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It’s time to stop using Native team names and mascots, period

Studies show images negatively affect self-esteem of Native children, and the rest of us, too

Chief Wahoo once led my mom to turn down a good job in Cleveland.

When I was a little brown, long-haired Native boy at Duck’s Nest, a preschool in Oakland, California, so free-form they didn’t even teach us the alphabet, my mom got a job offer at KeyBank in Cleveland.

This was before she smacked her spunky New Yorker head into the glass ceiling. It was a good job — a step up, in fact — and KeyBank was a good bank to work for. It had a diversity program, nothing to celebrate nowadays, but notable back in the ’90s. About a decade or so after offering my mom a job, it became the first top-20 bank in the United States to appoint a woman as CEO.

Julian Brave NoiseCat (left) and his mother (right) circa 1995.

Julian Brave NoiseCat

That sort of workplace culture, the kind that becomes obvious when you see who’s across the table interviewing you, mattered to my mom, even though she’s white, because she was never part of corporate America’s pasty boys club, and, well, she had me. For all those reasons, she remembers wanting to say yes. KeyBank even sent her a welcome basket full of corporate gift-baskety things: a mug, some pens, a map. My mom didn’t know much about sports, but that’s when she saw it for the first time: a sticker bearing the grinning, bright red, hooknosed face of the Cleveland Indians baseball team’s mascot, Chief Wahoo.

It’s time for a change

On Monday, after a review that began just 10 days before, the Washington NFL franchise announced it will change its name and logo. The team’s former name, “Redskins,” which some Native journalists consider too offensive to publish, is widely considered a racial slur by historians, linguists and Native people. The term refers to stereotypes about how Indigenous people look and, much more troubling: the scalps taken as bounty from Native people on the colonial frontier.

The news marks the most significant victory yet in the decadeslong Indigenous-led fight to remove Native team names and mascots from sports. So far, that campaign has removed more than 2,000 such references, which were once ubiquitous in American culture. The National Congress of American Indians, more or less the Indigenous equivalent to the NAACP, counts fewer than 1,000 Native mascots remaining in the United States today. Since the civil rights era, no professional teams have adopted names or emblems that stereotype Indigenous people. In 2005, the NCAA established a program to remove Native mascots from college sports. In 2018, the Indians ditched Chief Wahoo. And earlier this month, they announced that, like the Washington NFL team, they are considering a name change. You see, the problem was always much bigger than the Washington football team.

A growing body of research has shown that Native team names, logos and mascots are harmful to Native people, and particularly Native children. A 2016 study in The Journal of Social Psychology found that when people with prejudiced attitudes are exposed to Native mascots, they view Native people as more stereotypically aggressive — a pattern that indicates that the mascots facilitate racial bias against actual Native people. It’s a finding that shouldn’t surprise you, if like me you’ve had unfortunate run-ins with drunken fans war whooping or performing the tomahawk chop. Another study published just this year in Social Psychological and Personality Science surveyed 1,021 Native Americans and found — wait for it — that Native people generally oppose Native mascots and that individuals who identified more strongly with their Native identity were more likely to do so. Perhaps most troubling, a 2010 paper in Basic and Applied Social Psychology found that some of the most ubiquitous images of Native Americans — mascots such as Chief Wahoo but also Disney characters such as Pocahontas — depressed Native students’ self-esteem and sense of community worth, leading them to believe that what they could achieve in society was limited by their race. Many similar studies have found that pervasive negative stereotypes have equally troubling impacts on Black children.

“We suggest that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves,” said Stephanie Fryberg, a professor at the University of Washington and a member of the Tulalip tribe, summarizing her co-authors’ research.

None of this research had been published when my mom got the KeyBank job offer, but the findings would have been unsurprising to her then. “I was mortified,” she recalled of her first encounter with that Chief Wahoo sticker. “I was just starting to see a little kid’s consciousness and your identity and how you see the world around you. I was scared of the situation where that was the hometown team and it would be ridiculing your race.”

Protests said decades ago

Mom used to work for newspapers. She reached out to her friend and former colleague, Fran, who worked on the production side of the city paper, The Plain Dealer. She wanted to write a heartfelt op-ed or letter to the editor about her predicament. Fran told her she agreed the name was horrendous, but admitted The Plain Dealer editors would never publish that piece. Dick Jacobs, the Indians’ owner at the time, was a Cleveland hero: a real estate developer who was leading an urban renewal in the city and a series of championship runs on the baseball diamond that, back then, bore his family’s name.

Native Americans had long protested the Indians’ name and mascot — demonstrators even burned Wahoo in effigy in 1997 and 1999. So it wasn’t like this was an unknown issue. But Fran said the subject was off-limits, even for the paper. As with all things concerning Native people in this country, there was a cone of silence.

Jerseys with Chief Wahoo are displayed in the team shop on July 3, 2019, in Cleveland. While Major League Baseball and the Indians mutually agreed in 2018 to completely remove the image from team jerseys and caps, as well as banners and signage in the ballpark starting that season, when Cleveland hosted the All-Star Game for the sixth time, the red-faced, toothy caricature remained omnipresent across town.

AP Photo/Tony Dejak

Mom turned down the job on the grounds that she couldn’t raise a Native child in a city with a baseball team called the Indians, whose mascot was Chief Wahoo. KeyBank, to its credit, said it understood. It even came back around with another offer a few years later, but Mom’s response was the same.

“As a parent who prioritized the emotional and psychological well-being of her child, when I had an option not to live in Cleveland, I didn’t because it seemed that damaging,” she told me when I called to ask her about it Monday. “It was obvious to me.”

After I hung up the phone, I thought about all the Native children in cities, college towns and burgs across the country where the hometown team — maybe even the one they’ll play for when they get to high school — is some variation of Indians or Redskins or Chiefs or Braves or Blackhawks. And then I thought about the big opportunity my mom passed up so that I didn’t have to be one of them. Most parents of Native kids don’t even have the privilege to make that kind of decision.

“Hey,” I texted mom a few hours later that night, “you ever regret not taking that job?”

She replied with one word, only the way a parent who was sure of their decision could: “No.”

Julian Brave NoiseCat is a correspondent for Real America with Jorge Ramos, contributing editor at Canadian Geographic and freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, The Paris Review and many other publications. A proud member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen, he resides in Washington, D.C.