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Sidelining the Redskins – How US sports are facing an identity crisis

  • Written by  Abigail Spink
  • Published in Cultures
Sidelining the Redskins – How US sports are facing an identity crisis
24 Jul
Native American communities in the US are devising their own ways of tackling the country’s ‘Mascot problem’

The Seattle Chieftains became the Redhawks in 2000, Arkansas state Indians became the ‘Red Wolves’ in 2008, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux became the ‘Fighting Hawks’ in 2012, and as of this month the Belding Redskins have become the Belding Black Knights. The days of feather headdresses, tribal warpaint and plastic tomahawks in US sporting stadiums are being increasingly numbered, as questions about cultural entitlement continue to be raised across the country.

The national debate concerning indigenous rights and representation concerns college and major league sports teams – the Washington Redskins of the NFL being among the most famous – that use Native American-themed monikers and mascots. The long-held dispute persists between teams and anti-mascot protestors, who argue that such names and imagery perpetuate demeaning racial stereotypes and symbolise a history of Anglo-American supremacy.

shutterstock 117062059‘Chief Osceola’ takes to the field to mark the beginning of a football game in Tallahassee. The mascot and imagery here has been developed in conjunction with the indigenous Seminole tribe (Image: Ruth Peterkin)

There are estimated to be more than 2,000 professional teams, and 118 college and school teams across the country currently using Native American paraphernalia. According to Terry Borning, curator of MascotDB.com, the number rebranding themselves in response to mounting pressures from indigenous communities and their supporters is, however, increasing. Borning reports that ‘507 [professional] team names have been changed. The majority of these are Warriors, Indians, Chiefs and Redskins.’

One team leading the school movement is the Belding Redskins of Belding Area schools, Michigan, which recently became the ‘Belding Black Knights’ with the help of a grant from the Native American Heritage Fund (NAHF). The fund was opened in 2016 by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi tribal government and Michigan state, to ‘fund initiatives that promote mutual respect and cooperation between local communities and Michigan’s federally recognised tribes’. Two other grants were also issued in the same month. The first to the city of Battle Creek to assist with the ‘removal and replacement’ of a stained glass window medallion in City Hall featuring a settler clubbing a native, and the second to the city of Kalamazoo ‘to assist with the removal of the Fountain of Pioneers and site improvements at Bronson Park’. The three sums are the first to be issued by the fund for redesign projects.

shutterstock 227682178Many believe the name ‘Washington Redskins’ is offensive to Native Americans (Image: Miker)

Although Belding’s mascot was officially changed in March of this year, it was granted more than $300,000 in July to enable it to officially replace all ‘equipment, apparel and signage’ containing Redskin imagery. The school has claimed that changing its title is a positive step towards reducing external accusations of racism. Richard King, author of Redskins: Insult and Brand warrants that ‘Redskin’ specifically evokes a colonial past, the word having ‘deep connections to a history of anti-Indian violence, marked by ethnic cleansing, dispossession and displacement.’

In reaction to the NAHF’s press release, Pauline Turner-Strong, professor of anthropology and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin claims: ‘In my view, its decision to provide funds to help school districts retire pseudo-Indian logos and mascots is a practical and symbolic way of showing that this imagery offers inaccurate representations of Native Americans, and must be replaced in order to improve the relationship between educational institutions and Native American tribes. I think this is a creative way of using the funds, which are a portion of the casino revenue provided to the state of Michigan.’

Anti-mascot campaigners claim that clubs and their supporters who champion caricature mascots and ‘Playing Indian’ are symbolic of the romanticisation of Native Americans by mainstream culture. Indigenous communities remain some of the poorest and most marginalised minority groups in the US and a 2008 report from Stephanie Fryberg, associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Washington, explores the ‘psychological consequences of American Indian mascots’ on respective communities. Fryberg establishes that ‘...mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.’

shutterstock 21247726While there are more than 500 sporting teams that still use Native American imagery, the high-profile Washington Redskins (pictured right) have attracted the most flack from campaigners (Image: Olga Bogatyrenko)

The anti-mascot movement may be taking flight, but there is still some way to go in renouncing the pseudo-Native logos of some of the country’s most prominent teams. The Washington Redskins has remained controversial for nearly six decades, and being ranked fourth on Forbes’ 2017 NFL team valuations, has one of the biggest national influences in the league. Daniel Snyder, owner of the club, stated in 2013 that he refuses to change the name of the team, as ‘Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means.’

Michigan’s uniting of both state and native government forces has, however, proven successful in rebranding Belding and might inspire those teams who are yet to develop more innocuous titles. In time, the US could be bidding farewell to the Redskins for good.

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