August 30, 2013

In the 1930s, the good people of Pekin, Ill., decided they needed a mascot for their high school sports teams. Pekin was named for Peking (now Beijing), China, so they gave their teams a related nickname: the Chinks . At the start of every basketball game, a Chink and Chinklette — that is, a boy and girl dressed in Chinese attire — would walk into the center of the court and bow.

As the start of the NFL season draws near, I’ve got a question for you: How is the Chink any worse than the Redskin, the feather-clad mascot of Washington’s pro football franchise?

It isn’t. The only difference is that the Redskin purports to be American Indian, not Chinese. And unlike any other ethnic group, Native Americans remain fair game for bigotry on game day.

The long-standing controversy over the Redskins’ nickname flared anew this year when D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) suggested that the name could become an issue if the team wished to move into the District from its current home in suburban Maryland.

The Redskins’ response was simple: Forget about it. “We’ll never change the name,” owner Daniel Snyder said. “Never — you can use caps.” On its Web site, the team posted a link to a list of more than 70 high schools in 25 states that still use the mascot.

But all that proved is that Native American mascots have staying power, which we knew already. The real question is why — and what it says about the rest of us.

Most Indian mascots date to the early 20th century, when white Americans worried that modern industrial life was eroding traditional masculine virtues: strength, stoicism and aggression. So college and professional sports teams named themselves after Native Americans, who seemed to embody precisely the qualities that white men had forsaken.

At the same time, though, the mascots also confirmed whites’ sense of superiority. With their headdresses and beads, their tomahawks and war whoops, the Indian mascots seemed like throwbacks.

Consider Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois mascot who made his first appearance at a 1926 football game with the University of Pennsylvania. A white guy in feathers, Chief Illiniwek performed an “Indian” dance and then shared a peace pipe with a drum major playing William Penn, the opponents’ mascot.

But Illiniwek was a warrior at heart. The second man to play him traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where he bought new regalia for the chief from “an old Indian woman” who had allegedly helped mutilate George Custer after the battle of Little Bighorn.

“It was . . . appropriate that Chief Illiniwek, the embodiment of the Red Men who had vanished before the overwhelming waves of White Men, should return to the land of their fathers,” a University of Illinois booster wrote in 1952. “It was proper and pleasing that the Chief should strut his stuff and perform his ancient ritualistic dances . . . before the packed Stadium of contemporary Palefaces.”

There was only one problem: Chief Illiniwek never existed. Nor did Florida State’s Chief Fullabull or Marquette’s Willie Wampum. They were figments of the white imagination, bearing no connection or resemblance to actual Indians.

That’s why Native Americans in the 1960s and 1970s protested Indian mascots at colleges and high schools. Since then, about 1,500 mascots have been altered or dropped. Marquette’s Willie Wampum was replaced by the Golden Eagle, and the University of Illinois retired the Chief Illiniwek mascot (but still use the name Fighting Illini).

But in the professional sports world, Native American mascots are still going strong. Fans of the Atlanta Braves still engage in the “tomahawk chop,” even after Jane Fonda — the owner’s wife at the time — pledged to give it up. (News cameras showed her doing it several nights later.) The Cleveland Indians retain their hideous cartoon logo, Chief Wahoo. The Chicago Blackhawks wear a profile of a Native American on their jerseys.

And the nation’s capital is still home to the Redskins, the most offensive mascot of all. The term dates to the colonial era, when bounties were offered for killing Native Americans. Bounty hunters presented bloody skins and scalps as evidence of an Indian kill.

But don’t tell that to the owners of Washington’s football team or to its rabid fans, many of whom have vowed to stand by their mascot. So did many people in Pekin, where students staged a walkout in 1980 to protest the replacement of the Chink with a new symbol: the Dragon.

“Pekin Chinks, Dragon Stinks,” one protester’s sign read. “Chinks is Tradition,” said another. But it was a hateful tradition, just like Indian mascots, manufactured by whites to caricature others. We made the Redskin, so we can unmake him as well. Let’s hope we find the courage to do so.

The writer, who teaches history and education at New York University, grew up in Chevy Chase. He still roots for Washington’s professional football team.