Native American Mascots in Pro Sports
by Christopher Wesley Barilla | published Feb. 19th, 2018
On March 29, the Cleveland Indians will start the 2018 MLB season still sporting the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms. However, this will change next March. The MLB commissioner Rob Manfred successfully pressured the team to rethink the racist caricature. This is a small shift in the impasse between Native Americans and professional sports teams in the U.S.
Representation In Pro Sports
This move by the Cleveland Indians comes after much resistance from team ownership. In fact, it was only after commissioner Manfred agreed to host the 2019 All-Star games in Cleveland that the logo was discarded. Cleveland still retains the trademark on the logo, which will be used on merchandise other than team jerseys. Team Owner Paul Dolan made a statement noting that changing the name was a struggle between fans attached to the name and native activists offended by it.
Many Native American activists see the logo as a harmful caricature of Native American people and will be happy to see it replaced. But activism against harmful mascots is not a recent phenomenon. The most notable case is the Washington Redskins struggle over their name. In 1972, a group of various tribal leaders met privately with Washington Redskins management to discuss changing the name. The discussions did not lead to any change, and a resistance still persists today.
In response to the decision of the Cleveland Indians to scrap the Wahoo logo, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell restated his support of the team's use of the word "Redskin." In the past, Goodell has downplayed the name controversy by saying that "it is only the name of a football team." Goodell also has referenced polling data that shows most Americans do not agree to change the name as justification.
That being said, offensive appropriation of Native American culture has been receiving more media coverage recently. From Halloween costumes to representation in film, more often people are calling out questionable use of Native American culture. The blog Native Appropriations has been actively highlighting good and bad uses of Native American imagery in popular culture. The blog makes the point that Native American imagery has been too often shaped by non-Native American perspectives and inherits many warped perceptions and caricatures that have been around since Columbus' time.
Nicole Scott, Co-Director of the RIT Native American Future Stewards Program, agrees with many Native American activists that caricatures of Native American culture can been harmful to Native American people. Scott grew up on Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona and is of Diné (Navajo) descent. She sees the controversy over professional team mascots as an impediment to reclaiming Native American identity.
"It all comes down to a matter of respect," said Scott.
Scott further laments that American popular culture perpetuates outdated stereotypes of Native peoples. When searching "Native American" on Google, Scott is disappointed that caricatures similar to Chief Wahoo result as opposed to images of modern Native American life.
Dr. Roger Dube, a Mohawk of the Turtle clan and RIT research professor, similarly believes the images of Native American people are harmful.
"The sports communities defend these images by saying, 'these are positive portrayals. We are showing native Americans being strong, fierce and vicious, and those are the qualities we want our sports team to have,'" said Dube. "The problem is those images are destructive. It is not who we are and not who we were. It is not how we live. It tends to dehumanize the Native American communities by focusing on these caricatures."
Dube sees much of the historical racism of the European colonizers in the present day caricatures used by professional sports teams.
"When the Europeans came over there was a huge cultural miscommunication," said Dube. "Europeans send this message back to Europe saying these savages are burning our villages and raping our women. Those caricatures, exaggerated descriptions of Native Americans are often the basis of the Native American symbols used in sports."
Dube sees the struggle against Native American mascots as a continuation of the struggle for issues that he has fought for his whole life. As a student at Cornell University in the 80s, Dube advocated more representation of Native American people on campus.
"I was one of only two Native American p people at Cornell," said Dube.
Cornell is located in Ithaca, N.Y., the historical land of the Mohawk tribe. Western New York was once populated by the many Native American tribes of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, also known as Iroquois. Dube was able to convince the Cornell Administration to start a Native studies program and tap the rich history they were surrounded them.
Reclaiming Native Imagery
On Saturday, Feb. 3, the Rochester Knighthawks took the field at Blue Cross Arena sporting a special uniform designed for the team's Military Appreciation Night. The uniform was emblazoned with the image of a Mohawk Chief. With this logo choice, the Knighthawks stepped into the larger discussion about professional team uniforms. However, both Dube and Scott wanted to give the Knighthawks the benefit of the doubt about using this imagery, whereas they expressed clear condemnation of teams like the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins.
The hesitation stems from important differences between a team like the Rochester Knighthawks and the Cleveland Indians. For one, lacrosse is a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) sport, created and played by Native American people. These roots are represented in the front office and roster. Curt Styres, a Mohawk who grew up on the Six Nations reservation, is the majority owner of the Knighthawks. Four of the 24 players on the team are Native Americans: Quinn Powless, Sid Smith, Cody Jamieson and Angus Goodleaf. The regular Knighthawks uniforms include a nod to their Native American roots with a patch of the names of the six nations of the Iroquois.
For the military appreciation night, the Mohawk Chief image on the uniforms comes from the insignia of the 98th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. For over 50 years, the division was stationed in Rochester, N.Y. before moving in 2012 to Fort Benning, Georgia. Taking inspiration from being stationed in Western New York, the division took the Mohawk Chief as their symbol in 1922. According to Jack Greene, a historian of the division, the image is supposed to represent Iroquois Chief, Hiawatha. The division has in the past incorporated Native American culture into the greater organization. The division news bulletin during their service in World War II was named The Iroquois Newspaper. Of course, much of the use of Native imagery by the 98th division in the 40s would not be tolerated today, such as the liberal use of word "scalped."
Both Dube and Scott did not want to comment on the Knighthawks' use of the image.
Both acknowledge that lacrosse is categorically different from sports like football and baseball, which do not have roots in Native American culture. Furthermore, Scott noted how proactive the Knighthawks organization is with supporting Native American culture, such as by hosting fundraisers for local Native American organizations.
Craig Rybczynski, director of Communications in the Knighthawks front office, says that at military night there will be some Native American military representation. This representation is not out of the ordinary for the Knighthawks. Regularly they host Native American dancers who perform during games.
The Knighthawks could be seen as an example of a professional team responsibly using Native American imagery. One thing that distinguishes them from teams like the Washington Redskins is that Native American people are actually in power to make decisions about what is appropriate. This Native American presence in the sport allows for greater exposure to Native American culture aside from mascots and logos. Modern Native American life gets exposure. Native American athletes get to promote Native American causes through this exposure. For example, Cody Jamieson, star forward and league MVP in 2014, is a spokesperson for an organization to empower youth through sports. The organization was created to address the devastatingly high levels of suicide in Native American populations.
The decision by the Cleveland Indians is a small step. But it could be a signal that the momentum is in favor of Native American activists. If fans are so invested in Native American imagery maybe they could look to taking Native American culture more seriously or else get rid of their mascots and logos.