Outside the Washington Redskins, it’s really not the names.
The Redskins are a special case. Many natives consider the name a racial slur. (Its origin is to tie the team into the Boston Red Sox, when the team moved to Fenway Park in 1933, before moving to Washington.)
Their original owner, George Preston Marshall, didn’t have a black player until 1962. It only happened then because the federal government threatened to terminate the team’s lease on DC (later RFK) Stadium. (Marshall’s statue was removed from outside RFK last month.)
If you spent time in the DC area when from the early 70s until the mid-90s, you couldn’t get away from the Redskins. In a city that turned over a quarter of its population each year, the story goes, the Redskins gave residents something in common.
The brand took on a life of its own as the Redskins became a DC institution. For sports fans who spent time there, the name almost became separate from what it represented. Redskins stopped being a pejorative for Native Americans and became the football team. And that’s part of the problem. Aside from being a slur, the slur–along with the imagery–became a commodity.
If you watched a Redskins-Cowboys game, you’d be sure to see the unofficial mascots, Whistling Ray and Chief Zee. Chief Zee’s actual name was Zema Williams and he started attending games in 1978, wearing an Indian costume and a headdress.
That’s where the Redskins join other teams. For me, it’s not calling the teams Chiefs, Braves, Indians, or Blackhawks. It’s the fans, like Chief Zee, who adorn themselves in headdresses. Although Chief Zee didn’t do that, many also used warpaint.
Headdresses and warpaint are considered sacred in many native nations. They’re something elders earn via service and leadership. There are spiritual components associated with them as well. For someone outside the nation to wear them is an insult to those who have earned them.
For a team-sanctioned mascot to wear them and jump around in a mock war dance after a team scored is the equivalent of a Saints’ mascot jumping around the Superdome with a foam scepter and pretend to baptize people with holy water when the Saints score.
With the Blackhawks, the issue is more nuanced. According to a recent article in The Athletic (subscription required and recommended), the team has worked with local native groups to try to foster an appreciation of the culture.
The team formerly had a close relationship with the American Indian Center (AIC), a local Native American community center. The team’s website includes a history of Black Hawk, the native leader the team is ostensibly named for. The team has also worked with local tribes to present authentic performances and try to educate fans. In general, the relationship seems to be working–the article says fans generally stay away from native garb at the games.
But the AIC, under new leadership, has changed position. They believe that native names and imagery are inappropriate, period. In addition, younger members of the native nations in the Chicago area, are more likely to oppose any native imagery or names.
Florida State has a special case, too. Although the NCAA has pushed against native imagery and nicknames, the school has the Seminole nation’s blessing and input. When you see an FSU student ride out onto the field and thrust a flaming spear into the ground, the nation has okayed that.
Even that’s not clear cut, as another larger Seminole nation, this one in Oklahoma, has gone on record as opposing all native imagery and nicknames. They cite studies that show a relationship between the imagery and naming and mental and emotion issues among native children.
The naming isn’t the issue. It’s the cartoonish and disrespectful conduct among fans that come with the names. Frankly, decent people don’t show up loaded to a game and jump around like idiots wearing items that are considered sacred by other culture.
As much as I value tradition in sports, though I won’t push for these naming changes, I won’t oppose them, either.