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Sports mascots can perpetuate ‘harmful representations’ of marginalized groups

Virtual presentation capped Native American Heritage Month

Mascots can engender team spirit, but when misused, they can perpetuate cultural stereotypes and further historical inaccuracies. “Harmful Representations: The Use of Native American and Indigenous Peoples as Sports Mascots” was the topic of a Nov. 29 virtual presentation hosted by The Ohio State University Multicultural Center.

The culmination of the Multicultural Center’s 2021 Native American Heritage Month observance, the presentation was intended to promote dialogue about mascots that misrepresent Native Americans and provide information about how to support Indigenous people, said presenter Madison Eagle.

“These mascots are dehumanizing,” said Eagle, a specialist of Cherokee heritage with the Multicultural Center’s Native American and Indigenous Student Initiatives. “They’re a very prominent visual representation of Indigenous people for the majority of Americans.”

Debates have raged in recent years over teams that use names and mascots with Native American imagery, including Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team. Earlier this year, the team changed its name to the Cleveland Guardians after more than 100 years as the Cleveland Indians. And in 2018, the team retired the Chief Wahoo logo from its uniforms.

“This was a gradual shift that has been happening for a couple of years now,” Eagle said.

“Indians” originated as a nickname for the team in the 1890s when the Cleveland Spiders employed Native American player Louis Sockalexis. While some saw the “Indians” moniker as a tribute to Sockalexis, many Native Americans viewed the name as disrespectful from the beginning, and Sockalexis’ descendants and his Penobscot Nation petitioned the team to change its name several times over the years, Eagle said.

“They have never received compensation for this,” she said of Sockalexis’ family and nation, “so it’s just another instance of this logo not being connected and not benefiting the people that the fans say we’re honoring.”

Another team that recently changed its name is the Washington Football Team, which was formerly known as the Redskins. The team was established in 1932 as the Boston Braves and changed its name the following year to the Boston Redskins before relocating to Washington, D.C., in 1937, according to the team’s website.

The team changed its name to the Washington Football Team prior to the 2020 season and is set to announce a new name in early 2022. Native Americans found the “Redskins” name problematic for numerous reasons, Eagle said.

The term “redskin” is a “dictionary-defined racial slur. Its origins are not actually about the color of skin, it’s actually referring to bloody scalps,” she said. “It literally means the bloody scalp of a Native American – in the 1800s, sellers could exchange Native American scalps for money.”

Another reason that teams with Native American mascots are considered offensive is because many of the names and logos were adopted in the late 19th century and early 20th century when the federal government conducted initiatives to suppress Indigenous cultures, Eagle said. One of those initiatives was taking Native American children from reservations and sending them to government-run boarding schools to remove them from tribal traditions and encourage them to assimilate into “mainstream” American culture, according to the U.S. Library of Congress website.

“There were a bunch of different policies to … try to push this narrative of Native peoples needing to be ‘civilized’ and also to try and strip them of their traditional cultural practices – music, ceremony, religion,” Eagle said.

Though they represent 2.09% of the U.S. population, with 6.79 million people as of the 2020 Census, most Native Americans live in a handful of states in the west and northwest such as Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Colorado and Montana. In contrast, most of the 1,870 teams across the United States that have Native American mascots are located in the Midwest and the East, Eagle said.

“There’s more visual representation through mascots than there are of actual Indigenous people” in states with Native American team mascots, she said.

Eagle shared her own experience as one of only two Native American students at a high school in a rural Ohio community with a Native American team mascot. She said the bullying and discrimination she endured growing up is evidence that team mascots – combined with the dearth of accurate portrayals of Indigenous people in film, television and other mass media –promote stereotypes, rather than respect for Native American culture and traditions.

“It’s really striking when we see how these images are really offensive,” she said. “We don’t see these mascots for any other people, and it really contributes to this erasure of Indigenous people as real, as human, as existing in the present context.”

Those who wish to support Native Americans can do so, Eagle said, by following activists such as Amanda Blackhorse on social media; listening to podcasts such as “This Land,” which explores Native American legal rights; and visiting websites such as Beyondbuckskin.com, which features the work of Native American artisans and businesses.

“It’s very difficult to try and live in a world that thinks that you don’t exist except for in the context of these mascots,” she said. “They’re not valuing who we currently are and who we see ourselves as.”

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