The use of terms and images referring to Native Americans and First Nations as the name or mascot for a sports team is a topic of public controversy in the United States and Canada. Since the 1960s, as part of the indigenous civil rights movements, there have been a number of protests and other actions by Native Americans and their supporters. The protests target the prominent use of such names and images by professional franchises such as the Cleveland Indians (in particular their "Chief Wahoo" logo, now officially retired); and the Washington Redskins (the term "redskins" being defined in most American English dictionaries as "derogatory slang"). Changes, such as the retirement of Native American names and mascots in a wide array of schools, has been a steady trend since the 1970s.
The issue is often discussed in the media only in terms of the offensiveness of certain terms, images, and performances to individuals of Native American heritage, which tends to reduce the problem to one of feelings and personal opinions. This prevents a more comprehensive understanding of the history and context of the use of Native American names and images, and the reasons why sports teams should eliminate the utilization of such terms. Social science research says that sports mascots and images, rather than being mere entertainment, are important symbols with deeper psychological and social effects. The accumulation of research on the harm done has led to over 115 professional organizations representing civil rights, educational, athletic, and scientific experts adopting resolutions or policies that state that the use of Native American names and/or symbols by non-native sports teams is a form of ethnic stereotyping that promotes misunderstanding and prejudice which contributes to other problems faced by Native Americans.
Defenders of the current usage often state their intention to honor Native Americans by referring to positive traits, such as fighting spirit and being strong, brave, stoic, dedicated, and proud; while opponents see these traits as being based upon stereotypes of Native Americans as savages. In general, the social sciences recognize that all stereotypes, whether positive or negative, are harmful because they promote false or misleading associations between a group and an attribute, fostering a disrespectful relationship. The injustice of such stereotypes is recognized with regard to other racial or ethnic groups, thus mascots are morally questionable regardless of offense being taken by individuals. Defenders of the status quo also state that the issue is not important, being only about sports, and that the opposition is nothing more than "political correctness", which change advocates argue ignores the extensive evidence of harmful effects of stereotypes and bias. Although there has been a steady decline in the number of teams doing so, Native American images and nicknames nevertheless remain fairly common in American and Canadian sports, and may be found in use at all levels, from youth teams to professional sports franchises.
European Americans have had a history of "playing Indian" that dates back to the colonial period. In the 19th century, fraternal organizations such as the Tammany Societies and the Improved Order of Red Men adopted the words and material culture of Native Americans in part to establish an aboriginal identity, while ignoring the dispossession and conquest of indigenous peoples. This practice spread to youth groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) (in particular, the Order of the Arrow) and many summer camps. University students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries adopted Indian names and symbols for their sports teams, not from authentic sources but rather as Native American life was imagined by European Americans.
Professional team nicknames had similar origins. In professional baseball the team that is now the Atlanta Braves was founded as the Boston Red Stockings in 1871; becoming the Boston Braves in 1912. Their owner at that time, James Gaffney, was a member of New York City's political machine, Tammany Hall, one of the societies formed to honor Tamanend, a chief of the Delaware. The team that moved to become the Washington Redskins in 1937 was originally also known as the Boston Braves since the football and baseball teams played at Braves Field. After moving to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, the team name was changed to the Boston Redskins in 1933, using a "red" identifier while retaining the Braves "Indian Head" logo. While defenders of the Redskins often cite coach William Henry Dietz, who claimed Native American heritage, to justify the name; the use of Native American names and imagery by this NFL team began in 1932 before hiring Dietz in 1933.
The Cleveland Indians' name originated from a request by club owner Charles Somers to baseball writers to choose a new name to replace the "Naps" following the departure of their star player Nap Lajoie after the 1914 season. The name "Indians" was chosen as it was one of the nicknames previously applied to the old Cleveland Spiders baseball club during the time when Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe of Maine, played for Cleveland. The success of the Boston Braves in the 1914 World Series may have been another reason for adopting an Indian mascot. The story that the team is named to honor Sockalexis, as the first Native American to play Major League Baseball, cannot be verified from historical documents. The news stories published to announce the selection in 1915 make no mention of Sockalexis, but do make many racist and insulting references to Native Americans.
The stereotyping of Native Americans must be understood in the context of history which includes conquest, forced relocation, and organized efforts to eradicate native cultures, such as the boarding schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which separated young Native Americans from their families in order to educate them as European Americans. As stated in an editorial by Carter Meland (Anishinaabe heritage) and David E. Wilkins (Lumbee) both professors of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota: "Since the first Europeans made landfall in North America, native peoples have suffered under a weltering array of stereotypes, misconceptions and caricatures. Whether portrayed as noble savages, ignoble savages, teary-eyed environmentalists or, most recently, simply as casino-rich, native peoples find their efforts to be treated with a measure of respect and integrity undermined by images that flatten complex tribal, historical and personal experience into one-dimensional representations that tells us more about the depicters than about the depicted."
In the 1940s, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) created a campaign to eliminate negative stereotyping of Native American people in the media. Over time, the campaign began to focus on Indian names and mascots in sports. The NCAI maintains that teams with mascots such as the Braves and the Redskins perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native American people, and demean their native traditions and rituals: "Often citing a long held myth by non-Native people that "Indian" mascots "honor Native people," American sports businesses such as the NFL's Washington 'Redskins' and Kansas City 'Chiefs', MLB's Cleveland 'Indians' and Atlanta 'Braves', and the NHL's Chicago Black Hawks, continue to profit from harmful stereotypes originated during a time when white superiority and segregation were commonplace."
