Native American Groups Want You to Know They’re More Than Mascots
Last Sunday outside Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., there was a lot more than pregame tailgating going on. Over 300 protesters holding signs that read “game over for racism” and “I am a descendant of warriors who survived genocide” marched outside the sports venue. The goal? To make sure attendees at the San Francisco 49ers NFL game against the Washington Redskins knew that indigenous peoples are tired of racist team names and being depicted as mascots.
“There may have been a time when it was acceptable, just as there was a time when slavery was acceptable,” says Johnnie Jae, founding board member of Not Your Mascots, an organization that advocates against the use of appropriated Native American imagery. “It’s 2014; there’s no room for racism. The fact that we have to still fight for civil rights [and] we still have to fight for human rights is ridiculous,” she says.
While it seems absurd that in 2014 ethnic communities across America have to protest against being called racial slurs or having their image mocked, that’s exactly what our nation’s indigenous population is up against. Since 2013, the campaign to get Washington D.C.’s NFL team to change its name and insignia to something that isn’t offensive to America’s original residents has picked up steam, but it’s not a new fight.
“This has been going on for decades, says Jae. “A lot of people ask, ‘Why is it a problem now?’ But for us, this has been a problem for a little over a half a century. The only difference is that thanks to social media, we’re able to connect and mobilize with native communities because we’re still rural.”
According to Jae, Native American mascots became popular at a time when indigenous populations dipped down to under 10,000 people. The mascots were billed as a memorial to “the vanishing Indian.” Although native communities have grown to approximately 2.9 million people, that hasn’t prevented many Americans from perpetuating the myth that indigenous peoples no longer exist.
Despite the current outcry, the Redskins have managed to retain a name that references a centuries-old racist stereotype about Native Americans.
The Redskins isn’t the only team with an offensive name and racist caricatures of Native Americans. Several professional football, hockey, and baseball teams—the Chicago Blackhawks, the Cleveland Indians, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves—rely on outdated, derogatory images of Native Americans. It’s likely that a high school or Little League team in your town does too.
According to MascotDB, which tracks sports mascots across the country, there are more than 2,129 teams with names associated with indigenous populations. While folks shame the Washington Redskins for refusing to change its name, teams across the country readily call themselves everything from “Warriors” and “Indians,” to “Savages” and “Redmen.” For indigenous activists and their allies across the country, this is a slap in the face.
“What people don’t realize is [that mascots] really have dehumanized how we’re viewed as people, especially because we don’t have as much representation in the mainstream as other ethnic groups,” Jae explains. “This is the manifestation of systemic racism toward indigenous people that has been here since first contact.”
To combat this and raise awareness about the issue, Not Your Mascots has launched several initiatives, including marches and protests at Redskins games and a Twitter campaign that has reached nearly 340,000 people.
“The campaign is trying to stress we’re human beings too,” Jae says. “We’re not the characters that you see through mascots—we are a people.”
The movement’s message seems to be sinking in. For The New Yorker’s Dec. 1 issue, cartoonist Bruce McCall created a satirical depiction of the first Thanksgiving, complete with imagery of indigenous peoples in traditional dress and Redskins fans. McCall said he “wanted to address the whole kerfuffle over the Redskins’ name” by showing the absurdity of clinging to such an offensive term.
“This is 2014,” McCall told the magazine. “It should have been quashed a long time ago. We did everything to the Indians that we could, and it’s still going on. It seems crude and callous. Names like the Atlanta Braves come from another time.”
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder continues to insist that the team’s name honors Native Americans, but many people aren’t buying that argument anymore.
“All these mascots and team names related to Native Americans—Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it,” President Obama said last fall. “And I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”
In May, 50 senators signed a letter to the NFL asking for the name to be changed, and this summer, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team’s trademarks because “they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.”
“People don’t understand that these issues are rooted in racism. They [white settlers] did eradicate almost 99 percent of the population,” Jae explains. “Today, a lot of people are not aware we’re still here. They talk about Native Americans as if we’re in the past, and you never really hear about Native Americans as we are now in the modern times. So it really does perpetuate the idea that Native American are an extinct people.”
While Jae insists she doesn’t want to demonize sports teams or fans, she argues it’s time to let go of the old racist iconography.
“The time has come for us to just change the name already,” she says. Until that happens, the protests outside Redskins games are sure to continue.