2020 seems to be the year that major American sports teams are finally reconsidering the use of Native American imagery for their logos, branding and marketing.
The Washington NFL team, formerly known as the Redskins, announced July 13 that it would be retiring its old name and logo. Other sports franchises like the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians have also conducted investigations into the Native American imagery and logos they use — both of which came to the conclusion that things needed to change, be it the name, logo or even the Braves’ “Tomahawk chop” celebration.
Many of these changes were prompted by the wave of social activism in the wake of George Floyd's killing by four Minneapolis police officers. People of different ethnicities and economic statuses took to the streets and social media to advocate for systemic reform, thereby emboldening other marginalized groups — including LGBTQ+, Latinx and Native American activists — to do the same.
So, my take on all of this? To put it simply, I’m angry.
I’m angry that people are still comfortable promoting Native American stereotypes and appropriating their imagery and culture, despite mass outcry from Native American groups dating back over half a century.
Since the 1940s, the National Congress of American Indians has been fighting for name changes, taking the view that such names can project negative stereotypes and images of Native groups. Since then, several Native American nations — including the Cherokee, Oneida and Navajo Nations — have expressed opposition to names such as the Redskins, due to their association with stereotypical views of their people, as well as the use of the term to refer to bloodied and scalped Native American bodies.
I’m angry that it took the threat of financial loss for teams to finally begin conversations about the appropriation of Native American imagery, which gives me reason to doubt the sincerity of any action taken by said teams. After all, would these changes have taken place without mass popular support of the social justice movement happening right now? Are changes being made to do the right thing, or to protect a bottom line?
Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington NFL team, can help us answer that question. In an interview with USA Today in 2013, Snyder was asked if he would ever consider changing the name of the franchise. His answer was definitive.
“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
He cited his pride in being a lifelong fan of the team and the fans’ understanding of the team’s traditions and, “what it’s all about.” Even if Washington lost the trademark lawsuit it was in at the time, he said the franchise would never change its name.
But his tone quickly changed when he was asked about Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo activist and a named plaintiff in the trademark lawsuit. When USA Today sports reporter Erik Brady asked Snyder if he would call her a "redskin" to her face, the boldness was gone.
“I think the best way is just not to comment on that type of stuff. I don’t know her.”
This says just one thing: Snyder cared about the name as far as it affected his profit margin. Fans were still going to games and buying merchandise, so he wasn’t going to change just because some Native American activists were angry. Now, with retailers like Nike refusing to sell any more Washington NFL apparel, Snyder saw fit to make a change. To me, he did the right thing for all the wrong reasons, and his dishonesty shows.
But the thing that angers me the most? The teams that use Native American iconography as a symbol of pride and strength also continue to sing the national anthem at games and express patriotism for the United States, despite the centuries of forced migrations, killings and other countless injustices Native Americans have suffered at the hands of this country. It constitutes the worst form of blatant, unabashed hypocrisy.
Members of the Cherokee Nation were removed from their homes across the Southeast in 1838 and forcibly marched westward along the Trail of Tears to be resettled. Historians estimate that more than 5,000 Cherokee people died on the march. In 1890, American cavalrymen slaughtered hundreds of Lakota Sioux in South Dakota, in what would become known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. Those are just two of the largest in a long list of crimes inflicted upon Native Americans by white settlers.
Today, Native Americans consistently rank among the most impoverished and least represented people in the country. It’s hard to see how that will change, with Indigenous peoples only making up 1.3 percent of the population. They still suffer the effects of colonialism today, with poverty and alcoholism affecting Native Americans at shocking rates. According to the American Addiction Centers, over 20 percent of Native Americans live at or below the poverty level, and one out of every six Native American adolescents engaged in underaged alcohol use — more than any other ethnic group in the country.
The next time you see someone dressed up as a chief with a headdress and painted skin at a Kansas City Chiefs game, or doing the Tomahawk chop at a Braves game, ask yourself: is it OK to use that imagery and represent Native Americans the way we do, despite their demonstrated anger at those stereotypes and the tragedies they suffered as a result of American colonialism and expansion?
No, it’s not.
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