Several of the founders of the American Indian Movement, including Clyde Bellecourt, Vernon Bellecourt, Dennis Banks and Russel Means, were among the first to protest names and mascots such as the Washington Redskins and Chief Wahoo. Vernon Bellecourt also founded the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media (NCARSM) in 1989. Cornel Pewewardy (Comanche-Kiowa), Professor and Director of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University, cites indigenous mascots as an example of dysconscious racism which, by placing images of Native American or First Nations people into an invented media context, continues to maintain the superiority of the dominant culture. Such practices can be seen as a form of cultural imperialism or neocolonialism.
Native mascots are also part of the larger issues of cultural appropriation and the violation of indigenous intellectual property rights, which includes all instances where non-natives use indigenous music, art, costumes, etc. in entertainment and commerce. It has been argued that harm to Native Americans occurs because the appropriation of Native culture by the majority society continues the systems of dominance and subordination that have been used to colonize, assimilate, and oppress indigenous groups. Some see the use of caricatures of Native Americans as sports mascots as contributing to their political and economic marginalization. Where other minorities would be consulted, decisions impacting Native Americans, such as building the Dakota Access Pipeline, are made while excluding Native concerns. Another incident cited as indicative of the misunderstanding of Native American legal status because of stereotyping is the Baby Veronica case, in which a child was adopted by a white family without the consent of her father, and enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation.
Not all Native Americans are united in total opposition to mascots. Steven Denson, a professor at Southern Methodist University and member of the Chickasaw nation, while not issuing a blanket endorsement, has nevertheless stated that there are acceptable ways to use Native American mascots if it is done in a respectful and tasteful manner. He states: "I believe it is acceptable if used in a way that fosters understanding and increased positive awareness of the Native-American culture. And it must also be done with the support of the Native-American community. There is a way to achieve a partnership that works together to achieve mutually beneficial goals." The NCAI recognized the right of individual tribes to established relationships with teams which allowed them to retain their names.
Social sciences and education
The damage caused by the use of Native American mascots, particularly in an academic context, was stated by the Society of Indian Psychologists in 1999:
Stereotypical and historically inaccurate images of Indians in general interfere with learning about them by creating, supporting and maintaining oversimplified and inaccurate views of indigenous peoples and their cultures. When stereotypical representations are taken as factual information, they contribute to the development of cultural biases and prejudices, (clearly a contradiction to the educational mission of the University.) In the same vein, we believe that continuation of the use of Indians as symbols and mascots is incongruous with the philosophy espoused by many Americans as promoting inclusivity and diversity.
Sports mascots have been cited as an example of microaggressions, the everyday insults that members of marginalized minority groups are subject to in the comments and actions of other groups in society.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a resolution "Recommending the Immediate Retirement of American Indian Mascots, Symbols, Images, and Personalities by Schools, Colleges, Universities, Athletic Teams, and Organizations" due to the harm done by creating a hostile environment, the negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children, and discrimination that may violate civil rights. It also impacts non-natives by reinforcing mainstream stereotypes, preventing learning about Native American culture. The APA states that stereotyping is disrespectful of the beliefs, traditions and values of Native Americans. Similar resolutions have been adopted by the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, the American Sociological Association, the American Counseling Association, and the American Anthropological Association. In a 2005 report on the status of Native American students, the National Education Association included the elimination of Indian mascots and sports team names as one of its recommendations. In 2018, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced it would no longer consider teams with racist mascots, such as the Kansas City and Washington football teams, for its annual RWJF Sports Award, which recognizes organizations that contribute to public health through sports.
Social science research gives weight to the perceptions of those directly affected. In particular, studies support the view that sports mascots and images are not trivial. Stereotyping directly affects academic performance and self-esteem, which contribute to all of the other issues faced by Native Americans, including suicide, unemployment, and poverty. European Americans exposed to mascots are more likely to believe not only that stereotypes are true, but that Native Americans have no identity beyond these stereotypes. Two studies examining the effect of exposure to an American Indian sports mascot found a tendency to endorse stereotypes of a different minority group (Asian Americans), which is indicative of a "spreading effect". Exposure to any stereotypes increased the likelihood of stereotypical thinking; demonstrating the harm done to society by stereotyping of any kind. A connection between stereotyping and racism of any group increasing the likelihood of stereotyping others was made by Native Americans opposing the "Indians" mascot in Skowhegan, Maine when fliers promoting the KKK were distributed in that town.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution calling for the end of the use of Native American names, images, and mascots in 1999.
In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released an advisory opinion calling for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools. While recognizing the right to freedom of expression, the commission also recognizes those Native Americans and civil rights advocates that maintain these mascots, by promoting stereotypes, may violate anti-discrimination laws. When found in educational institutions, mascots may also create a hostile environment inconsistent with learning to respect diverse cultures, but instead teach that stereotypes that misrepresent a minority group are permissible. Those schools that claim that their sports imagery stimulate interest in Native American culture have not listened to Native groups and civil rights leaders who point out that even purportedly positive stereotypes both present a false portrayal of the past and prevent understanding of contemporary Native people as fellow Americans.
In a report issued in 2012, a United Nations expert on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples cited the continued use of Native American references by sports team as a part of the stereotyping that "obscures understanding of the reality of Native Americans today and instead help to keep alive racially discriminatory attitudes." Justice Murray Sinclair, the head of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in 2015 "sports teams with offensive names, such as Redskins and cartoonish aboriginal-looking mascots have no place in a country trying to come to grips with racism in its past".
While all advocates for elimination of Native mascots agree that the practice is morally wrong, many do not find a basis for legal remedy. Civil rights law in the United States reflect the difference between the experience of racism by African Americans and Native Americans. The effects of slavery continued after emancipation in the form of discrimination that insured a continued source of cheap labor. What European Americans wanted from Native Americans was not labor but land, and many were willing to have native people themselves assimilate. Continued discrimination came to those who refused to do so, but asserted their separate identity and rights of sovereignty. The appropriation of native cultures is therefore seen as discriminatory practice by some but is not understood as such by those that think of assimilation as a positive process. The difference is reflected in the continued popularity of Native Americans as mascots when similar usage of the names and images of any other ethnic group, in particular African Americans, would be unthinkable, and the continued claim that the stereotype of the "noble savage" honors Native Americans.
