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People are not mascots: a short history of Native American representations in sports

James Powel, Sports Editor

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  • Jordan Stockdale from Fresno, California attends the Washington Redskins versus San Francisco 49ers game at Levis Stadium dressed up as the Native mascot on November 23, 2014 in Santa Clara, California. Stockdale, a self-proclaimed Redskins fan for all his life who admits he was born in the late 1980s, questions why the name has lasted so long claiming, “If it was a big deal it would be changed already.” (Jose Lopez)
  • Clyde Bellecourt, a Native American activist who is a member of the Anishinabe Ojibwe Nation, poses for a portrait with a protest sign during the demonstration against the use of Native American images for mascots at the Washington Redskins versus San francisco 49ers game on November 23, 2014 at Levis Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Bellecourt, one of the original founders of American Indian Movement (AIM), has fought for Native rights which include his participation in the occupation of Wounded Knee and organizing for the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media challenging use of Native Mascots. (Jose Lopez)
  • Charlene Teters, a Native American activist who is a member of the Spokane Tribe, poses for a portrait with a protest sign during the demonstration against the use of Native American images for mascots at the Washington Redskins versus 49ers game on November 23, 2014 at Levis Stadium in Santa Clara, California. As a founding board member of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media, Teters has been active against the use of Native mascots since 1989 when she was attending University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she encountered a non-Native performing made up Native dance under the identity of the mascot “Chief Illiwek” that she felt exploited racial stereotypes. (Jose Lopez)
  • Richard Cano and Juan Faust carry the American Indian Movement (AIM) flag as they lead the protest against the use of Native American mascots in sports during the Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers game at Levis Stadium on November 23, 2014 in Santa Clara, California. (Jose Lopez)
  • Protesters march against the use of Native American mascots in sports in front of Levis Stadium during the Washington Redskins versus San Francisco 49ers game on November 23, 2014 in Santa Clara, California. (Jose Lopez)
  • Protesters march against the use of Native American mascots in sports during the Washington Redskins versus San Francisco 49ers game on November 23, 2014 at Levis Stadium in Santa Clara, California. (Jose Lopez)

It is difficult to believe a debate as passionate and historical as the one over the use of Native American mascots has a singular starting point.

Yet, this argument has one flashpoint. After the fall of 1914, the Miracle Boston Braves, originally named for the foot soldiers of the Tammany Hall political machine, came back from last place on the Fourth of July to win the twelfth World Series.

One year after the Miracle Braves pulled off the seemingly impossible, the Cleveland Naps, without its namesake star Nap Lajoie, were on the brink of failure. Their solution was to create a new name.

A call went out to fans and sportswriters as the Naps returned with a rip off of the 1914 World’s Series Champions. And thus, the Cleveland Indians were born.

Then, in 1932 the infamous George Preston Marshall established a football team in Boston. The football club, who was so far behind baseball in popularity that they played in nearly empty baseball stadiums, took the name of their landlord at Braves Field and named themselves the Boston Braves.

When they left Braves Field for the confines of Fenway Park, Preston kept the Native American imagery and made the best of his new landlord, the Boston Red Sox, creating the name the team would keep when they moved south to Washington D.C.

The two franchises that hide behind the facade of respect for a marginalized group of people are the biggest hypocrites in the sports world.

Anyone who puts forth that Native American mascots, in their current form, are a purely honorific representation is wrong. In order for something to be honorific, the person being honored must, you know, feel honored.

In the 2004 study, “American Indian Social Representations: Do They Honor or Constrain American Indian Identities,” researchers found that the American Indian social representation (i.e., Pocahontas, Chief Wahoo, or Negative Stereotypes) depressed how American Indian participants felt about themselves, their community, and what they want to become or are able to become.

As a society, we must draw a line.

Those of us who have the power to create and promote the symbols that depict Native Americans in sports must use that power with great, moral restraint.

There are present day symbols that are clearly over that line, including the Washington football team and the “Chief Wahoo” symbol of the Cleveland Indians.

Both water down Native Americans to a long ago disproven stereotype, and cause real injury to the peoples they depict.

However, one of the two main branches of the old Boston Braves team has the ability to actually honor Native Americans.

For years the origin story of the Cleveland Indian’s name, which was honestly believed by the team, its fans and the media who followed them, was that the Indians were named in honor of the first acknowledged Native American to play in organized professional baseball, Louis Sockalexis.

Sockalexis, of Penbosocot decent, was by all accounts, a physical specimen equal to the athletes of today.

According to “Baseball’s First Indian,” the biography written by Ed Rice, Sockalexis caught a fly ball at the wall, turned and fired a 414 foot bullet to home plate. Eat your heart out Yasiel Puig. From there his game was shrouded in myth.

