While Native American mascots appear to be fairly easy to decipher, they in fact present a number of unappreciated and unexplored complexities. This was especially true at the recent symposium on Racist Stereotypes in American Sport at the National Museum of the American Indian. Organized by Suzan Shown Harjo, former Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians and President of the Morning Star Institute, the first of its kind event brought together scholars, activists, indigenous leaders, and community members to consider the history and significance of the use of American Indian imagery in sport. Several hundred people attended on site and countless others watched a live stream of the three panels and accompanying discussion, with twitter providing a dynamic, interactive space bringing the two into dialogue with one another. The prominence of the pro football team in the nation’s capitol as well as the problematic nature of its name, logo, and history routinely returned general conclusions and national debates to the local context, a context marked by pronounced segregation historically, black-white racial tensions (to put it politely), a rising Latino population, and economic and demographic shifts that have fostered a whitening of the urban core, while pushing the poor and people of color to the margins.
Immediately after the event, individuals concerned with the issue and with the need to change the R*dskins were inspired, even energized. And, although perhaps unconnected, positive change continued to manifest itself, continuing a historic trend that has reduced the number of such mascots from nearly 3,000 to less than 900. Notably, the Cooperstown (NY) School District opted to change the mascot of the local high school and the state of Michigan Department of Civil Rights has called for a ban them. The long-range impacts of the conference remain unclear, but its lessons about racial politics and antiracist struggle merit some reflection.
In what follows I reflect on the event and its implications. I write from the position of a longtime scholar and opponent of Native American mascots. My comments draw on two decades of work in the area. I write moreover as a participant in the symposium. Finally, my reflections make more sense, I believe, if read after or along side the livestream of the event.
The symposium showcased many of the key scholarly findings on the use of Indianness in sport, rightly reiterating core arguments against such names, symbols, and rituals. At the same time, the event offered an important context for testimony about the personal experiences and individual impacts of mascots, often described more sterilely as persecution, harassment, and discrimination. The psychic and symbolic violence associated with playing Indian (in sport) has fostered an awareness of the connections between its pervasiveness and low self-esteem and high suicide rates, correlations confirmed in the work of scholars like Stephanie Fryburg. Case studies underscored the centrality of misrepresentation and misrecognition to the creation and defense of such mascots, a pattern of fraud and distortion that seeks to legitimate the moniker of the Washington, DC professional football franchise, as Linda Waggoner demonstrated, by claiming to honor American Indians generally and Lone Star Dietz specifically, a white man who falsely claimed to be Indian. Falsehood built upon falsehood, self-serving lies that tell us much more about whites and whiteness than American Indians.
Ellen Staurowsky made a similar point about Louis Sockalexis. Although the Cleveland professional baseball team has long suggested the team takes its name to memorialize and celebrate Louis Socalexis, in fact, he, like many indigenous athletes at the time, endured overt racism, open derision, and regular dehumanization Then, as now, Indianness fostered anti-Indianism, and only the short-sighted and cynical would attempt to repackage past racism to excuse the profits and pleasures of racism enjoyed by owners and fans today.
The North Quincy High School Red Raiders continued use of Yakoo, as described by Manley Begay, offers another graphic illustration. An Armenian-American dentist and alum, Allan Yacubian, dressed as an imagined Indian, is the namesake and inspiration for the mascot, which in turn embodies a tradition of playing Indian throughout the school and its athletic program. Only the most twisted logic can be offered in defense of such imagery and such a history. To be sure a sincere fiction, one that continues to live and have meaning because the investments in and entitlements of white privilege allow fiction to masquerade as fact and sincerity of intention to prevent one from grasping context and consequence.
Indeed, these instances, as I noted at the symposium, remind us that the origins stories of mascots come to matter most significantly only after they become questionable, only after activists, elders, students, citizens, and scholars contest the use of Indianness in sport and popular culture. These stories, like all origin myths, seek to give a picture of the world that is orderly and actionable, to resolve contradictions, and let supporters of such symbols and rituals off the hook in a world that no longer easily or quietly abides the arrogance or entitlements of white supremacy and its endorsements of taking and remaking indigenous culture and history for its own ends.
Throughout the day, panelists, audience members, and social media mavens underscored the vibrancy of the opposition to American Indian mascots offering countless examples of speaking truth to power, saying no to white privilege, and exposing the working of settler society. Especially noteworthy in this regard were the personal histories of activism and change at the University of Oklahoma, Syracuse University, Stanford University, and Dartmouth College that gave life to events often reduced to mere chronology now: the sacrifices of first generation college students, forced to chose between degrees and combatting injustice, the intimate entanglements that make working against mascots more challenging, the persistence of structures of exclusion and neglect following earlier victories. In each of these instance, moreover, the speakers reminded listeners that the passing of a mascot does not bring anti-Indianism to an end, for the afterlife of such symbols has often nurtured festering resentments and lingering racisms, while clear a space for white supremacy to operate under the cover of progress and enlightenment. As a colleague reported to me the day after the Symposium, the University of Illinois may have retired Chief Illiniwek, but it still sanctions and profits from the revivification of the mascot—from licensing throwback jerseys with the now retired imagery to granting space for alumni and students to celebrate their dancing Indian and even to have a place in homecoming parades. A reminder that when such imagery has receded from sports regular symposia on the afterlife mascots will be equally necessary interventions.