In February 2013, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) filed a complaint with the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR). MDCR's complaint asserted that new research clearly establishes that use of American Indian imagery negatively impacts student learning, creating an unequal learning environment in violation of Article VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In June 2013, the OCR dismissed the case on the basis that the legal standard required not only harm, but the intent to do harm, which was not established.
A legal claim of discrimination rests upon a group agreeing that a particular term or practice is offensive, thus opponents of mascot change often point to individuals claiming Native American heritage who say they are not offended. This raised the difficulty of Native American identity in the United States, also an evolving controversy.
In 1992, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a resolution calling for the end of sports teams names that promote racism, in particular the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Redskins. In 2001, the Unitarian Universalist Association passed a resolution to establish relationships with groups working to end the use of Indian images and symbols for sports and media mascots. In 2004, the United Methodist Church also passed a resolution condemning the use of Native American team names and sports mascots, which was highlighted in a meeting of the Black caucus of that organization in 2007.
Rev. Alvin Deer (Kiowa/Creek), United Methodist Church
A group of sixty-one religious leaders in Washington, D.C. sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder stating their moral obligation to join the "Change the Mascot" movement due to the offensive and inappropriate nature of the name which causes pain whether or not that is intended.
Members of the Indian Affairs Committee of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends approved a formal statement condemning the name of the Washington football team, stating that "the NFL has violated its core principles for decades by allowing the team playing in Washington, D.C., to carry the name 'redskins,' a racist epithet that insults millions of Native Americans. Continued use of the term encourages and perpetuates persecution, disrespect, and bigotry against Native men, women, and children". The Torch Committee, the student government organization of the Sandy Spring Friends School in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, voted to ban any apparel on the campus which includes the Redskins name, although the logo would continue to be allowed.
In a meeting March 1, 2014, the Board of Directors of the Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC) unanimously passed a resolution proposing that its members boycott Washington Redskins games and shun products bearing the team's logo until the team changes its name and mascot. Redskin's spokesman Tony Wyllie offered a response, saying, "We respect those who disagree with our team's name, but we wish the United Church of Christ would listen to the voice of the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Native Americans, who support our name and understand it honors the heritage and tradition of the Native American community." At its annual meeting in June 2014, the membership of the UCC also passed a resolution supporting the boycott. The resolution and boycott was passed by the National Synod of the UCC in June, 2015.
The topic became an issue on a national level in the twenty-first century, with a hearing before the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2011, and a symposium at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2013. In November, 2015 President Obama, speaking at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, stated "Names and mascots of sports teams like the Washington Redskins perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native Americans" and praised Adidas for a new initiative to help schools change names and mascots by designing new logos and paying for part of the cost of new uniforms.
Mainstream opinion reflects the function of identification with a sports team in both individual and group psychology. There are many benefits associated with sports fandom, both private (increased self-esteem) and public (community solidarity). The activity of viewing sporting events provide shared experiences that reinforce personal and group identification with a team. The name, mascot, cheerleaders, and marching band performances reinforce and become associated with these shared experiences. Daniel Snyder explicitly invokes these associations with family, friends, and an 81-year tradition as being the most important reasons for keeping the Redskins name. When self-esteem becomes bound to the players and the team, there are many beneficial but also some unfortunate consequences, including denial or rationalization of misbehavior. However, for some, the identity being expressed is one of supremacy, with the defense of native mascots being clearly racist.
Some individuals who support the use of Native American mascots state that they are meant to be respectful, and to pay homage to Native American people. Many have made the argument that Native American mascots focus on bravery, courage and fighting skills rather than anything derogatory. Karl Swanson, then vice-president of the Washington Redskins professional football team, declared in the magazine Sports Illustrated that his team's name "symbolizes courage, dignity, and leadership", and that the "Redskins symbolize the greatness and strength of a grand people".
However, many note that the behavior of fans at games is not respectful. Richard Lapchick, director emeritus of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, in an article: "Could you imagine people mocking African Americans in black face at a game? Yet go to a game where there is a team with an Indian name and you will see fans with war paint on their faces. Is this not the equivalent to black face?"
Others claim Native American mascots help promote the culture to those who might be unaware of its significance. Chief Illiniwek, the former athletic symbol for the University of Illinois, became the subject of protest in 1988. In 1990 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois called the mascot a dignified symbol: "His ceremonial dance is done with grace and beauty. The Chief keeps the memory of the people of a great Native American tribe alive for thousands of Illinoisans who otherwise would know little or nothing of them." However, the mascot costume was not based on the clothing of the people of the Illinois Confederation, but an imitation of the clothing of the Lakota people, and the first three men to portray Illiniwek were not performing authentic Native American dances, but routines they had learned from other non-Native hobbyists in the Boy Scouts of America. The Peoria people are the closest living descendants of the Illiniwek Confederacy. In response to requests by those who had portrayed the mascot to bring back occasional performances, Peoria Chief John P. Froman reaffirmed the tribe's position that Chief (Illiniwek) "was not in any way representative of Peoria culture".
Other team names and ethnic groups
Many argue there is a double standard in Native Americans being so frequently used as a sports team name or mascot when the same usage would be unthinkable for other racial or ethnic group. One current exception is the Coachella Valley High School "Arabs" which has also been the subject of controversy, resulting in the retirement of its more cartoonish representations.
