I’ve been to countless receptions in Washington, DC, but I will always remember one in 2017. I was in the middle of a benign conversation with a lobbyist when he asked the dreaded question, “What are you doing?”
I told him I worked in a Native American law firm, focusing on agricultural issues and retired native mascots.
“Mascots, like the Redskins?” He answered. “Aren’t there major problems you can work on?”
I told him I was working on other things. I also coordinated efforts around the Bears Ears National Monument, a public land designation that protects indigenous cultural resources and countries in Utah that the Trump administration was close to removing. “But fighting for things like Bears Ears does not matter if lawmakers, their staff, and their lobbyists do not see natives as human beings,” I told him. “If they see us as cartoons on the sides of helmets and ball caps, they will never see me as an equal in the congressional auditorium.”
He looked weird to me. “It should be seen as an honor,” he said, then walked away. He thought it was a compliment to equate an entire race of people, my people, to an animal or a sports sign. I wanted to be considered a person and he wanted a way out of the conversation.
On July 23, American sports took a step toward treating my people as human beings. Major League Baseball and the Cleveland team announced that they would stop using the team name – the Indians – and replace it with the Guardians. While a video, narrated by Tom Hanks, made no change or mention of his former mascot, the Cleveland team noted that “Cleveland was always the best part of our name.”
But it was not so long ago that changing the name of the team felt far out of reach. As a former political analyst for the National Congress of American Indians, I worked for years trying to eliminate mascots – and of all the political and legal struggles in the Indian country, Native mascots were the hardest problem I have ever worked with. This is because it’s about how people see other people. It’s about perception. People do not like to be told that their perception is filtered through racism.
We had tried almost everything to get the National Football League to change the name of the Washington team and they would not move out. Tribal leaders met with the team and NFL management several times. We organized social media campaigns. Activists even put one together culture marmalade and created an entire online presence for the “Washington Redhawks,” a deliberate misrepresentation to get the team to say they would not change their racist name. But rallies and plays at Comedy Central could only get us this far. Washington owns Dan Snyder told us and the press that “we will never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps. ” (The team eventually withdrew with their name during the heat of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020; they have not yet mentioned the replacement mascot.)
Back in 2017, though, it seemed impossible to tackle the NFL, so I turned to Major League Baseball. MLB had introduced the “block C” logo to the Cleveland Indians and wore it during games, but you could still buy merchandise with their longtime mascot, Chief Wahoo, until the end of the 2018 season.
For the unknown, Chief Wahoo is a caricature of an Indian. His nose is big and cartoonish, his skin is ruby red. He looks less like the Indians I know, and looks more like what a 19th century vaudeville cartoon would draw. Chief Wahoo is a representation of what colonialism wanted the natives to be – a grinning clown in the image of Little Black Sambo, something from the past, not real people.
Each time the Cleveland Indians played the Detroit Tigers, nearly 5 million Indians were put on an equal footing with an animal. If natives are equal to animals, how will we be considered equal to our fellow human beings in the courts, in Congress, and on the streets? Why would a non-native care about the intricacies of Indian law and tribal supremacy when they see a cowboy hitting a redhead on a football field while their family eats Thanksgiving dinner? Why would a student see their native classmate as fully human when 1,879 schools in America still use native mascots?
When the team stopped using Wahoo, we were told at the National Congress of American Indians that the name would come next, but they would not say when. Everyone in the Indian country has been asked to wait many times before. We have been waiting for the rights of the Treaty to be upheld, for decisions in endless court battles to be recognized as the sovereign nations we are. This did not work differently.
Fans and others like the DC lobbyist have argued that it is an honor to name teams and mascots after natives. These “honors” came from the end of the 19th century, a gloomy era in Native American history. Around the same time, the first professional baseball leagues started after the Civil War, the devastating one Allocation time and Reservation time forced natives from their traditional lands and into poverty or boarding schools. Native American populations were by theirs lowest number – 248,000 in 1890. When the natives were considered a vanishing race, it seemed to “honor” these soon forgotten people as the decent thing for America, including sports teams, to do.
While the true origin of the name Cleveland Indians is unclear, the story is most often told of a naming contest held by the team, then known as Naps after player Nap Lajoie. An avid young fan wanted to honor the former Cleveland star Louis Sockalexis (Penobscot), the first Native American to play professionally and formerly a member of the team, for his contribution to Cleveland baseball. The team accepted this post in 1915, and the name sticks for the next 106 years.
But this sense of good narration is unfortunate. Sockalexis was arched and his legacy was mocked from his first day in the league. Fans mocked his culture, greeted him with war soup and by imitating dance. He earned his place on the team based on his merits, but was only seen as a joke. Since the team name was later only tied to the Sockalexis race, it was not to honor his individual performance as a player. It was to continue the mockery that met Sockalexis on the first day.
Since the 1960s, native activists have been fighting for the retirement of “Indian” mascots. They have told team owners and the public that bringing us down to comics humiliates us, that seeing us as mascots humiliates us, that it harms our young people’s self-esteem. Nothing changed.
But in the past year, the Washington Football Team (still called TBD) and now the Cleveland team have toppled like dominoes. Such a big change could only have taken place at a time when the country has shifted towards an inventory of racism. George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protest in 2020 led to people buying anti-racist books in droves, to companies adopting diversity initiatives for the first time, to serious conversations about race in TV shows and at dinner tables. Polls in the summer of 2020 showed that 67 percent of Americans recognized that racism is a major problem in society.
Yet people have a hard time understanding racism when it is not tied to violence or economics. Racism tied to perception is the hardest to unpack.
Everyone likes to think that their view is fair and impartial. It is hard enough for people to admit that they have the privilege of a racist system. It is even harder to convince people that blind people from the racist system have taught them to see others as less than human beings.
The discussion is not about what we see – we all see a red cartoon character in a baseball cap – it’s about how we see. I see Wahoo as a caricature of who society wants me to be – stuck in the past and almost extinct – ignoring who I really am: an educated Native American woman, proud of the people I come from, living in 2021. reception so Wahoo as an honor to a dying race of people who have bigger problems than changing his perception.
But changing perceptions means something. Changing perceptions puts pressure on institutions to do better. If Americans had always seen natives as human beings, we would never have had to fight these mascot battles. We could have actually focused all our attention on rebuilding our society.
Maria Givens is a registered member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe (Schitsu’umsh) in northern Idaho. She holds a master’s degree in environmental issues from the University of Colorado and has worked for the National Congress of American Indians and in the U.S. Senate. She is passionate about tribal sovereignty and shares pictures of native food on her Instagram.
Disclaimers for mcutimes.com
All the information on this website - https://mcutimes.com - is published in good faith and for general information purpose only. mcutimes.com does not make any warranties about the completeness, reliability, and accuracy of this information. Any action you take upon the information you find on this website (mcutimes.com), is strictly at your own risk. mcutimes.com will not be liable for any losses and/or damages in connection with the use of our website.