The last several weeks have seen countless discussions on the appropriateness of the Washington Redskins’ name and logo; after a thorough review, the team finally decided to change them.
The decision came after years of pressure and with the issue reemerging several times, often in response to broader conversations about race in American society.
While the debate has seen national coverage amidst the overall turbulence of the year 2020, this kind of change is not unprecedented, nor is it restricted to the national scale.
Professional sports have seen related changes, such as the Cleveland Indians switching their “Chief Wahoo” logo with a simplistic block C design after their 2018 season, and the Atlanta Braves discussing axing the notorious “Tomahawk Chop” in response to the renewed Redskins controversy.
Yet many colleges and high schools still retain their team names and questionable depictions of Native Americans in their logos, such as nearby Clinton Community Schools in Lenawee County, Michigan.
Others have had earlier attempts to axe their references to Native Americans in their school image, one of which being our very own Eastern Michigan University.
My wishful thinking is that the names and logos would have been changed earlier than 2020 - that the issue bubbled up in the 1970’s and 1990’s to a degree that more institutions took action. But absent a solidified legal course of action, these changes have mostly been driven by inconsistent community activism.
The same issue often takes different forms as it’s considered in universities, high schools, and professional sports teams which differ in geography and culture. The same arguments always arise between those pushing for change and those holding onto tradition. They are discussed amidst a backdrop of complicated, often uncovered, indigenous American history.
History Behind Native American Mascotting
"These stereotypes perpetuated because the idealized parts of Native American history became conflated with a sense of school pride and identity, making it difficult to address the ahistorical and racist origins of mascotization without institutional loyals believing their own identity was being stripped away."
Oftentimes the mascotization of North American Indians portrays them as relics of a bygone era and as ferocious and warlike. The depictions are often one-dimensional and oversimplified, with officials and team members often explaining away valid criticism by suggesting they are honoring Natives’ strength and nobility or that the mascot is simply a character and shouldn’t be held to complete historical accuracy.
It’s important to address why Native Americans were subject to mascotization in the first place, and how these mascots have evolved in American culture.
The original American imagination suggested that Natives were savages and that their aggressive response to American settlers encroaching on their land was excessively warlike. They used this depiction to guiltlessly justify pushing them off their land. When individual tribes were pushed off their land and forced to go elsewhere, they often encroached on other tribes’ territory, sparking intertribal conflict. Much of natives’ “warlike behavior,” then, was more a result of white settler encroachment than that of their tribal nature.
When Americans decided to pay tribute to Indians, it was often in reference to their supposed ferocity and willingness to fight to the death; these traits were seen as noble, especially in the context of athleticism.
Most mascotization occurred in the 1920s-1930s, following a surge of sympathetic, yet still stereotypical depictions of Native Americans in popular media beginning around the turn of the century. Indigenous characters were often put into sidekick roles and honored for their stoicism and natural athleticism, and these notions of what the generic Indian was contributed to the selling of commercial products including Indian depictions, such as chewing tobacco and cleaning products.
These notions also gave rise the naming of athletic teams, with universities desiring that their students and athletes embody those stereotypical traits of “good Indians.” Many college teams adopted their Indian mascots in this era when these nostalgic yet ahistorical notions of Native Americans were being popularized, including our own Eastern Michigan University with their former nickname and mascot, the Hurons.
These stereotypes perpetuated because the idealized parts of Native American history became conflated with a sense of school pride and identity, making it difficult to address the ahistorical and racist origins of mascotization without institutional loyals believing their own identity was being stripped away.
History of Activism in Replacing Indian Names and Mascots
There have been several surges to replace controversial Indian names and mascots; one in the late 1960’s through the early 1970’s, one in the late 1980’s through the early 1990’s, and one in the late 2000’s through the 2010’s and into 2020. Most of these surges were in response to active investigations by notable Native American activist groups, state Civil Rights departments issuing decisions on the matter, trademark challenges, and periods of marked racial unrest.
Notable actions in the late 1960s through the 1970s are the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) beginning a campaign to address native stereotypes found in sports and media, as well as Stanford’s decision to change their nickname and mascot from the “Indians” to “Cardinals.”
Through the late 1980s into the early 1990s, Departments of Education and Civil Rights in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota issued judgments on the usage of Native American nomenclature and imagery, allowing many schools to decide for themselves in response whether to take action; many high schools and colleges in Michigan and Wisconsin opted to make the change, including Eastern Michigan University. In 1993, Big Ten teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin also opted not to play any teams outside of their conference that used such nicknames and symbols (mostly applying to the Florida State Seminoles, though, interestingly, not the Fighting Illini at Illinois with their controversial Chief Illiniwek mascot, who were in their same conference). There were also several trademark law (disparagement clause) rulings and an Office of Civil Rights investigation which found that these offensive names did not constitute illegal discrimination, hinting at how Education Departments would balance free speech, and commercial speech, rights with the issue. This ultimately highlighted the complications of going through legal channels, like trademark and public accommodations law, to address Native American mascotting.