The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's "Ragin' Cajuns" are sometimes cited as counter-arguments to those that favor change. However, rather than referring to "others" these teams employ symbols that European American cultures have historically used to represent themselves. The University of Notre Dame mascot, the University of Notre Dame leprechaun is a mythical being that represents the Irish, which is both an ethnic and a national group. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette mascot is an anthropomorphic cayenne pepper, an ingredient frequently found in Cajun cuisine. Opponents also see this argument as a false equivalency, because it ignores systemic inequality, and serves to discount the Native American voice by saying that if one group isn't hurt by a particular portrayal, then no group has the right to be hurt, regardless of vastly different backgrounds, treatment, and social positions.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights call for an end to the use of Native American mascots was only for non-native schools. In cases where universities were founded to educate Native Americans, such mascots may not be examples of cultural appropriation or stereotyping. Examples include the Fighting Indians of the Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP), which continues to have a substantial number of native students, and close ties to the Lumbee tribe. The UNCP nickname is the Braves, but the mascot is a red-tailed hawk. Pembroke Middle School, which also has close ties to the Lumbee tribe, is nicknamed the Warriors.
Financial impact of change
Many supporters of Native American mascots feel that the financial cost of changing mascots would far outweigh the benefits. Sales of merchandise with team mascots and nicknames ranging from T-shirts to beer cozies generate millions of dollars in sales each year, and teams contend that a change in team mascots would render this merchandise useless. The cost of removing images from uniforms and all other items, which must be paid out of local school funds, is a greater factor for secondary schools. Opponents feel that despite the cost of a change in team mascots, it should be done to prevent what they believe is racial stereotyping. Clyde Bellecourt, when director of the American Indian Movement stated: "It's the behavior that accompanies all of this that's offensive. The rubber tomahawks, the chicken feather headdresses, people wearing war paint and making these ridiculous war whoops with a tomahawk in one hand and a beer in the other; all of these have significant meaning for us. And the psychological impact it has, especially on our youth, is devastating."
A study done by the Emory University Goizueta Business School indicates that the growing unpopularity of Native American mascots is a financial drain for professional teams, losing money compared to more popular animal mascots. Writing for Forbes in response to the statewide mascot ban passed by Maine in 2019, marketing analyst Henry DeVries compares Native mascots to the retired "Frito Bandito" mascot, and argues that "offensive marketing mascots" are a bad idea financially and "on the wrong side of history."
Public opinion surveys
A survey conducted in 2002 by The Harris Poll for Sports Illustrated (SI) found that 81 percent of Native Americans who live outside traditional Indian reservations and 53 percent of Indians on reservations did not find the images discriminatory. The authors of the article concluded that "Although most Native American activists and tribal leaders consider Indian team names and mascots offensive, neither Native Americans in general nor a cross section of U.S. sports fans agree". According to the article, "There is a near total disconnect between Indian activists and the Native American population on this issue." An Indian activist commented on the results saying "that Native Americans' self-esteem has fallen so low that they don't even know when they're being insulted". Soon after the SI article, a group of five social scientists experienced in researching the mascot issue published a journal article arguing against the validity of this survey and its conclusions. First they state that "The confidence with which the magazine asserts that a 'disconnect' between Native American activists and Native Americans exists on this issue belies the serious errors in logic and accuracy made in the simplistic labeling of Native Americans who oppose mascots as 'activists.'"
More recent surveys, rather than addressing the larger issue, have targeted the controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins, asking if the word is offensive or if it should be changed. By a large majority (71–89 percent), public opinion has maintained that the name should not change. However, more than half (53–59 percent) agree that "redskin" is not an appropriate term for Native Americans.
The survey most frequently cited by opponents of change as definitive of Native American opinion was performed in 2004 as part of the National Annenberg Election Survey. Among other questions regarding election year issues, respondents who identified themselves as being Native American were asked: "The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or doesn't it bother you?" In response, ninety percent replied that the name did not bother them, while nine percent said that it was offensive, and one percent would not answer. The methods used in this survey and the conclusions that can be drawn from it have been criticized by social scientists, Native American scholars and legal experts for years.
In May 2016, The Washington Post essentially replicated the Annenberg poll, getting the same results. While attempting to address some of the flaws in the earlier poll it received many of the same criticisms.
A flaw unique to polls of Native Americans is they rely upon self-identification to select the target population. In an editorial in the Bloomington Herald Times, Steve Russell (an enrolled Cherokee citizen and associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University), states that both SI and Annenberg's samples of "self-identified Native Americans ... includes plenty of people who have nothing to do with Indians". Individuals claiming to be Native American when they are not is well known in academic research, and people claiming Indian identity specifically to gain authority in the debate over sports mascots has been criticised.
At the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino a survey has conducted of 400 individuals whose identity as Native American was verified, finding that 67% agreed with the statement that "Redskins" is offensive and racist. The response from non-natives was almost the opposite, with 68% responding that the name is not offensive. In a 2020 study at UC Berkeley 49% of self-identified Native Americans responded that the Washington Redskins name was offensive or very offensive, while only 38% were not bothered by it. However, for study participants who were heavily engaged in their native or tribal cultures, 67% said they were offended, for young people 60%, and those with tribal affiliations 52%. 
While protests began in the 1970s, national attention to the issue did not occur until widespread television coverage of college and professional games brought the behaviour of some fans to the attention of Native Americans. The appearance of the Atlanta Braves in the 1991 World Series and the Washington Redskins at the 1992 Super Bowl prompted the largest response because the games were played in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which has a large Native American population.
