When other kids visited Cherokee, North Carolina, their parents bought them rubber tomahawks and leather moccasins. Their day’s activities included getting a photo made with the “chief” standing next to a teepee on a street corner. When I visited Cherokee, my parents would have none of this. That so-called chief wasn’t wearing Cherokee clothing, and Cherokees didn’t live in teepees. We went to the Oconaluftee living history village or the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, followed by a trip to Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual. My parents showed me newspapers still being printed in the Cherokee language. On special occasions, we went to see President Andrew Jackson betray treaties in the “Unto These Hills” outdoor drama. My parents made a real effort, however imperfect, to show me a real, living people with their own history, language, cultural heritage, government, lives, and hopes.
They were resisting a powerful current. American culture is brimming with mish-mashed, two-dimensional, demeaning, and offensive portrayals of Native Americans, and sports mascots are among the worst.
Regardless what they might say, non-Indian schools and other sports teams are not honoring Indian peoples and cultures by turning them into crude caricatures. We cannot pretend that whooping mascots with absurdly red skin waving tomahawks are holistic and realistic representations of Native Americans. These schools, sports teams, and their fans (not to mention the media and advertisers) are not respecting Indians as living, self-defining, and self-determining persons. Even when they do not employ repulsive epithets like “redskins” they are objectifying and dehumanizing Indians, appropriating and exploiting cultural and often sacred images for their own entertainment, propagating and perpetuating misinformed and humiliating stereotypes that damage both the way other people view Indians and the way Indians see themselves. (Studies have shown that Indian mascots are especially damaging to the self-esteem of Native American children.)
It is simply absurd for white people to insist that these images are not offensive while ignoring, dismissing, and overruling the majority of actual Native Americans. Even in those rare cases where a tribe has granted permission to use a name, plenty of tribal members and related tribes disagree with the permission.
No appeal to longstanding tradition and pretense of respect can be used to defend this practice. This 2002 article by Suzan Shown Harjo illustrates the point well:
On Crossfire, [Illinois alum Robert] Novak echoed other Illinois fans when he claimed, “There was no intention to have these Indian nicknames offensive. We have a tremendous war dance by Chief Illiniwek. Isn’t this part of the deep American tradition of respect for the fighting qualities of the Indians who gave the white people such a hard time on the battlefield?”
That “respect” came about as Native Peoples were being subjected to the slow torture of confinement, starvation and deculturization. That period exactly brackets the emergence of the Fighting Illini and Chief Illiniwek at the Illinois University.
The Illini showed up in 1874 as the name of the school paper, which is a dignified and respectful way to use a name. It gradually became the name of the team, which subjects a name to indignities and disrespect, at the very least from the opposing fans. At that same time in history, Army officers and Smithsonian “scientists” were collecting Indian heads from graves and massacre sites, and otherwise showing “respect” for Indian people.
Chief Illiniwek started dancing at half-time in 1926, when federal Indian agents were punishing Indians for dancing on reservations. The federal government specifically banned the Sun Dance “and all other similar dances and so-called religious ceremonies” from 1880 to 1936. Interior secretaries and Indian commissioners ordered federal Indian agents to undertake a “careful propaganda” to “educate public opinion against the dance.”
Federal notices were posted prominently on reservations, warning that Indians would be treated as “hostiles” if they danced.
One [of these notices], in 1921, reiterated the prohibitions and penalties regarding “any dance which involves … the reckless giving away of property … frequent or prolonged periods of celebration … in fact any disorderly or plainly excessive performance that promotes superstitious cruelty, licentiousness, idleness, danger to health, and shiftless indifference to family welfare.”
…While Indian people were outlaws for the federal crime of Indian dancing, white guys in educational and professional sports arenas were dressing up like Halloween “Indians” and dancing the fool.
Chief Illiniwek has since been retired, but racist mascots have not.
I invite readers to watch this video at RetireTheChief.Org.