The 2000s-2010s also showed contrasting progress and hindrances on the issue, including more trademark rulings, the re-emergence of the EMU Hurons symbol on their marching band uniforms (alongside the original Michigan State Normal College Normalites symbol), and the decision by the Cleveland Indians to retire their Chief Wahoo logo. Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois was also retired during this time period.
In many cases, the decisions to change team names and mascots were followed by impassioned resistance efforts, often tied to the constructed identity by fans and university alumni mentioned previously. Such is the case with Eastern Michigan University, which has a vocal alumni chapter dedicated to “Huron Restoration” (While these Huron Restoration Records are currently housed in Halle Library, I was unable to gain access to them for this article due to Covid-19 restrictions).
As someone raised in Ohio as a Cleveland sports fan, I have heard many arguments first hand related to a constructed identity in the team and its various logos/symbols/mascots, and defended the usage of Chief Wahoo myself before I really thought critically about the caricature. Overall, I believe the removal of the names and logos doesn’t do nearly as much damage to fans as is done to Native American populations by having them in the first place.
Impact of Stereotyping and Mascotting on Native Tribes
"While I believe that it extends far beyond the issue of mascotization and delves into what brought rise to mascotization in the first place, removing the most egregious depictions of Native Americans in name and symbol isn’t a terrible step to make."
Often a retort to attempts at coming to a consensus on this issue is that there are “more important things” to address in Native American communities. Much of what is referred to are economic problems, alcoholism, and other societal issues plaguing various tribes.
Many suggest, however, that these issues are a result of the subjugation of Native Americans to a less-than-citizen status, and that societal depictions of their communities and the stigma that they bring are somewhat to blame.
While I believe that it extends far beyond the issue of mascotization and delves into what brought rise to mascotization in the first place, removing the most egregious depictions of Native Americans in name and symbol isn’t a terrible step to make. Fan bases and communities can still construct an identity around whatever new names and logos are created; such is the case with the University of Illinois, most fans just wanting to move past the controversy. This may be the same with EMU Hurons-to-Eagles fans, though we have no data at this time to prove as such.
Moving Forward and Acting Locally
"Nobody is doing the work that needs to happen in those small towns because everybody leaves."
While the recent decision by Daniel Snyder and the Washington Redskins to finally change their name is noteworthy, activism on this issue must also take a local character to address the many high schools and universities who still use the “Redskins” moniker. I believe the sense of urgency to remove the “Redskins” name and racist logos such as Chief Wahoo is greater than, say, removing geographically-specific references to Native Americans in team names such as the Central Michigan University Chippewas. That said, I would not personally be opposed to their removal in the foreseeable future.
I spoke to Lindsey Brown, a student of political science, about this dynamic and about her activism to remove the “Redskins” name from her own alma mater, Clinton High School, a school roughly 30 minutes away from Ypsilanti.
Brown created a Change.org petition, followed by a Facebook page, to advocate for her former school’s name and logo after attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Ypsilanti on June 20, where a speaker told the crowd “It is incredible that you guys are in Ypsi doing this work and that you want to be a part of the activist movements in Ypsilanti, but a lot of people come to Ypsi from small towns. Nobody is doing the work that needs to happen in those small towns because everybody leaves.” She then decided that she was willing and able to make change in her small town.
Her activism has garnered significant attention from the community, spurring the creation of a counter-petition, coverage in MLive, and an effort at Clinton to examine use of the “Redskins” name. This is something that, as a white woman and as someone who willingly left the community, she feels conflicted about, as a similar 2008 effort by Indigenous students Elspeth and Kylista Geiger was shut down and laughed off.
Brown argues that “the [Clinton] community is so desensitized to racism,” also pointing to a recent controversy involving a football player using racial slurs and receiving considerable lenience from the school and coaches. “This community is so desensitized to slurs that when someone says the N-word, the reaction is [a passive] ‘hey, don’t do that.’”
We also discussed some of the arguments against changing mascots, like a perceived slippery slope. When discussing how changing the names and symbols of teams may expand beyond sports into such things as city and landmark names, Brown says that these names “portray history better because they don’t force people to pretend to know Native American culture like mascots do,” as some pushback she has received to her petition have been arguments that “Redskins are a tribe” or “the nickname wasn’t intended to offend, therefore it doesn’t.”
Many of these kinds of retorts come from a distorted understanding of Native American history, treating Native Americans as some historical bygone race rather than real people with distinct cultures. If Central Michigan wants to keep their distinctive Chippewa name, and if Eastern Michigan University had wanted to keep the Hurons, supposedly in order to honor and commemorate the tribes, understanding of the tribes themselves are an integral part of that. A real interest in their history and heritage is a part of that. For example, how many people actually know Huron-Wyandotte history? I can admit that I wasn’t well read-up on the issue until I researched it for this article.
I understand the notion that removing these names impacts a shared institutional identity, that those supporting Huron Restoration at EMU and those defending the Clinton mascot felt or feel it to be part of themselves, but identities evolve, and so should depictions of Native Americans as 21st-century honorable, intelligent people with agency and a wide array of opinions rather than ferocious warriors frozen in time.