Sports Imagery

Indian imagery used by athletic teams references both the Noble and Ignoble Indian. Beginning in the early 20th century, high school, college and university, and professional sports teams used “Indian” names, mascots, and logos on everything from clothing to mugs to toilet paper. A national movement led by Indian activists began in 1989, with the goal of ending the use of Indian imagery by athletic teams. As of 2000, about 600 schools in the United States still used American Indian team names (Braves, Warriors, Chiefs, Squaws, Indians) and mascots. In Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, however, this imagery was gradually retired for the most part. Most colleges and universities dropped this imagery—including Miami University in Ohio, the University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, and University of Eastern Michigan. In 2006, the National Collegiate Athletic Association banned the use of Indian mascots during postseason tournaments without tribal consent. The University of Illinois refused to retire “Chief Illiniwek” until 2007.


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Still, the owners of professional teams balked, arguing that these were privately-owned businesses. In 1999 the federal Trademarks Trial and Appeals Board ruled that the Washington Redskins could not use “Redskins” as a trademark because it disparaged Native Americans, that is, the team organization could not profit from items sold with the logo. They retained the name “Redskins.” In the Midwest, protests have focused on “Chief Wahoo,” logo of the Cleveland “Indians.”

Sports imagery emphasizes “Indians” of the past, especially Plains Indians—the buffalo-hunting groups that attacked Colonel George Custer and U. S. soldiers in the late 19th century. “Indians” often are caricatures with big noses. Their clothing suggests 19th century Plains style garb, including feathered headdresses. They carry objects associated with the past. As symbols of Ignoble Indians, they have tomahawks and face paint and they “whoop”—all associations with warfare against White pioneers. As mascots, however, they are no longer a threat and the warrior’s bravery can be appropriated by team players. As Noble Savages, they may carry pipes, and they appear in a helpful role, that is, they are helping the team win.

These mascots and logos have their supporters. Sports fans resist efforts by Native American activists to retire this Indian imagery. Proponents of the continued use of Indian imagery argue that the views of the “majority” should prevail, and Indians represent a small minority in the United States. Proponents maintain that the Indian imagery “honors,” rather than insults Indians, and those who insist otherwise are “kooks” or “radicals.” Sports mascots, in their view, also help build support for teams (“team spirit”).

The opponents argue that this Indian symbolism reinforces stereotypes that dehumanize Native people by validating inappropriate, inaccurate, and harmful representations. They point out that the use of sacred symbols, such as feathers or pipes, is sacrilegious, and the use of political symbols, such as chieftainship, trivializes a position that had to be earned. Opponents of Indian imagery in sports also argue that it harms contemporary Native people by emphasizing the past instead of their present role in society and by treating them disrespectfully in a public way. They explain that psychologists and educators have found that those stereotypes hurt Native children’s self-esteem. Opponents also point to the fact that violent crimes against Native Americans are two and a half times the national average and that 60 percent of these crimes are perpetuated against Native Americans by White Americans. They see a connection between crime and disrespect.

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