The documents most often cited to justify the elimination of Native mascots are the advisory opinion by the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 2001 and a resolution by the American Psychological Association in 2005. Neither of these documents refer to subjective perceptions of offensiveness, but to scientific evidence of harms and legal definitions of discrimination. However, the issue is often discussed in the media in terms of feelings and opinions, and prevents full understanding of the history and context of the use of Native American names and images and why their use by sports teams should be eliminated.
Individual school districts have responded to complaints by local Native American individuals and tribes, or have made changes due to an increased awareness of the issue among educators and students. New Native mascots have not been proposed in recent decades, or are withdrawn before becoming official due to public opposition. For example, in 2016 when one of the teams in the National College Prospects Hockey League (NCPHL) was announced as the Lake Erie Warriors with a caricature Mohawk logo it was immediate changed to the Lake Erie Eagles.
Little League International has updated its 2019 rulebook to include a statement prohibiting "the use of team names, mascots, nicknames or logos that are racially insensitive, derogatory or discriminatory in nature." This decision has been applauded by the National Congress of American Indians.
In February, 2019 US Lacrosse issued a position statement which said in part "As the sport’s national governing body, US Lacrosse believes that the misuse of Native American nicknames, logos, and mascots reflect and promote misleading stereotypes that are degrading and harmful to Native Americans. We will make every effort to assure that offensive or stereotypical mascots and logos will not be visible or promoted at events that US Lacrosse controls."
Legal and administrative action
Statewide laws or school board decisions regarding team names and mascots have passed in states with significant Native American populations; including California (2015), Colorado (2014), Oregon (2012), and Michigan (2012). However, opposing the trend for change, in response to the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs seeking a ban though the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, the Tennessee Senate passed a law allowing only elected officials to take any action banning school teams using American Indian names and symbols. The Wisconsin law passed in 2010 meant to eliminate "race-based nicknames, logos and mascots" was revised in 2013 making change much more difficult. In the original law, a single individual could file a complaint with the burden of proof on the school to defend their mascot, in the new law a petition signed by 10% of the school district residents is needed, and the petitioners need to prove discrimination.
Secondary schools and youth leagues
Secondary schools in both the United States and Canada have had histories similar to colleges, some changing voluntarily while others maintain their current mascots. An analysis of a database in 2013 indicates that there are currently more than 2,000 high schools with mascots that reference Native American culture, compared to around 3,000 fifty years ago.
In addition to moving to changing their own mascots, school boards in Ontario are also considering a ban on students wearing any articles bearing offensive names or logos, be they professional or local teams.
Ian Campeau, an Ojibway musician and activist in Ottawa, Ontario, filed a human rights complaint against the Nepean Redskins Football Club on behalf of his five-year-old daughter in an effort to get the team to change its name. "How are they going to differentiate the playing field from the school yard? What's going to stop them from calling my daughter a redskin in the school yard? That's as offensive as using the n-word." Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said he supports the move because the word Redskin is "offensive and hurtful and completely inappropriate. The team was changed to the "Nepean Eagles", chosen from 70 suggestions submitted. Niigaan Sinclair (Anishinaabe), a writer and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, applauded the decision and contrasted it to the decision of Daniel Snyder, the Washington team owner.
In January, 2020 the school board of Killingly High School, Killingly, Connecticut, now with a Republican majority, voted to reinstate the Redmen mascot. The vote reflects a generational split, the new school board members representing mainly older alumni, while current students, faculty and Native Americans support changing the mascot. A senior active in the debate stated “We look racist...this is not what I want our school to be known for.” The mascot had been removed after input from the Nipmuc Tribal Council that no Native mascots are flattering. In October, "Red Hawks" was chosen initially as the new mascot, but after a contentious meeting in December the Board decided to have no mascot. Renewed discussion of whether the mascot is offensive had begun in June 2019, prompted by a student initiative. However, the name change became an issue in the 2019 municipal elections, leading to record turnout and Republican victories.
After receiving statements in opposition to the "Indians" name from the Penobscot Nation and the ACLU of Maine, the school board voted in March 2019 to eliminate the mascot at Skowhegan Area High School. With the removal of Native American imagery associated with the "Warriors" name at other high schools, Maine becomes the first state to eliminate indigenous mascots in all secondary schools. A bill to ban Native American mascots in all public schools passed the Maine House of Representatives and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Janet Mills in May, 2019.
In January 2014 the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee sent a letter to two northern Idaho school districts with American Indian mascots asking that they be changed. The mascots are the Sacajawea Junior High Braves in Lewiston and the Nezperce High School Indians. The school officials state that they will have meetings and gather public opinions before making a decision.
Due to the media coverage of the Washington Redskins, high schools with the name Redskins have received particular attention, including three which have a majority of Native American students. Advocates for the name conclude that because some Native Americans use the name to refer to themselves, it is not insulting. However, the principal of one of these, Red Mesa High School in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, said that use of the word outside American Indian communities should be avoided because it could perpetuate "the legacy of negativity that the term has created."
Relationships with tribes to retain Native names have been established at the high school level. Arapahoe High School (Centennial, Colorado) now uses a logo provided by the Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming, which initially included an agreement that the image would not be placed on the gym floor or any article of clothing. The latter provision has not always been observed, but the logo does not appear on the team uniforms. The agreement also includes tribal participation in school events. A similar agreement has been worked out between the Northern Arapahoe Tribe and the Strasburg High School " Indians" in Strasburg, Colorado.
An exceptional case is the Salamanca Central High School "Warriors" in the city of Salamanca, New York. The city is within the boundaries of the Allegany Indian Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians, and 26% of the high school students are Native American. In 2001, when the commissioner of the New York State Education Department sent a letter to all New York school boards calling for the elimination of Native American mascots, the Seneca Nation Tribal Council joined with other members of the community in seeking to retain the Warrior imagery, although with individual differences of opinion. Salamanca may be unique in having a mixed but not fully integrated community, with the Warrior identity combining elements negotiated between the Seneca and non-Seneca population. For example, the school logo now depicts a Seneca man, replacing the stereotypical Plains Indian warrior image that was used prior to 1978.
