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

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.