However talented he was, the press hounded him. At every turn sportswriters gleefully published the quotes that had him scalping opponents and drinking fire-water. Fans mocked him with war whoops and chants.

In 1897 a syndicated writer wrote, “Sockalexis was no better and no worse than his people. He made a spectacle of himself. The white man laughed at him and then kicked him aside. Sockalexis was only one more drunk Indian.”

Sockalexis, was thrown out of baseball due to his lifelong battle with alcohol in 1903. He would die of tuberculosis in 1913.

If the Indians truly wanted to honor the history they suppose to stake their name to, they would turn the horridly racist logo and their questionable name to an edifice to the late Sockalexis.

By doing so, the Indians would be able to truly bring to light the miscarriage of justice that has befallen Native Americans and its effects which includes the destruction of their culture, poverty and alcoholism.

The Indians would be able to answer to one of the main criticisms of opponents even having a discussion on changing the name, that the name of a sports team does not have a social impact.

Here the Indians have an opportunity to take a powerful leadership position in the ongoing discourse on Native American mascots. The least they could do is rid themselves of their sophomoric Chief Wahoo logo.

Admittedly, this is an incredibly dark way to use the powerful imagery that sports teams carry.

A much simpler way of using Native American imagery properly is to follow the model of Florida State University, who work with the Seminole Tribe in Florida to honor the tribe’s heritage.

However, if we are to use symbols that are not from our culture, we must deal with the baggage it comes with.

To answer to Pedro Rodriguez, a Cleveland Indians fan whom inserted himself into a rally to change the name and mascot saying, “We are honoring you” I simply respond: Sir, we are not honoring them.

4 Comments

4 Responses to “People are not mascots: a short history of Native American representations in sports”

  1. A True Fan on December 10th, 2014 3:14 pm

    Well James I feel like you are misinterpreting “chief wahoo”. The chief is not a symbol that is based nor seen as racist. When every tribe fan walks through the gates to cheer on the Indians, they are not there in support of discrimination against Native Americans. They are their to support the team that they love, the legacy that they love, and the city that they love. I agree with you that the Cleveland Indians goal is not to honor the Native Americans but I also disagree with you that this is a fault against justice. It is an innocent logo that nobody sees as racist but only as a innocent and storied mascot.

  2. Nole fan on December 11th, 2014 7:38 am

    I’m a FSU fan and someone with American and Irish citizenship. You’re right when you say FSU does it right. The university works very hard to maintain close and strong relations with the Seminole tribe of Florida. I’m proud of that. But, on the other hand, we’re being hypocritical if we single out only native americans as people who are mascots. Notre Dame has a similar mascot, and I’m not sure the fighting Irish moniker is much different than the “drunk indian” references in your article. Where’s the outrage?

  3. Simon on December 11th, 2014 12:54 pm

    That is a particularly weak analogy. The “Irish” at Notre Dame is an Irish college, backed by the church, and that mascot is there to reflect what Notre Dame is. It’s not cultural appropriation because it IS their culture.

    Last I checked, no First Nation people or religious institutes own or control the various sports teams with Indian mascots.

    Even if Notre Dame wasn’t such an Irish school, are there a group of Irish people trying to change it? Are you one of them? Who are you mad at? Who is it you want to be outraged? Or is it just a smokescreen to distract from the real issue?

  4. Dracha arendee on October 12th, 2016 7:59 am

    The History of the “PEOPLE NOT MASCOTS” Logo

    Chief Wahoo – People Not Mascots’ Logo
    Artist : David Jakupca
    Acrylic on Canvas 22″ x 28″ 1992 Signed Lower Right
    Current Owner Lake Erie Native American Council (LENAC)”

    The ‘People Not Mascots’ Logo is meant to be a Native American protest caricature of the racists Chief Wahoo logo of the Cleveland Indians Baseball team. It was originally painted in 1992 by David Jakupca at the historic ARK in Berea for the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance along with the Lake Erie Native American Council (LENAC) incorporating elements of the Theory of Iceality on Environmental Arts.
    The ‘People not Mascots’ Logo has drawn criticism from some sportswriters, fans and local businessmen, but received immediate acceptance among humanitarian, religious groups and Native Americans. The Cleveland ‘People not Mascots’ Logo gained international popular attention when it was it exhibited by ICEA at the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna, Austria.
    The Cleveland ‘People not Mascots’ Logo and has become one of the most recognized anti-racists logo in existence CHANGING FOREVER THE WAY PEOPLE VIEW THE WORLD’S TRILLION DOLLAR SPORTS INDUSTRIES!
    It also caused repercussions for the groups connected with using the logo in protest demonstrations and this has been documented in the INTERNECINE MATRIX.
    Reference Links:
    INTERNECINE MATRIX http://theicea.com/page21

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