Despite the presence of these and other veterans of the mascot wars in the auditorium, many in attendance and online shared a common hope for a hero, ideally suited for the local struggle against the Washington football franchise, namely RG3. The rookie quarterback, who led the team to the playoffs, has been identified by some in the media and others in the movement, as the one person who can get owner Daniel Snyder to change the name. While I am sympathetic position and would love to see Robert Griffin III take a public stand against the franchise name and mascot, I do have concerns about the magical thinking here (superstar speaks out change happens), which reduces social action to a great man and absolves all others who are complicit (the NFL, ESPN and other media outlets, local vendors, other players, former players, fans, political leaders, and so on) of accountability. In many ways, in pinning our hopes to RG3 we are asking for the easy out, we are putting a seemingly undue burden on the young athlete, encouraging him to do things many of us and our peers seem unwillingly or unable to do (wake up, speak truth to power, tell off our bosses, and fight the status quo even if any or all of this would undermine our livelihood). Although not on the agenda, I do think this hope says much about the complexity of the current context and the problematic of building a lasting movement that can thrive within it.
As if to underscore this, several activists at the symposium noted the difficulty bringing protests to the team, including the relative remoteness of facilities, prohibitions on placards and other forms of messaging, entrance screening, and the like. In a real sense, the franchise has worked to physically stifle the opposition. What became clear at the symposium, moreover, is the manner in which corporate governance and business relationships have further silenced dissent. For instance, local media outlets have an interest in maintaining positive relationships with the franchise. While at the most base level, they want to have unencumbered access and the capacity to cover the team, at another level they do not want to damage current and future prospects for marketing, merchandising, and even broadcasting rights. In a very real sense, following critical race theorists, we might say that this is a classic case of interest convergence: a mutual desire for profit, prestige, and the like encourage the sport media complex (NFL, broadcast network, local TV and radio, etc.) and the franchise to work together to sanction the team name and mascot, despite, or perhaps even because of, its racially charged nature, and hence wittingly or not perpetuate the workings of race and power.
This observation, whether stated explicitly or not, led several speakers to assert that money was the fundamental problem and the key to change. On the one hand, changing consumer habits would alter the actions of owners and producers, while, on the other hand, the prospect of new revenue streams may lead to the creation of a new mascot and team name in DC, precisely because the franchise will see how profitable new merchandise promises to be. There may be something to such arguments, and this may be the logic that secures change; however, it must be understood as a partial or limited change, in that it will not fundamentally alter understandings of race and racism or encourage deeper understandings of the cultural practices and historical patterns of playing Indian. Whatever its expedience, to my mind, this limited victory would be too limiting and arguably work against the core principles of self-determination and anti-racism animating the movement against American Indian mascots.
Questions and comments from the audience made clear that rather than limit the discussion many in attendance sought a fuller, more complex understanding, one that reflected and resonated with the nuanced racial politics of the metro area. Indeed, where the controversy over mascots often breaks along Euro American/Native American lines, in DC, the fractures are multiple, inviting uncomfortable reflections on African American/Native American alliances, commonalities, and tensions, and to a lesser extent emergent concerns around Latin@/indigenous relations in the USA. It is easy to see in these exchanges a sharpened identity politics or another staging of the oppression Olympics, but I think that misses the point and possibility: American Indian mascots are not an Indian issue, they matter to all of us; for only in coming to terms with mascots can we begin to come to terms with the legacies of colonization and start to unravel the racism that dehumanize and divide all of us. Following panelist Reverend Graylan Hagler, Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in DC, the exploitation at the heart of sport, pop culture, and society generally, no less than the injuries induced in these domain, can be the anchor for a multiracial coalition that challenges mascots (and I would add for a start the treatment of players like commodities—recall how the season ended for RG3).
The professional football franchise in our nation’s capitol does not want hear any of this, of course. The ownership and some number of its fans remain resistant not only to change, but also to dialogue. No representative of the team attended the symposium. In many ways, the reactionary racial politics of the franchise remain little changed over the past half century. Indeed, it is worth noting that the professional football team in DC was the last NFL franchise to integrate. It became the target of moral outrage and the object of activism. Only under duress did it do the right thing. Fifty years later, it is among the last public outposts of overt, even arrogant, anti-Indian racism, making it the scene for a new civil right movement. It was wrong on race then and it is wrong on race now.
These simple truths aside, a colleague lamented to me during the symposium that he wanted a more complex conversation—when doesn’t an academic want things to be rendered with more complexity. And he was right, to a point: binaries were far too common, solutions too simple, and gender, labor, and nationalism under-analyzed. That said, many others I encountered throughout the day marveled at the event, soaking in the discussion, suggesting for some number of people the material and perspectives were new, while for another set of people the collective insights and energy expanded their understandings in important ways. Even though mascots have been subject to debate, open to challenge, and under change for more than 40 years, to many Americans the topic is new, the arguments unknown, and the situation hopeful. Perhaps we are a tipping point of sorts, one in which communities and corporations will be more accountable, in which entrenched owners will be more inclined to listen, and in which novel strategies will hasten the end of these racist symbols.
And it is this sense of possibility that accompanied me as I left the symposium, a sense that the event was a catalyst, a transition and transformation, more a starting point than a summary. As such it embodied the best elements of the National Museum of the American Indian, which I take to be an affirmative space, devoted to self-determination and powered by cultural sovereignty. To my mind, this is the precise spirit of its symposium on Racist Stereotypes in American Sport, a spirit I am glad to see loosed upon the world.
POPSspot is pleased to welcome first article by Dr. C. Richard King who is associate professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University. He is also the author or editor of several books, including The Native American Mascot Controversy: A Handbook (2010), Native American Athletes in Sport and Society (2006), Native Americans in Sports (2003), and Animating Difference (2010).