There was discussion about the "Indians" name at El Reno High School, El Reno, Oklahoma when a Native American student was not allowed to wear a beaded mortarboard at graduation. The result was the signing of a Spirit Charter with the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes to retain the name while agreeing to avoid any derogatory or disrespectful Native American references, including the wearing of Native American regalia by non-natives.
Local controversy may continue after a name change. Park High School, in Cottage Grove, Minnesota changed from the Indians to the Wolfpack in 1994. An "Indian Head" mosaic in the main hallway created in 1965 has become the subject of current contention between Native Americans and their supporters who want it removed, and others in the community who consider it a work of art and part of the school's history.
Colleges and universities
Some college teams voluntarily changed their names and mascots. Stanford University had "The Stanford Indian" as its mascot from 1930 to 1972. Today Stanford's athletic team identity is built around the "Stanford Cardinal", reflecting the primary school color that has been used from the earliest days, while the unofficial mascot shown on its primary logo is the Stanford Tree. Another early change was the "Saltine Warrior" that represented Syracuse University from 1931 until 1978. After a brief attempt to use a Roman warrior, the mascot became Otto the Orange for the school color. Miami University began discussion regarding the propriety of the Redskins name and images in 1972, and changed its team nickname to RedHawks in 1996.
Although the team name of Eastern Michigan University changed from the Hurons to the Eagles in 1991, the change remained controversial as some students and alumni sought to restore it. In 2012, the university president brought back the Hurons logo, which was placed inside a flap of the band uniforms, along with another historic logo, with the stated intent of recognizing the past. However, the return of the Hurons logo has prompted protests from Native Americans at the university and in the local community, who state that the old mascot promotes stereotypes and hostility.
Marquette University changed their team name from the Warriors to the Golden Eagles in 1994. The school's president stated: "We live in a different era than when the Warriors nickname was selected in 1954. The perspective of time has shown us that our actions, intended or not, can offend others. We must not knowingly act in a way that others will believe, based on their experience, to be an attack on their dignity as fellow human beings." Also in 1994, St. John's University (New York) changed the name of its athletic teams from the Redmen to the Red Storm after the university was pressured by American Indian groups who considered the term "Redmen" a slur.
In late 2002, The Strategic Planning Committee of Stonehill College determined that the then-current mascot, the chieftain, was disrespectful to American Indians and decided that it would be changed. After discussion, the mascot was changed to the Skyhawk in 2005. Jim Seavey, associate director of athletics, stated: "Twelve years ago, the college discarded the logo that depicted the Indian with the headdress and feathers and stuff. We really did not have anything to represent our identity that we were comfortable with. We felt ... that it wasn't appropriate to have a physical representation of a Native American as our mascot".
Additionally, teams that are not directly affected by this controversy have issued their opinions. The University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Iowa have both refused to schedule non-conference games against schools with Native American mascots. The University of Iowa's own nickname, "Hawkeyes", has Native American origins (Iowa is the "Hawkeye State"), although the team uses a hawk as its symbol rather than an Indian.
Although Dartmouth College had not used an Indian mascot for many years, Yale University printed a program for the 2016 game commemorating its 100th game against Dartmouth showing historical program covers featuring depictions of Native Americans that are now viewed as racist.
The Florida State Seminoles of Florida State University use names and images associated with the Seminole people. The use is officially sanctioned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida even though the NCAA "continues to believe the stereotyping of Native Americans is wrong."
National Collegiate Athletic Association
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) distributed a "self evaluation" to 31 colleges in 2005, for teams to examine the use of potentially offensive imagery with their mascot choice. Subsequently, 19 teams were cited as having potentially "hostile or abusive" names, mascots, or images, that would be banned from displaying them during post-season play, and prohibited from hosting tournaments. All of the colleges previously using Native American imagery changed except for those granted waivers when they obtained official support from individual tribes based upon the principle of tribal sovereignty.
San Diego State University (SDSU) was not cited by the NCAA in 2005 due to a decision that the Aztecs were not a Native American tribe with any living descendants. However, in February 2017 the SDSU Native American Student Alliance (NASA) supported removal of the mascot, calling its continued use "institutional racism" in its official statement to the Committee on Diversity, Equity and Outreach. Although that resolution was rejected by the SDSU Associated Students, the University Senate, which represents the administration, faculty, staff and students, has voted to phase out the human depiction of the Aztec Warrior. A task force of students, faculty, and alumni will study the issue and make a recommendation by April, 2018.
Few professional teams using Native names and imagery remain, several changing when they moved to other cities, while others went out of business. The Atlanta Hawks were originally the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (using an "Indian" logo), and the Clippers were originally the Buffalo Braves. The Golden State Warriors eliminated Native American imagery in 1971.
The United States national rugby league team was known as the Tomahawks until 2015, when USA Rugby League replaced the American National Rugby League as the sport's governing body in the U.S. and chose the simpler Hawks as the new name for the team.
The Atlanta Braves remain the home of the tomahawk chop (although it began at Florida State University). The logo has changed through the years from an Indian in full headdress to an Indian with a Mohawk hairstyle and single feather (described as either laughing or shouting), then to the Braves name in script over a tomahawk. The mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa was replaced in 1986 by a baseball-headed "Homer the Brave", and in 2018 by "Blooper".
