Pushing Native American stereotypes from the field of play

The struggle to rid the sports arena of Native American stereotypes includes rallies such as this one in Phoenix, Ariz.

By Richard Ades

I like to think journalists are a pretty smart group overall, but then I remember the newsroom argument I got embroiled in years ago over the football team then known as the Washington Redskins.

To me, the name seemed obviously racist, but a co-worker jumped to its defense. “How do you know it doesn’t refer to potatoes?” he said, trying to make light of the issue. “Because,” I replied, “then the team’s mascot would be Mr. Potato Head.”

Sadly, my co-worker was far from alone in his reluctance to question “Redskins” or the many other team names and mascots based on Native American culture. Many sports fans just can’t understand why even seemingly innocuous monickers like “Indians” or “Braves” can be hurtful to present-day Indians trying to escape age-old stereotypes.

The fight to rid the sports world of such names is the subject of Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting. Directed by Aviva Kempner and Ben West, the documentary interviews activists from various Native tribes and nations who have devoted years and even decades to the struggle.

One of them is Marshall McKay, former tribal chairman of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, who notes that Native American stereotypes galloped through the “cowboys and Indians” melodramas he watched growing up. Inevitably, the Indians were depicted as the bloodthirsty villains, but even when they were cast as “noble savages,” the portrayals were unrealistic and one-dimensional.

McKay points out that the entertainment industry was merely reflecting racist attitudes that were ingrained in the national psyche and led to countless atrocities and injustices toward Native people over the years. Near his own birthplace, he says, the California gold rush of the mid-19th century brought the army out to protect miners, while bounties were offered for Native American body parts.

Hence, the term “redskins” is offensive for reasons that have nothing to do with the color red.

At least Hollywood began cleaning up its act with 1990’s Dances With Wolves, which helped to usher in a new era of portraying Native characters more realistically. But in the sports world, the stereotypes lived on thanks to team names such as “Chiefs” or “Braves,” as well as in caricatured mascots such as the Cleveland baseball team’s Chief Wahoo.

Adding to the insult, fans were often encouraged to attend games wearing warpaint and headdresses, and to show their enthusiasm by participating in stereotypical antics such as the “tomahawk chop.”  

The problem with all this, according to one interviewee: “It’s not who we are today.” When Native men are stereotyped as fierce warriors and Native women as Pocahontas-style sex goddesses, it obscures the varied personalities and professions they represent in real life.

The documentary brings the issue up to date by reporting recent changes for the better. For instance, the Washington Redskins have been renamed the Commanders, while the Cleveland Indians are now the Guardians. And Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo, which one interviewee refers to as “Red Sambo,” has been retired.

But according to the documentary, nearly 2,000 teams, at every level of sports, retain their Native American-inspired names and mascots. Says one activist: “We’ve been in this fight for a very long time, and we’re not going to stop.”

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Imagining the Indian opened March 31 in New York and will expand to other cities throughout April and May. For more information visit imaginingtheindianfilm.org.