American Indian mascots

Jack Shakely, a distant relative of mine who is of part Creek-Indian descent, wrote a few years ago on the issue of American Indian mascots in sports:

I got my first lesson in Indians portrayed as sports team mascots in the early 1950s when my father took me to a Cleveland Indians-New York Yankees game. Dad gave me money to buy a baseball cap, and I was conflicted. I loved the Yankees, primarily because fellow Oklahoman Mickey Mantle had just come up and was being touted as rookie of the year. But being mixed-blood Muscogee/Creek, I felt a (misplaced) loyalty to the Indians. So I bought the Cleveland cap with the famous Chief Wahoo logo on it.

When we got back to Oklahoma, my mother took one look at the cap with its leering, big-nosed, buck-toothed redskin caricature just above the brim, jerked it off my head and threw it in the trash. She had been fighting against Indian stereotypes all her life, and I had just worn one home. I was only 10 years old, but the look of betrayal in my Creek mother’s eyes is seared in my memory forever. …

The controversy over changing ethnocentric mascot names is not a simple matter of stodgy white alums holding onto college memories. Indians, too, are conflicted. In a 2002 study on the subject, Sports Illustrated reported that 84% of Native Americans polled had no problem with Indian team names or mascots. Although the methods used by the magazine to reach these figures were later criticized, that misses the point. If 16% of a population finds something offensive, that should be enough to signal deep concern. There are many things in this country that are subject to majority rule; dignity and respect are not among them.

And it is dignity and respect we are talking about. Since the creation of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media in 1991, that group of Native American organizations has been protesting negative portrayals of Indians, hammering away at what’s behind our discomfort with Indian sports mascots. Many of these mascots — maybe most of them — act like fools or savage cutthroats. …

In 21st century America, to name a sports team after an African American, Asian or any other ethnic group is unthinkable. So why are Native Americans still fair game? As benign as monikers like Fighting Sioux and Redskins or mascots like Chief Osceola may seem, they should take their place with the Pekin, Ill., Chinks and the Atlanta Black Crackers in the dust bin of history. It is the right thing to do.

I’ve never met Jack in person, and only corresponded very lightly over email. He has been a major force in California in particular as president of the California Community Foundation and in a variety of civic roles. His opinion is one I pay special attention to as a distant relative, and obviously in this case as part American Indian.

Yet I can’t help but feel that his op-ed here lacks an important dimension to this topic, which is the possibility of American Indians simply being personified, rather than stereotyped. The personification of American Indians in honorific statuary is common in places across the country—in fruitful, positive, healthy, culturally elevating and nourishing ways. We personify all sorts of people, of course. It’s a way we underscore those who mean the most to us, so the next generation can learn their stories and example.

This shouldn’t be a binary debate. We’re not forced with choosing either (a) demean a particular person or group through stereotype or (b) never personify a particular person or group. There’s obviously an enormous middle ground, and it often seems to be missing when discussing this issue.

Unless every sports team on every level is going to become some variation of a tree, flower, or animal, I think we can properly and appropriately personify American Indians in ways that honor them, just as much as we continue to do so for historical constituencies like Vikings, Trojans, Spartans, Crusaders, etc.

We should be thinking of new peoples and groups and legendary figures to personify and in so doing to honor, and not risk washing away the cultural memory of our distinctive national diversities.