The tomahawk chop and the accompanying chant has not been without controversy. In February, 2019 after the removal of the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo logo, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said "The Braves have taken steps to take out the tomahawk chop". In October, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, stated his belief that the tomahawk chop and chant misrepresents Native Americans. In response to this complaint, the Atlanta Braves, in their October 9 game against the Cardinals, did not provide fans with foam tomahawks, although the music accompanying the chant was played while fans performed the arm gesture. When the Braves lost to the Cardinals 13-1, the San Francisco Bay Area Fox affiliate used the headline "Braves Scalped", drawing criticism as an example of why most Native Americans oppose the use of American Indian imagery and mascots in sports. The station soon apologized. The team front office has stated that there will be talks with Native Americans during the off-season regarding the tomahawk chop tradition, while leaders of two tribes that once inhabited Georgia, the Cherokee and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation agree that the tradition is inappropriate.
Native American rights advocate Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) says the Blackhawks have escaped the scrutiny given to other teams using Native imagery because hockey is not a cultural force on the level of football. But she says national American Indian organizations have called for an end to all Indian-related mascots and that she found the hockey team's name and Indian head symbol to be offensive. "It lacks dignity," she said. "There's dignity in a school being named after a person or a people. There's dignity in a health clinic or hospital. There's nothing dignified in something being so named (that is used for) recreation or entertainment or fun." The National Congress of American Indians also opposes the Blackhawks' logo, as it does all Native American mascots.
Starting in the 2019 season, the Chief Wahoo logo will not appear on uniforms nor on stadium signs, although it will still be licensed for team merchandise within the Cleveland area. Local groups say they will continue to advocate for a change of the team name, and object to the continued sale outside the stadium of merchandise with the Wahoo image.
Chief Wahoo is part of an exhibit at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia maintained by Ferris State University in Michigan. For Dr. David Pilgrim, a sociology professor at Ferris State and an expert in racial imagery, the symbol is a "red Sambo" that hardly differs from the caricatures of blacks popular in the Jim Crow era in which Wahoo was created, when such depictions of minority races were popularly used to inflame prejudice and justify discriminatory laws and behavior. Pilgrim explains how the exaggerated features serve their discriminatory purpose by emphasizing the differences of the depicted race, thereby reinforcing the idea that the caricatured race is inferior.
In part because they do not use any native imagery, the Eskimos are rarely mentioned with regard to the controversy. However Natan Obed, the President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national Inuit organization, has stated that "Eskimo is not only outdated, it is now largely considered a derogatory term" and is a "relic of colonial power". The editorial board of the Toronto Star sees a name change as the inevitable result of social evolution, and reflecting respect for indigenous peoples. However, after a year of considering alternatives, the team decided in 2020 to retain the name finding no consensus among Native groups including the Inuit.
Kansas City Chiefs
In 1963 the Kansas City Chiefs adopted a name referring to Native Americans, when the Dallas Texans (AFL) relocated. The team was named in honor of Kansas City mayor Harold Roe Bartle who was instrumental in bringing the Texans to Kansas City, Missouri. Bartle earned his nickname as founder of a Boy Scouts honor camping society, Tribe of Mic-O-Say, in which he was "Chief" Lone Bear. In 1989 the Chiefs switched from Warpaint, a Pinto horse ridden by a man in a feathered headdress, to their current mascot K. C. Wolf. Warpaint returned in 2009, but is ridden by a cheerleader.
Following the appearance of photographs of fans attending an October 2013 game wearing feathers and warpaint—and doing the tomahawk chop—in the Kansas City Star, numerous Native Americans submitted complaints to the publication. One caller, who was especially upset that the photographs were published on Columbus Day, described the images as a "mockery" and "racist". Writing for the Star's "Public Editor" column, Derek Donovan explained that he found the complaints "reasonable" and suggested that the newspaper depict "other colorful, interesting people in the crowds."
The Kansas City Star reported in early August 2014 that the team's management is planning discussions with some Native American groups to find a non-confrontational way to eliminate, or at least reduce, offensive behavior. Amanda Blackhorse, the lead plaintiff in the trademark case against the Washington Redskins, thinks the real solution is a name change for the Chiefs. Native Americans in Phoenix, Arizona picketed at the game between the Chiefs and the Arizona Cardinals, and have asked the Cardinals' management to bar "Redface", the wearing of headdresses and face paint, protesting what they perceive to be a mockery of Native American culture. A protest took place in Minnesota when the Chiefs played the Vikings on October 18, 2015. "The Kansas City Chiefs have flown under the radar," said Norma Renville, the executive director of Women of Nations Community Advocacy Program and Shelter. "They are contributing to our cultural genocide."
Achieving greater visibility by reaching the playoffs in 2016, Native Americans at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas are asking the Chiefs to stop behavior that invokes stereotypes, such as wearing headdresses and doing the "tomahawk chop". While there has been efforts to address other issues, such as fans wearing warpaint and headdresses, the "chop" and the accompanying chant is defended by some local Native Americans. However, in a national survey, half of Native Americans said the "tomahawk chop" bothered or offended them, rising to 65% among those more engaged in Native traditions. In a statistical analysis of social media comments (tweets) leading up to Super Bowl LIV, researchers found many more negative terms associated with the Kansas City team compared to San Francisco. While both teams were referred to in terms related to violence, the Chiefs were much more likely to receive insults related to intelligence (being called stupid) and many insults were specific references to negative Native American stereotypes, such as drunkenness ("firewater"), and being inbred or extinct. The conclusion drawn was support for Natives being insulted, rather than honored, by Native American mascots.
