Sports Team Nicknames and Native Americans

In recent years, one debate that has cropped up on and off in American sports is what to do about sports team nicknames that have Native American roots. It’s a topic that fans of sports teams with Native American-related names and/or mascots feel passionately about; those teams include, but are not limited to, the Washington Redskins Football Team (football), Kansas City Chiefs (football), Cleveland Indians (baseball), Atlanta Braves (baseball), University of Utah Utes, Florida State University Seminoles, and Chicago Blackhawks (hockey). It’s a topic so divided that people ranging from journalists to Native American activists have chimed in with their opinions on this. It’s a particularly relevant topic as the team that used to be called the Washington Redskins in football is no longer to be called the Redskins but to simply be called “the Washington Football Team” until they find a new nickname).

I feel strongly about this—I have a problem with anything that promotes caricatures of Native Americans or has hurtful depictions of Native Americans, such as the image of the Chief Wahoo logo with the Cleveland Indians[1] baseball team or the tomahawk chop that is used at Florida State football, Atlanta Braves baseball, and Kansas City Chiefs football games.[2]

But, my feelings aside, or the feelings of others aside, it seems like the decisions on how to handle potential or actual Native American stereotypes are not in the right hands. It should be in the hands of the Native Americans affected by these stereotypes and caricatures. But they aren’t. It’s instead in the hands of wealthy (and often white) sports team owners and executives, as well as some of the teams’ fans—people who, in many cases, are not affected by the stereotypes at all, and to the contrary may sometimes lean toward promoting them if doing so is “tradition.”

Even in the cases where those favoring greater sensitivity and fewer stereotypes get their way, those decisions often happen because of pressure from other wealthy individuals or corporations. For example, in the case where the name of the NFL team in Washington finally got a name change, it was not because of Native American activists, but because of companies with so much money that they could financially cripple that NFL franchise if the companies did not get their way.[3]

And that’s the injustice that I want to focus on today, this Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We need to realize that, when it comes to the issue of Native American sports team nicknames, we aren’t always giving the Native Americans affected by the stereotypes the decision-making voice that they deserve.


[1] Chief Wahoo was apparently a name used for Native American caricatures: https://www.cleveland.com/tribe/2018/01/cleveland_indians_58.html

[2] Apparently, there is no indication that Native Americans did the gesture known as a tomahawk chop. Therefore, making the tomahawk chop seems to promote a stereotype of Native Americans doing something that they had no record of doing: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2012/09/origins-of-the-tomahawk-chop-scott-browns-staffers-mocking-elizabeth-warren-are-continuing-a-long-tradition.html

[3] https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nfl/news/redskins-name-change-timeline-washington-football-team/1uk394uouwi631k7poirtq1v1s

17 Replies to “Sports Team Nicknames and Native Americans”

    1. Thanks for sharing your story and your post, Carol. It does trigger tons of emotions. As was the case with you, “tradition” is an argument that results in many not wanting to make the changes that are so necessary.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks Brendan for shedding a little light on a sensitive issue not just in your country but in Canada as well. It is indeed a tricky issue but I agree some of those decisions should be made by the affected peoples.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting. I was mostly aware of the issue as it’s been progressing in the states, so thanks for brining into my awareness how the situation is playing out in Canada. But yes, it’s a decision where the people affected should have the most say, in my humble opinion.

      Like

  2. I do believe that Native Americans should have a say in how these names and logos play out. The word redskins is not a tribal name but a term that white people used to describe Native Americans, the logo on the other hand looks like a warrior. The tomahawk chop I find offensive to be sure, but stopping thousands of fans from doing it, may be more difficult. The naming of teams using Tribal names should be put to the tribes themselves. It is their heritage after all and these teams are making money using it. It really comes down to money doesn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great piece! The injustice, of course goes all the way back to how the Native Americans were invaded and everything stolen from them what was rightfully theirs in the first place. I have mixed feelings because I’m descendant from both worlds as many Americans are. I’m a sports fan of baseball and American football, but I don’t know how I feel about the name change. I grew up playing cowboys and indians. I always chose to be the indian and instead of fighting, I was the one who brought peace, even if it was just playing. Long before Kevin Costner and Dances with the Wolves. LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, there are a lot of mixed feelings, I know. I think one of the biggest struggles I’ve been hearing have been from people who have come to root for their teams. Telling them that their name needs to be changed is, well, controversial, even if it’s probably for the best in terms of recognizing the insensitivity of the name.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And I see it in a different light. I think they are being honored by having teams named after them. Keeps their spirit in the alive so to speak. As a decedent, I don’t see it as a negative, but I also grew up as a caucasian and didn’t endure the bad treatment and discrimination that many native americans have experienced. The whole thing is just a sad situation for all people no matter their color, background or lifestyle. We, as humanity have to get away from the hatred of it all! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      2. And interestingly, this discussion between the two of us is happening while the Cleveland Indians announced that they’re changing their nickname!

        I didn’t endure the bad treatment that many Native Americans have experienced, which is a big part of why I’m of the mind of deferring to those who have been in those struggles.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for commenting. The Braves nickname is, in my humble opinion, a complicated one, but not in the way that the Redskins one was controversial in Washington. The nickname appears to have its origins in one of the most corrupt political machines in American history: Tammany Hall. I mentioned their nickname because it gets looped in with the controversy surrounding Native American nicknames and sports teams, but the Braves nickname has its own checkered origins that go beyond the issues I talked about in this post. Here’s a piece on the MLB website that talks briefly about the origins of the Braves nickname: https://www.mlb.com/news/atlanta-braves-team-name-origin

      Liked by 1 person

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