The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Indian sports mascots don’t just mock Native culture. They erase it.

Inventions like Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo prevent Americans from seeing real human beings who are part of contemporary tribes

The Chief Wahoo logo was retired from the uniforms of the Cleveland Indians in 2018, and as of next season, the team name will be the Guardians. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

When I joined the protest outside the Cleveland baseball stadium on Opening Day in 1999, the stereotyped Chief Wahoo logo, with his fat red cheeks and bucktoothed grin, seemed to be stamped on every surface. Native Americans had been protesting outside the stadium since the 1970s, and the crowd in Wahoo jackets and caps and tall sponge feathers knew to expect them. As they streamed into the stadium, the fans ignored the speeches and the effigy of Wahoo in a coffin burning in an oil drum. The few fans who paused in response to my questions felt confident in their command of the facts: The team had been named after an Indian player, they told me. His name was Sockalexis. They laid the name out precisely, the ace that clinched their win. They assured me the name and logo honored Indians.

Of course, Chief Wahoo never honored anyone. He was an invention of modern sports marketing, a mascot designed to encourage fans to identify with the team, a happy-go-lucky fictional chief of a made-up tribe that welcomed all Cleveland baseball fans as enrolled members. Imaginary Indians, including sports mascots and the warriors of Western movies, are a surprisingly large demographic. They are nearly always male. They are silent, which means that non-Native viewers have the power to decide how they feel, and they never disagree or make demands. They are generically “Indian” rather than belonging to a specific nation or tribe, and they are firmly stuck in the past. Although we wouldn’t expect descendants of European settlers to live in log cabins and wear coonskin hats, popular-culture Indians wear feathers, ride horses and live in tepees.

But what harm could they really do? After all, they are imaginary, and the reaction of most fans to them is overwhelmingly positive. American Indians have long objected. They point out that mythological Indians are a misrepresentation, a kind of media static that prevents other Americans from seeing real Native people as contemporary human beings who live, work and play alongside us and who make important contributions to American society. Mascots trivialize aspects of Native culture, such as feathers and body paint, that are sacred. And of course, through merchandising, mascots enable others to profit from American Indian-themed imagery. Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team announced late last week that its name would be the Guardians, not the Indians, beginning next season, and the team retired the Chief Wahoo logo from its shirts and caps in 2018, but it still sells merchandise with that mascot.

Mascots are a particularly insulting indignity because they underscore the way White America and the U.S. government have devalued, controlled and attempted to eradicate Native cultures. Native people have held on to their languages and cultures through great persistence. They have been both shamed and romanticized. This history is one the rest of us tend to be unaware of; Native Americans object to fans playing at cultural practices like wearing face paint and feathers because the fans have no understanding of these items’ cultural meaning, of how they have been suppressed, or of the sacrifices Native people have made to preserve them.

The fans I interviewed for the book I was writing about mascots saw no connection between the protest outside their stadium and the larger history of White-Native relations, but, frankly, when I set out to understand why sports fans were so deeply attached to these Indian-themed team names and logos, I didn’t understand the connection, either. I knew only what I had learned in a high school American history class. The conflict between Native peoples and European settlers, I had learned, was about land. Indian tribes had been dispossessed of the land they lived on, an undeniable historical injustice. But the long history of the U.S. government’s treatment of Indigenous people is a tale of conflict over both land and culture, a dual history of forced removal and forced assimilation.

The Civilization Fund Act of 1819, for example, called for the active destruction of Native religions. Native Americans know this history because it’s their family history: coerced conversions to Christianity, forced attendance at boarding schools, obligatory spoken English. Their great-grandparents ran away from boarding schools and were kidnapped and returned. To retain parts of their cultures and languages, the core of their tribal identities, Native Americans have paid an extremely high price. The civil rights movement against stereotypes of Native people in sports is just one recent battle in their long history of battles over the right to have the American rights enshrined in the Constitution without having to relinquish American Indian identity.

I certainly did not know, until I learned a more complex and accurate American history, that Native Americans had no religious freedom until 1934. Non-Native young men dressed up in buckskin and feathered headdresses to learn Indian dances at Boy Scout camps, but if caught dancing in their own ceremonies on their own reservations, Native people faced 30 days of imprisonment.

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Like most non-Native Americans, I had read about and was horrified by the massacre of men, women and children in 1890 at Wounded Knee, a massacre that came about in large part because the U.S. government and military wanted to extinguish the religious revival movement called the Ghost Dance. Twenty-three leaders who survived the massacre were paroled out of jail into Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. As paroled performers, these men played a romanticized, dramatized version of themselves for audiences in Europe and the United States. Buffalo Bill assured his audiences that his show was an authentic historical reenactment, a history lesson. Mascot performances, now declining, are descended from this part of the American circus tradition, as are Western movies.

Like the touring circuses and Wild West shows of the past, professional sports is an entertainment industry. When Buffalo Bill came to town, the children in the stands absorbed misleading “history lessons” about bloodthirsty Indians and the settlement of the American West. In the same way, the children in the bleachers of our sports stadiums learn cultural values about who can still be stereotyped in our society.

Because Native people, who form only about 2 percent of our population, are invisible to most of us, these stereotyped representations dominate the way the rest of us see and understand Native people. Psychologist Stephanie Fryberg, who has studied the effects of mascots on Native identity formation, has found that when confronted with mascots, Native high school and college students experienced depressed self-esteem and a more limited sense of their own possible achievement. Her research suggests 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.”

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So many of us never learned about forced assimilation, which is why Native educators and activists find themselves carrying on a one-sided conversation when they try to explain why stereotypes matter, and why mascots and anti-defamation efforts are an important part of the policy platform of the National Congress of American Indians. NCAI, the oldest and most representative organization for Native nations, has commended the Cleveland team for changing its name and for working with and listening to Native representatives.

It is no coincidence that just as we are undertaking the important task of removing distortions of history like Confederate statues and stereotyped, invented Indian chiefs from our national landscape, a powerful and well-funded political movement is trying to block teachers from teaching about racism. This movement leaves us stumbling through the present blindfolded. You can sweep history under the rug and keep it hidden; you can also sugarcoat it to make it more like the history you wish you had. Either way, it sticks around. When we sweep it under the rug, it remains, a lump we keep tripping over. When we sugarcoat it, we get fictional contented enslaved people like Aunt Jemima, statues glorifying treasonous generals who fought to maintain slavery — and mascot chiefs who welcome us to sports stadiums and invite us to join invented tribes. Perhaps removing them, leaving less static in the air, makes space for the more complicated, intriguing and accurate history that is truly ours.