The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Native American sports mascots turned real people into flimsy props. Good riddance to them all.

Cleveland’s baseball team will remain Indians in 2021 before rebranding with a new name in 2022. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

“Before the white man can relate to others, he must forgo the pleasure of defining them,” the great Native American author and historian Vine Deloria Jr. wrote.

The trouble with an Indian mascot is that it does more than just define others, crudely and cheaply. It turns them into petty collectibles, dime-store stuff to be pinned on a wall or worn on a cap, and therefore it makes them less real, less human. The Cleveland baseball team’s decision to drop the name Indians after 105 years of use is a welcome admission that we have to quit this souveniring of people.

It’s not a matter of “cancel culture at work,” either, despite what Donald Trump tweeted. It’s a matter of common decency and sense. The Cleveland organization, like the Washington football club, has finally realized that to mascot-ize people who live, breathe and throb in such rich variety that they comprise 574 sovereign nations doesn’t honor or preserve anything. It does the exact opposite. It erodes and reduces. It diminishes their chronicle into something trite, plasticky stadium sloganeering.

What peddling painted Indians does is make real tribal people into objects, museum relics, quaint caricatures, which you are not bound to respect.

Cleveland’s baseball team will remain Indians in 2021, rebrand with new name in 2022

It means those 400 broken treaties aren’t your concern; they’re just a line in an old textbook as you wave a pennant and wear your old cap with Chief Wahoo on it, that beaked-nose grinning cartoonized face in livid cadmium red. It makes it that much easier for Trump and his allies in the oil and gas industry to lay down the Dakota Access pipeline in violation of the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties, and imperil the drinking water at Standing Rock, because, you know, treaties and sovereign tribal nations don’t really exist anymore, do they? At least, not in any way that should bother captains of industry and sports fans in the suburban Midwest.

That’s the real canceling here. You want to see a culture canceled? Just go to South Dakota. I went, a few years back, to research a book about how a bunch of kids from various tribal nations pioneered the forward pass and invented the game that Trump now knows as American football, after they were forcibly removed to a boarding school named Carlisle in Pennsylvania. I checked into a hotel in Rapid City, S.D., and stopped by the front desk to grab a map and ask for directions to Pine Ridge.

The young man behind the front desk said, “What’s that?”

The Oglala Lakota territory. The place where the Wounded Knee massacre took place. Where Olympian Billy Mills was born, and where renowned leaders such as Red Cloud and American Horse were forced to make homes after they were pushed out of the Black Hills. It’s only about 90 minutes outside of town and is only about 2 million acres of vital American history.

This kind of canceling makes men into phantoms. Jim Thorpe’s masterful 1912 records in the decathlon and pentathlon were canceled by the International Olympic Committee — and still haven’t been restored to their proper status. Thorpe remains a ghost we don’t fully appreciate, a bare outline of a figure. His time of 11.2 seconds in the 100-meter dash wouldn’t be equaled until 1948. His time in the 1,500 meters, 4 minutes 40.1 seconds, wouldn’t be beaten until 1972 — the great Rafer Johnson ran nine seconds slower than Thorpe in 1960.

Yet to this day, Thorpe’s magnificent times and distances are unofficial, and he has to “share” the record book as a “co-medalist” with two inferiors who didn’t come close to touching him, Hugo Wieslander of Sweden and Ferdinand Bie of Norway. All because some Victorian racists wanted to rip the medals off his neck and strike his marks, a lazy Indian who surely must have cheated. They succeeded, and still succeed, because not enough people care to make it right.

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Thorpe came home from those Olympics to lead the Carlisle football team to a 12-1-1 record while running for 1,869 yards on just 191 attempts. For well over a century, college football historians attributed the first forward pass to Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne at Notre Dame in 1913. In fact, Thorpe and his teammates threw and caught the first forward passes in a major game — in 1907. The Carlisle Indian School went 10-1 and stomped the whole country that season, outscoring opponents 267-62 with its novel aerial attack. Against Penn, otherwise undefeated that year, Carlisle threw for 402 yards in front of 23,000 fans in Philadelphia.

Yet they were virtually forgotten, the Notre Dame myth superimposed over them by a cadre of sportswriters more interested in heroic White narratives and false “win one for the Gipper” sentiments — and blind to better, more interesting stories.

This is “cancel culture” for real. What it does is cheapen experiences, gloss over hardships and wrongs, and make the past a matter for shabby merchandising. That’s the insult. And if Donald Trump doesn’t get that, if he continues to insist on his right to co-opt someone else’s story for his tatty, flimsy, faux-Americana civic prop, then the late Deloria has some advice for him. “The white man must learn to stop viewing history as a plot against himself,” he wrote.