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

Native Americans and Land Rights

In a blog post a few weeks ago, I discussed the Amazon rainforest fires in terms of how the Brazilian government was doing away with or disregarding rights for the natives of that land.

That post got me thinking about Native American rights, and particularly Native American land rights. The result of that thinking was this blog post, purposefully published on Columbus Day.[1]

That thinking also led me to a United States Supreme Court case from nearly 200 years ago, back to when John Marshall was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In this case, which is known as Johnson v. M’Intosh, the court had a case before them where they had to determine whose land rights were superior: those of plaintiffs whose land claims came from Native Americans or those of defendants whose land claims came from a United States land grant.[2] The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the defendants’ claims to the lands were superior. Furthermore, Chief Justice Marshall, who wrote about the Supreme Court’s decision, put into legal writing what is called the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a doctrine which said that European “discoverers” of land inhabited by non-Europeans have rights to the land.[3] This doctrine has existed for centuries, going back to Pope Nicholas V’s papal bull Romanus Pontifex,[4] but Chief Justice Marshall’s decision made this doctrine a part of the legal fabric of this country.

The consequences of this doctrine have been significant. Since European discoverers had rights to the land, not Native Americans who already had the land, it has allowed for the pushing of Native Americans off their former lands and for the killing of Native Americans in the process. And, when this doctrine hasn’t killed Native Americans, it has at the very least disenfranchised many of them.

To make matters worse, the Doctrine of Discovery remains a major part of the American legal system. Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the very Doctrine of Discovery that has caused so much harm when she wrote a majority opinion for a Supreme Court decision in 2005.[5] And, to my knowledge, there has been nothing to undo that Doctrine of Discovery being part of America’s legal framework.

This is not to say that there is no hope in terms of acknowledging the wrongs of the doctrine, let alone doing anything about it. Many prominent entities, ranging from the United Nations in its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[6] to the World Council of Churches (a fellowship of churches that includes the United Methodist Church, Episcopal churches from several regions, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, to name a few),[7] have repudiated this doctrine either explicitly or implicitly (as the UN did so without specifically mentioning the words “Doctrine of Discovery”). If these efforts show anything, it’s that more people are realizing the damage of this doctrine, and that maybe such a realization will eventually make its way to the American legal system. And hopefully more people and groups will come to this realization, because acknowledging the damage of the Doctrine of Discovery is one step, albeit a significant step, towards addressing the historical lack of land rights for Native Americans.


[1] For more on my feelings about Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day in general (which, as my readers can tell, are not positive feelings), I encourage you to read my post about the person and the holiday that I wrote two years ago: https://blindinjusticeblog.com/2017/10/10/why-i-blogged-today-even-though-columbus-day-was-yesterday/

[2] Lexis-Nexis probably does a much better job of describing the case than I could, so I encourage all to read the Lexis-Nexis summary of Johnson v. M’Intosh: https://www.lexisnexis.com/community/casebrief/p/casebrief-johnson-v-m-intosh

[3] Chief Justice Marshall goes into this doctrine when writing about the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. M’Intosh.

[4] http://ili.nativeweb.org/sdrm_art.html

[5] I am a fan of Ruth Bader Ginsburg overall, but, as sad as it is for me to say this, she invoked the Doctrine of Discovery when she wrote the majority opinion of City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/03-855.ZO.html

[6] Page 3 of this declaration affirms “further that all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.” https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2018/11/UNDRIP_E_web.pdf

[7] https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/executive-committee/2012-02/statement-on-the-doctrine-of-discovery-and-its-enduring-impact-on-indigenous-peoples

Indigenous Rights and the Amazon Rainforest Fire

A few weeks ago, the fires in the Amazon rainforest were getting international attention for the environmental damage caused. And honestly, it was important that these fires got the attention they did.

But a seldom-reported aspect of this crisis is the damage that it is doing to indigenous lands.

In terms of indigenous rights in Brazil, the situation is already bad enough under their president, Jair Bolsonaro. Here’s a sampling of what Bolsonaro and his allies have already done, in his short time (a few months) in office, even before the Amazon fires:

  • There used to be offices in the Brazilian government looking after the health and education of indigenous people. Those offices were removed under Bolsonaro.
  • Bolsonaro has defended mineral exploitation on indigenous lands.
  • An indigenous tribe has received seemingly no help after their water source was destroyed earlier this year by a dam burst.[1]

Based on all these actions, and more, from the Bolsonaro government, I can see why many indigenous in Brazil and elsewhere fear that there is a genocide of indigenous people happening there. But with the fires, the situation has gotten worse. These fires, which seem to exist for the very purpose of clearing more land for industrialism, is literally invading and destroying many indigenous lands. Given the multitude of indigenous groups in the rainforest, the destruction of forests there may very well end up being the destruction of many indigenous groups as well. This fact, combined with the fact that recently, “a Brazilian congressional committee approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow commercial agriculture on indigenous reserves,”[2] indigenous communities are literally being pillaged and will have no recourse for being pillaged.[3]

And this is not getting talked about enough. Goodness, I’m not sure if I have heard any American television media mention how the fires impact indigenous people in Brazil. That’s a real shame, because given all the parts of the world where indigenous lands are endangered in pursuit of monetary profit (think of the Keystone XL Pipeline in the United States as an example), stories like this need to be covered. Stories like this need to be covered so that the world can come to a reckoning of what happens when short-term profit is prioritized at the expense of indigenous people.

