Sports team affiliation, much like political alliance, runs deep and strong within the American psyche. There can be such impassioned fidelity towards it that followers may be left blind to its imperfections.
And imperfect they are, because despite what sports teams inspire and positively represent, none of them is immune from the nuances and complexities — the humanity — that comes from being part of a continually evolving society. When we know better, we should all aspire to do better, however, that requires a level of openness and unbiased self-evaluation that many find too uncomfortable or inconvenient to do.
Billion-dollar NFL teams, like the Washington R*dskins, are so powerful that they play an important role in creating and controlling cultural norms. A team’s history and customs can become so embedded within American society that they then become a tradition. Undeniably racist and offensive team names, logos and mascots, that actually cause harm, are somehow transformed into something acceptable and innocuous. The Washington R*dskins have managed to normalize a dictionary-defined ethnic slur so successfully that a common counter-argument to changing the name is that it somehow honours Native Americans. There was even an attempt by The Washington Post, in a 2016 survey, to prove that the term R*dskins was inoffensive and perfectly acceptable to 90% of Native Americans. The problem with this poll was that it did not check if any of the 504 self-identified Native American respondents were actually Native American.
First and foremost, the Post states clearly that they did not verify the actual Native American identity or tribal enrollment of its respondents. Unlike most “minorities,” non-Native Americans have often declared themselves Native American with little or no factual evidence or cultural connection whatsoever. Furthermore, 56 percent of those asked said they were not part of any tribal nation or could not name what tribe their ancestors claimed. | Jacqueline Keeler – The Nation
In 1932, when the name was chosen — and only eight years after Native Americans were granted citizenship to the U.S. — the “Civilization Regulations” were still in effect (1880-1936) that imposed a set of government policies that outlawed Native religions, banned all ceremonies and dances, made leaving a reservation without permission an offence and oversaw the confiscation of culturally significant property. All in an effort to end traditional Native life through forced assimilation (cultural genocide). Choosing the term R*dskins was no mistake. It solidified the disdain with which Native culture, heritage and life were held and aimed to reduce a diverse group of people to a pejorative. Deliberate cultural destruction has no honour. And it should have no place to exist in 2020.
Walter ’Siks-a-num (Blackie)’ S. Wetzel, a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation, is credited with creating the now infamous logo in 1971. Wetzel, a former president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) from 1960 to 1964, is said to have designed it in order to improve how Native Americans are perceived and instil a sense of pride — an assertion I have no reason to disagree with. But even with the best of intentions and reasoning behind it, it was attached to a team that already had a racist name. That, unfortunately, negates any good the logo may have had the potential to do because it becomes synonymous with negativity. The NCAI itself has also been unequivocal in its condemnation of the use of Native American imagery/associated names in sports, so even though Walter Wetzel undoubtedly wanted to do good, it has had the opposite effect.
The Washington R*dskins are now changing their name and logo, but even after decades of protesting, organizing and activism from Native American groups for this to happen, it only seemed to come about after other billion-dollar corporations — like FedEx, Nike, Walmart and Target — stopped selling their merchandise or supporting the name. The prospect of losing money rather than addressing harmful racist stereotypes seems to have been what finally got them to listen.
But despite my own personal scepticism about their motivations, it is still an enormously important first step. If national sports teams can be so successful at normalizing racism, then they can be equally successful at normalizing its elimination. Addressing the harm that popularising racial slurs and stereotypes does, especially with the assistance of millions of dollars in marketing and promotion, is one essential aspect of anti-racism work. We must believe Native Americans (and all other communities directly impacted) when they tell us that something is racist, offensive or detrimental to their wellbeing. We must not be put off by how big a task it seems or how powerful the opposition to it is.
Now is the time to maximise the momentum that has come from the Washington R*dskins finally changing their name. Now is the time to end ALL usage of Indigenous imagery, stereotypes, names and logos that are deemed inappropriate by Native American communities. Now is the time to do what we can and continue to make a difference.
Ways To Help:
End Racist Mascots Coalition | Native American Journalists Association (NAJA)
IllumiNative | A new nonprofit initiative, created and led by Native peoples, designed to increase the visibility of – and challenge the negative narrative about – Native Nations and peoples in American society.