Indigenous symbols in professional sport, insult or honor?


Throughout professional sports, a wide-ranging usage of indigenous symbols has come to the forefront of moral and societal values. Teams that still use Native American imagery include: Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks and countless high schools and colleges. One can not ignore the brazen mistreatment of indigenous individuals throughout North American history so the question persists: Is it honor and positive recognition, or insult and degradation for these logos to still be used today?

The term ‘Redskin’ has been referred to as a derogatory term for Native Americans in the United States. Nowadays, the word is scarcely utilized in day-to-day lingo. Unfortunately, public backlash and political pressures to change the name have been highly refuted by the team owner Dan Snyder. He was quoted in 2013 as saying: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER- you can use caps.” The perverseness of how referring to a professional sports team as a “Red-Skin” still exists in 2017 is mind blowing. Yet, only real change can occur from the top, and without an ownership change, the name will more than likely stick around.

The Cleveland Indians have a convoluted and complicated history surrounding their name. Indians was formulated in 1915, after going through several other names such as Naps, Blues and Spiders. Their primary logo (until recently) is of Chief Wahoo. Chief wahoo is a cartoon caricature of a stereotypical American Indian face. In 2014, team owner Paul Dolan indicated that the team would use a block C as their primary logo, yet the Wahoo symbol is still emblazoned on side of jerseys and some home caps. “We are people, not mascots, not logos, not imagery, Chief Wahoo does not represent anybody that I know or anybody in my tribe or family” says Potawatomi Tribe member Carla Getz.

The Chicago Blackhawks were one of the founding ‘Original Six’ teams of the NHL. They were named after an infantry battalion in World War I that paid homage to the great warrior ‘Black Hawk’, who was a prominent figure for the state of Illinois. The name and logo have been scarcely modified, with ‘Black Hawks’ changing to Blackhawks in the 1980s. For locals and fans, the name represents an umbrella of shared ideals. It represents a history of athletic achievement and hardships with thousands of players and fans throughout more than half a century. The name does not represent Native American’s stereotyped history.

The Kansas City Chiefs arguably have the tamest idealization of indigenous symbols. Their logo has been an arrowhead with ‘KC’ in it since the team’s name change from Texans in 1963. Arrowhead is ironically the name of their football stadium. Kansas City has never felt the need to change the name of the team, as the logo and name are an embracement of the countries heritage and their roots as an organization and as a city.

To some, these names and logos can be seen as a means of honoring Indigenous individuals and to remember the hardships they had to face during a time of immense oppression. For others, one can point at the fact that by changing a name of a team, you are essentially starting anew. The uniqueness of having teams having the same name since the (for example) 1915 Indians kindles nostalgic feelings. This nostalgia embeds itself into patriarchy, especially in the United States. General Lee confederate statues and Christopher Columbus monuments are still erected throughout the US, so expecting sweeping changes to occur are unfounded. Unfortunately, the solution seems to lie (as always) at the top, with the billionaire owners of the teams. To expect my grandfather to change his mind on what kind of soup he wants is hard enough, so a name/logo reengineering is highly unlikely for these owners, as both their age (average of 70 in all four major sports) and ethnicity (primarily Caucasian) ooze a grandfather-esque tinge.