity of sport, where all participants are subject to the same rules and compete on the same (level) playing field, an endeavor untainted by messy politics. The reality, of course, is that sport and politics have always been close, if uneasy, bedfellows. Sport both reflects and shapes broader social struggles, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of race. The ongoing debate about Native appropriation in sport is best understood as a form of racial politics, reflecting a struggle to define and redefine racial identities, including Indigeneity and Whiteness, in the context of the contemporary settler state. Those working to do away with stereotypical and offensive appropriation of Native culture in sport are seeking to create space for the recognition and flourishing of more diverse and fully-formed Native subjectivities.



4. Appropriately honour Native Americans

In response to those who critique the use of Native American names and images in sport, fans and team officials often argue that these are an important part of the history and tradition of the team and that the intention is to communicate respect for Native Americans. Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, described the team name and logo as a “badge of honor” to Native peoples, and argued that “everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect—[are] the same values we know guide Native Americans.” To demonstrate his commitment, Snyder gave public recognition to Navajo codetalkers during halftime of an NFL game in late November 2013 and later announced that he had founded a charity (the Original Americans Foundation) to help Native American communities. To his critics, these moves were simply seen as crude attempts to buy Native American support or aquiescence. In a Washington Post article, Bob Drury and Thomas Clavin took a different approach, arguing that if Snyder was really serious about his desire to pay homage to Native Americans, he should change the team’s name to the “Washington Red Clouds.” They argued that the name would honour the great Sioux leader who successfully resisted the U.S. Army’s incursion into his peoples’ territory in the late nineteenth century and who, when he came to Washington in 1870, was treated as a head of state and received at the White House by President Ulysses S. Grant. What better name for the team, Drury and Clavin argued, than that of a leader who embodied strength, intelligence, and perseverance. The broader point here is that if team owners truly want to pay homage to Native peoples they should honour and make a commitment to a specific Native American community. No doubt many such communities would welcome an opportunity to have their culture recognized and honoured through a respectful and reciprocal partnership with a local sports franchise.



5. The “Redskins” controversy is also about greenbacks

If the debate about Native names and mascots is primarily about culture and racial politics, economics also plays an important role. In the United States, professional sport is a multibillion-dollar industry. The National Football League, the most profitable professional league in America, generates approximately $9.5 billion in revenue each year, from sponsorship and television rights, ticket sales, and the hawking of team merchandise. Professional sports franchises are big corporations; one study estimated the value of the Washington Redskins franchise at almost $2 billion, making it among the top ten most valuable sports teams on the planet. An important part of any franchise’s value is bound up in its brand, which includes its name and logo. Changing the team name and logo means changing the corporate brand, a risky proposition that few successful companies are eager to undertake. Ronald Goodstein, a marketing professor at Georgetown University, suggested that changing the Washington Redskins name could cost the team hundreds of millions of dollars and noted that it could take decades for the team to recreate the kind of brand loyalty it now enjoys. While Dan Snyder may truly believe that his team’s name honours Native Americans, he certainly has a strong financial incentive to resist a name change. With continuing media and public pressure, however, the economics may shift: if the brand is tarnished and becomes a liability, rebranding may prove a more attractive and profitable option.


6. Representation is a “real-life” issue

Snyder recently suggested that critics should shift their attention from the team name and instead focus on the “real-life issues, real-life needs” of Native American communities, which, he argued, he was doing with his Original Americans Foundation. Interestingly, this was echoed by at least one Native American commentator, Gyasi Ross, who noted that he and many other Native Americans “didn’t give a damn about the Washington Redskins or mascots,” indicating that they had considerably more important problems to worry about. While acknowledging that problematic team names and mascots are hardly the most pressing issues facing Native communities, Adrienne Keene, founder and author of the Native Appropriations blog, argues that they are nonetheless important and worthy of close examination and critique. Representations of Native peoples in popular culture, whether in sports, film, or fashion, both reflect and shape understandings of Native peoples and culture and ultimately have real-life personal and material effects. By way of example, Keene points to studies (e.g., Fryberg et al. 2008) that support the view that stereotypical representations of Native people, including those used by sports teams, contribute to depressed self-esteem and a low sense of community worth among Native youth. Native American artist Migizi Pensoneau echoes Keene’s point, arguing that simplistic and offensive representations help reinforce the long list of challenges facing Native America. 


7. Things are changing

Despite the entrenched views of Snyder and others who share his perspectives, the decades of hard work by Native American organizations and their allies to counter the misappropriation of Native culture in sport has had an effect. Many teams have changed their problematic or offensive names: high profile examples include Stanford University and Dartmouth College changing their names from the Indians to the Cardinals and Big Green, respectively, in the early 1970s, St. John’s University Redmen becoming the Red Storm in the early 1990s, Miami of Ohio University Redskins changing to the Red Hawks in the late 1990s, and the retiring of the University of Illinois mascot, Chief Illiniwek, in 2007. All of these changes came about after a prolonged period of protest and were aided, to one degree or another, by a rule imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that banned schools that used “hostile and abusive American Indian nicknames” from hosting postseason games. Further, as Pensoneau points out, Native Americans are increasingly using new communication technologies to tell their own stories and to define their own identities, serving to disrupt long-held stereotypes. Real progress has been made and public opinion has shifted, if slowly. As the “Redskins” case shows, however, the misappropriation of Native culture in sports is still very much with us and there is much more work to be done.


Images: Florida State University mascots, Chief Osceola and Renegade (Wikipedia - public domain); Sioux leader Red Cloud, photographed by Charles Milton Bell while on a delegation in 1880. Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society (Wikipedia - public domain). 


References and Further Reading

Brian Egan is an independent researcher and the IPinCH Project Manager. 

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, highlight the complexity of 'cultural appropriation' and 'cultural appreciation'.



2013 Symposium on "Racist Stereotypes and Sports"


Some of the issues that Brian explores in his blog were also explored by the speakers in a 2013 symposium on "Racist Sterotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports," held at the National Museum of the American Indian. The presentations there are available for on-line viewing at:


February 7, 2013

Sports writers, scholars, authors, and representatives from sports organizations engaged a capacity audience with lively panel discussions on racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation in American sports. Speakers explored the mythology and psychology of sports stereotypes and mascots, and examined the retirement of "Native American" sports references and collegiate efforts to revive them despite the NCAA's policy against "hostile and abusive" nicknames and symbols. The day-long symposium ended with a spirited community conversation about the name and logo of the Washington, D.C., professional football team, with sports writers from the Washington Post and USA Today, along with eminent members of the D.C. community.