So yes, there is an environmental crisis in Brazil as a result of these fires, but there is also a crisis for indigenous people in the Amazon as a result of the fires. Worse yet, unless we learn from what’s happening in the Amazon, similar things may continue to happen in other parts of the world.


[1] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/brazil-native-groups-protest-anti-indigenous-bolsonaro-190424182035658.html. I should note that Al Jazeera seems to be one of the few international outlets following the anti-indigenous policies of Bolsonaro.

[2] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/afraid-indigenous-guardians-brazil-amazon-190827235511318.html

[3] I should note that the United States should not be “holier-than-thou” on indigenous rights, though.

An image of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Antonio Campoy [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5DAn image of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

Blog News: An Important Update to a Recent Blog Post

Today, I am doing two unprecedented things: writing a blog news post on a Wednesday (not a Friday) and announcing an update to a blog post.

But why?

As readers know, I published a piece on the barriers that many Native Americans face to voting in the United States just over a week ago. I felt it was a relevant post given the upcoming election, discussions about voter suppression in this country, and the proximity to Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

But I had no idea that this post would be so relevant that I find myself updating the piece I wrote.

Yet, that was exactly what happened. What happened was that I found out just yesterday that North Dakota enacted (and the Supreme Court did nothing to remove) a voter ID law that will provide yet another barrier to voting for some Native Americans in the state.

As to the full details on what that additional barrier is, please read the end of my modified blog post (the one that was originally published last week) for more details. To make it easy to see what I added (and to make it easy for those who have read the post and don’t want to read it a second time), I put my update in bold.

So, without further adieu, here is the link to the updated blog post on “Native American Barriers to Voting”: https://blindinjusticeblog.com/2018/10/09/native-american-barriers-to-voting/

Native American Barriers to Voting

As per usual, while I take many holiday weeks off, I am not taking Columbus Day off. If you’re wondering why, just read this post from the week of Columbus Day last year.

However, from this year on, I’m not just going to post on the week of Columbus Day, but also to post on one or more issues related to indigenous people (since, you know, that was the group most hurt by Columbus and others coming).

At this point, you’re probably asking this: “What are you going to post this year, Brendan?”

This year, given the upcoming midterm election, I think it’s important to write a post about an injustice many of us are not aware of: the fact that many Native Americans face barriers to voting.

It may be surprising to hear that many Native Americans face barriers to voting, especially considering the fact that Native Americans technically have the right to vote. However, just because a group of people has the right to vote doesn’t mean that they are given the resources to vote easily.

Take, for example, the barriers to voting that many Native Americans face in elections. The quantity of barriers is staggering: long distances to voting places, less time for early voting than other groups, restrictive voter-identification regulations, a lack of accommodations for tribal languages at polling places, and many more. The Native American Voting Rights Coalition listed further voting barriers faced by Native Americans in several states, such as registration problems caused by non-traditional addresses, a lack of voter-registration drives in Native American communities, and a lack of Internet access (which makes online voter registration impossible in practice even if it exists in theory). There are even more barriers that Native Americans face to voting, but these are just a few.

If your head is spinning at this point from the massive list of voting restrictions that Native Americans face, don’t feel badly—honestly, I felt that way, too, while drafting this post. If anything, be glad that you’re recognizing the extent of voting restrictions against Native Americans in 2018.

However, we must go further, as individuals, than simply recognizing how the system is stacked against Native Americans, as far as voting is concerned. Instead, we must consider what, if anything, our candidates say about voting rights for all individuals, including Native Americans. While I will not be one to endorse candidates on this blog, what I will say is that anyone who does not support the further enfranchisement of all individuals at the voting booth, including the enfranchisement of Native Americans, does not deserve anyone’s vote.

Update as of October 16, 2018: For the first time ever, I needed to update a blog post soon after writing one. That is because yet another barrier has been added for some Native Americans. Namely, for people in North Dakota, you must have an ID with a current street address in order to vote. P.O. boxes are not acceptable. This disproportionately affects Native Americans, as many Native American reservations lack physical street addresses (plus many homeless Native Americans use P.O. boxes, not physical street addresses). Therefore, North Dakota has created, and the Supreme Court has refused to do anything about, yet another barrier to voting that Native Americans in that state will face. I want to give a “thank you” to Scottie at Scotties Toy Box for bringing my attention to this issue, and to National Public Radio’s article on the topic and many others for reporting on this.