Marco Ovando remembers the darkness that descended on him and his high school classmates that summer night in Georgia. The teenagers, raised on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in the high desert of Nevada, left a baseball game feeling demeaned and marginalized.
The small group of students from the Shoshone-Paiute tribes visited Atlanta in 2017 for a Future Business Leaders of America competition. They thought attending an Atlanta Braves-Seattle Mariners game would be a nice diversion. And it was until the seventh inning.
“Fans began chanting and doing the ‘tomahawk chop,’ ’’ said Ovando, a junior at Boise State University. “They were kind of dancing around; some were wearing feathered headdresses. It was hurtful — I was visibly upset.
“It disrespected not only us, but other Indigenous tribes local to that region. It was disappointing to think that, in the 21st century, we are still dealing with this sort of thing.’’
Since that discouraging evening four years ago, urgent shifts in attitude and policy throughout the U.S. have spurred sprouts of hope in what had been an almost-barren field of despair for Indigenous people. For them, the use of Indigenous artifacts and imagery is sacrilegious and promotes harmful stereotypes.
The Major League Baseball team in Atlanta — as have others — has economically benefited from cultural appropriation, more noticeably since 1991, when the “tomahawk chop’’ was introduced. Many fans are proud of their Indigenous mascots, from Cleveland to Kansas City, Missouri, and Tallahassee, Florida, to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and high-school towns in between. They consider the practice harmless, spirited fun.
For Ovando and his fellow students, it was demoralizing to witness this “fun” on display at the Braves game and they departed immediately. They had a history of experiencing racism at sporting events when Owyhee High teams played other schools.
“We would play a predominately white school at a regional or state championship and get hit with racial comments: ‘Those dirty Injuns from the reservation are here again. They are going to hurt us,’ ’’ Ovando recalled.
While some tribes have developed relationships with schools whose team name is Native-themed, a majority of the nearly 6 million Indigenous people in the U.S. oppose it based on a new study by the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley. Research also shows that use of such mascots decreases self-esteem and achievement goals among Indigenous peoples, who already suffer from higher rates of suicide, substance abuse and alcoholism.
“When you are talking about a group with enormous disparities in health, access to education, affordable housing, etc., this is a completely unforced error,’’ said Michael Friedman, a New York-based clinical psychologist familiar with the issue. “You shouldn’t need complicated scientific research to convince someone that using a racist name or image that is a stereotype is wrong. (Indigenous people) have discussed this for decades. This is not about ‘cancel culture.’ ’’
The controversial use of Indigenous culture in American sports is more than a century old. In 1912, the Major League Baseball team in Boston became the Braves. Three years later, Cleveland followed suit naming its franchise the Indians. During the next two decades, the floodgates opened as many colleges and high schools mimicked the pros.
But in 1968, the National Congress of American Indians began targeting stereotypes in media, popular culture and sports. By 1972, Dartmouth College, the University of Oklahoma, Marquette University and Stanford University had banished their team names. About 65% of Native-themed mascots have been discarded by pro sports teams and schools in the last half-century, according to the NCAI. As of May 2021, nearly 2,000 remain.
Often in the pro ranks, progress is painful and tortoise-like. In July 2020, in a rare move for pro sports, the now-renamed Washington Football Team relented under enormous pressure from large sponsors and halted the use of the NFL franchise’s helmet logo and R*dskins team name — a racial slur by definition that the organization had used for 88 years.
The trend gained further momentum in 2020.
“What we are now seeing are the results and downstream consequences of the murder of George Floyd,’’ said Joseph Gone, a Harvard professor and faculty director of the school’s Native American program. He belongs to the Aaniiih-Gros Ventre tribal Nation of Montana. “American Indian people, because we are so proportionally small in number in the U.S., sort of rise and fall with the broader tides around racial reckoning. Indian mascots are an outdated vestige of racial thinking.”
In 2019, Cleveland’s baseball team removed from its field perhaps the most-egregious example of caricature racism and stereotyping in sports — the toothy, red-faced and grinning “Chief Wahoo’’ logo. However, team merchandising retains the logo to preserve ownership of the trademark.
The NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks have no plans to change their team names. Yet both announced fans could no longer wear headdresses and Native American-styled face paint to games. The changes were the result of an ongoing, multiyear conversation with groups from diverse American Indian backgrounds and experiences. The Chiefs’ “Arrowhead Chop’’ is still under review by its organization’s leadership.
In Atlanta, after a 2019 postseason controversy regarding the “tomahawk chop,’’ the Braves said they would evaluate use of “elements of our brand.’’ But by April of this year, the franchise was still encouraging fans to chop to the beat of a drum.
“Where is the equivalent (stigmatization) of other ethnic groups in the U.S.? It only happens with us. The phenomenon becomes normalized,’’ said Paul Chaat Smith, a member of the Comanche Nation and author of “Everything You Know about Indians is Wrong.”
As prolific as the stereotypes are, the irony remains: “The thing most people should understand is just how invisible we Indians feel in the U.S.,’’ said Smith, who is also the associate curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Proponents of continued use of Native American mascots make themselves quite noticeable. The debate is often contentious. One example: A counter petition to a ban-the-mascot petition regarding Sherando High, in Stephens City, Virginia, was initiated on change.org to support preserving the Warriors team name. It produced 2,500-plus signees. The issue has simmered for years. The school, meanwhile, retains the name and mascot.
“What is discouraging is that, once people are aware (of the racism), how much pushback there is. They use a playbook,’’ said Friedman. “People say, ‘What you don’t understand is that this is an honor.’ They are not using racial stereotypes to honor American Indians — they are using them to honor themselves. I think it’s very difficult for people to hear something they practice, and are connected with, is racist.’’
Many educational institutions have abandoned offensive mascots. Yet some colleges and universities retain official partnerships with tribes, including the Florida State Seminoles (Osceola) and the University of Utah Utes (Ute).
Before the opening kickoff for Florida State home football games, a student who portrays “Chief Osceola” wears face paint, a wig, thigh-high moccasins and rides bareback on an Appaloosa named Renegade. As Seminole fans are whipped into a frenzy and chant a pseudo-war cry, he chucks a flaming, feathered spear into the turf.
The school administration does not regard the Seminole name or “Chief Osceola” as mascots — only a “symbol that we respect and prize,” according to the university’s website.
A year ago, the Ute Tribe extended a long-term agreement — first signed in 1972 — to allow the University of Utah to continue to use “Utes’’ for sports team names. The agreement states the tribe reaffirms and values the longstanding relationship with the university with the goal of helping the Indigenous youth lead healthy lives and pursue education. In 1996, the school acceded to removing its Indian mascot in favor of a hawk.
Other schools are being dragged to enlightenment. In 2007, the University of Illinois reluctantly benched its sports mascot, Chief Illiniwek. The Fighting Illini remains the team name.
In Nevada, legislation was introduced in March 2021 to ban racially discriminatory mascots, logos and other imagery in school districts. During the same month in Camanche, Iowa, the use of the “Indian’’ team name was banned at a high school. Several additional states, including Washington, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, have either followed suit, are considering bans, or are under increasing pressure to do so. That leaves young Indigenous people looking out over a horizon of hope.
“The dynamic is changing — I am a lot more optimistic about the future,’’ said Ovando, who serves as legislative adviser for his tribe. “We’ve educated people about the harm it causes. It is slowly shifting from ‘Just suck it up’ to ‘We need to do something’ to increase unity and erase those institutionalized divides that start with the use of a mascot.’’
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