The Washington Redskins receives the most public attention due to the prominence of the team being located in the nation's capital, and the name itself being defined in current dictionaries of American English as "usually offensive", "disparaging", "insulting", and "taboo". Native American opposition to the name began in the early 1970s with letters to the owner of the team and the editors of The Washington Post. National protests began in 1988, after the team's Super Bowl XXII victory, and again when the 1992 Super Bowl between the Redskins and the Buffalo Bills was held in Minnesota. Those officially censuring and/or demanding the name be changed include more than 80 organizations that represent various groups of Native Americans. A symposium in February 2013 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., followed by a media campaign sponsored by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, led to a broader range of persons speaking out in favor of change or open discussion, including 50 U.S. Senators and President Barack Obama. Statements in support of a name change have been made by religious leaders in Washington, D.C., and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Responding to a reporter's question in 2013, team owner Daniel Snyder said: "We'll never change the name. ... It's that simple. NEVER—you can use caps." Snyder also states that the name was chosen in 1933 to honor Native Americans in general and the coach and four players at that time who were Native American. In June 2013 NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also defended the name by citing its origins, traditions and polls that support its popularity.
On June 18, 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board voted to cancel the team's trademarks in a two to one decision that held that the term "redskins" is disparaging to a "substantial composite of Native Americans." However, on June 19, 2017 in a separate case (Matal v. Tam) involving a denial of trademark registration to the Asian-American band The Slants; the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Tam, stating the disparagement clause of the trademark law violates the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause, and that trademarks are private, not government speech. While team owner Daniel Snyder expresses the opinion that the court decision is a victory for the team, the Executive Director of the NCAI asserts that the name remains a slur, and the decision that grants it First Amendment protection does not alter any of the arguments against its continued use.
The year 2017 was marked by numerous professional sports player protests during the national anthem against racism and police brutality. As a result, criticism of the stereotyping of Native Americans as mascots also increased, including the decision to have the Washington Redskins host a game on Thanksgiving.
In response to the possibility that the team could return to the District of Columbia in a new stadium, a coalition of nine civil rights organizations issued a statement in August, 2018 that such a move should not be made "unless the team agrees to drop the "R-word" racial slur as its mascot."
Stereotyping by rival fans
In addition to the behavior of the teams that have Native American names or mascots, their rivals often invoke racist stereotypes.
In December 2013 when the Washington Redskins played the Kansas City Chiefs an employee of a Sonic Drive-In in Missouri placed a message outside that used scalping, reservations and whiskey to disparage the "Redskins". It was quickly removed with the owner's apologies. A rubber severed "Indian" head impaled on a knife has been used by a sports fan in Philadelphia to taunt rival teams with Native American mascots. There have been a number of incidents of rival high school teams displaying banners or signs referencing the Trail of Tears, which have been criticized for both insensitivity and ignorance of history. Although the Central Michigan Chippewas have the support of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Nation of Michigan, a student at rival Western Michigan University designed a T-shirt showing a Native American behind bars with the legend "Caught a Chippewa about a week ago". It was quickly condemned by both university presidents, who agreed that anyone wearing the shirt at a game would be ejected. In spite of the University of North Dakota changing their nickname from the Fighting Sioux to the Fighting Hawks, students at rival North Dakota State University (NDSU) continue to chant "Sioux suck shit" whenever their football team makes a first down. The NDSU president, along with the presidents of the student body and faculty senates, have called for an end to the practice, which they describe as hateful, and coming from a misplaced sense of tradition. Some NDSU fans also wear T-shirts with graphics depicting variations on the "Sioux suck" theme.
Varying degrees of offensiveness
To further complicate this controversy, many feel that there are varying levels of offensiveness with team names and mascots. The nature and degree of stereotyping varies depending upon the name of the team, the logo, the mascot, and the behavior of fans. The greatest offense is taken when the logo and mascot are caricatures viewed as insulting, such as the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo; the name of the team is often regarded as a racial slur, such as Redskins or Squaws; or the behavior of the mascot or fans is based upon popular images of Indians which trivialize authentic native cultures, such as the tomahawk chop.
The practices of individual schools and teams have changed in response to the controversy. A local example is Washington High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Many Native American images have been removed, and the "Warriors" nickname is now claimed to be generic. The school now has a "circle of courage" logo with eagle feathers and has also "updated" the murals of Chief Hollow Horn Bear in the gym. Duane Hollow Horn Bear, the chief's great-grandson, who teaches Lakota language and history at Sinte Gleska University in Mission, stated: "We had no objection to their utilizing those pictures as long as my great-grandfather was represented with honor and dignity." However, not all Native Americans are happy with the presence of any such images.
Teams outside the Americas
Native American names and images are used by teams in other countries, generally those playing American-style sports and copying the imagery of American teams. Several are in countries that also have a tradition of Native American hobbyists often associated with the popularity of the stories written by German author Karl May.
- List of ethnic sports team and mascot names (all ethnicities)
- Charlene Teters
- Chief Zee
- Robert Roche
- Pekin High School Chinks
- Fighting Whites
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The U.S. has gained far too much from the marginalization of Native Americans
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In 1915, the Order of the Arrow, a national Scout camping fraternity, was founded in which ceremonies of initiation were based on 'Indian themes' and local lodges and chapters were given 'Indian names.' The first three individuals who portrayed Illiniwek (Lester Leutwiler, Webber Borchers, and William Newton) became interested in 'Indian lore' through their involvement with the Boy Scouts. They spent time “Playing Indian” (Deloria 1998) at summer camp, learning so-called Indian dances as well as arts and crafts from Ralph Hubbard, a renowned enthusiast who traveled widely in the United States and Europe producing 'Indian pageants'.
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Ireland has an ethnic fractionalization score of 0.171, meaning that there is only a 17.1% chance that two randomly selected people in Ireland will be from different ethnic groups.
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Definition of REDSKIN (usually offensive): american indian
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n. Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a Native American.
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- American Indian Sports Team Mascots
- Change the Mascot - Focuses on the Washington NFL team
- Native American-related mascots
- Native Appropriations by Adrienne Keene