My American Lit class semi-recently picked up the text There There by Tommy Orange (review pending). The prologue of the book lays the historical foundation for a novel following several Native American characters as they gradually drift towards converging at The Big Oakland Powwow.
A section inside the prologue discussed our brutal history with Natives, particularly the common practice for early settlers to decapitate or remove limbs from Indigenous Americans, and carry them around like trophies. There’s some masterful writing here I won’t even attempt to replicate but the juxtaposition that Orange poses is powerful; the idea of keeping heads like souvenirs and the iconography of Natives on sports uniforms–or as some of you might just remember–the Indian head test pattern.
“We have all the logos and mascots…our heads are on flags, jerseys and coins.”Orange, page 7
This sparked a rather interesting class discussion about people being mascots in general. In recent years you can find any number of articles about a cultural reckoning taking place in suburban high schools across the country. Sports teams named the Chiefs, Redskins, Mohawks, or simply just Indians exist in alarming numbers. This phenomenon is so extensive that there’s a hefty Wikipedia article dedicated to sports teams and mascots derived from Native tribes or cultures, not just within high schools but professional teams across the US.
Of course if you follow sports at all you’ve likely heard of the Washington Football Team’s historic name change from the Washington Redskins. The name is so lazy that it’s passive aggressive, as if “Fine…we’ll change our racist name. But don’t expect us to come up with a new one”. The whole controversy makes me wonder why Chicago’s own Blackhawks have managed to escape the levels of outcry that Washington fell under.
Personally, I think having a person–or group of people–as a mascot is weird. Weird to say the least. You’re directing a sports team named after real people to face off against animals and inanimate objects. The difference between sports fans yelling about “The Indians suck!” or “The Dolphins are awful” feels very apparent. The fan culture might be to buy plushies or merchandise of the opposing team and burn it or tear it apart, but the association of Native culture with sports teams encourages violence and animosity towards real symbols of Indigenous people.
This exercise is going to sound weird, but bear with me. Pick a racial or ethnic identity–any one. Name a sports team after them. What would the jerseys and merchandise look like? What would the mascot look like…what clothes would it wear? Pretty quickly you’re going to realize that there’s absolutely no way to represent a culture through a sports team without stereotyping, or generalizing, or offending. The Kansas City White Dudes would absolutely never fly, so why do we tolerate the reduction of other groups to be the figurehead for a sports team? There is no one way to be any specific identity, and to minimize these cultures and reduce them to the clothes of a mascot continues to perpetuate misinformation and stigma.
So I implore you to think critically about Native representation in our modern day. Overpower the easy choice to discount the Native voice because it appears to be a comparatively small one. Simply be aware of how Indigenous Americans feel about their culture being tokenized as a mascot. That no person deserves to have heritage and ancestry reduced in this way. As a country we have tried many times to snuff out Native culture, and that makes misrepresentations and generalizations like this all the more dangerous.