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Chief Offenders

The Washington Redskins just won the pro-football jackpot. No, not the Super Bowl. The team has gone home with the highest bidder for a record-breaking $800 million, the top price ever paid for a commercial sports franchise.


Left: Five years ago, the Minnesota-based National Conference for Community Justice helped underscore with this poster why the misuse of Native American names and symbols in sports was offensive. Below Right: Activist Michael Haney brandishes a fist during this year's annual protest of the Cleveland Indians' use of the mascot known as Chief Wahoo, which they burned in effigy on a city street. Photo by Mary Annette Pember.
The team made other big news this year, also off the field and involving lots of cash. A federal panel of judges decided April 2 to cancel trademarks for the team's name, long despised by Native Americans.

Marketing the "r-word" on jerseys, mugs and anything that doesn't move means mega-millions in profits split by the team's owners and the National Football League. Until the April ruling, they could keep anyone from selling merchandise with their name and logos, and were protected by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

The trademark board was petitioned in 1992 by a Native coalition to end federal protection for the Washington team's name. The nearly seven years of litigation were "extremely contentious," as the three-judge panel found.

The judges decided to end federal protections "on the grounds that the subject marks may disparage Native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute" under a provision of trademark law that forbids licensing of offensive material.

NFL spokesmen said the name "honors" Native Americans and that the decision would be appealed. The loss of federal protections could devalue the name and make it unprofitable to keep.
A pocketbook-incentive lawsuit, while a circuitous route, is the only course of action that has had any impact to date in the commercial sports arena. This may hail a new era in professional sports, where there has been fierce resistance to become more culturally sensitive.

In educational sports, tempers flare and blood pressure soars, but nearly 1,000 schools have put aside their Native-related team monikers and images since 1970 and entered the modern era with non-offensive ones. This is the backdrop for the struggles in pro sports.

The First Victory-Little Red

Once upon a campus, the University of Oklahoma, known in sports circles as Big Red, had a mascot, Little Red. Garishly clad white boys revved up the crowd with "war chants" and "Indian dances"-mainly woo-woo-woo yells and acrobatic leaps-g-stringed OU breechcloth flapping in the breeze.

Big Red fans loved Little Red. Native students loathed him. They demanded that OU banish "the war-whooping idiot who misrepresents American Indians."

It was the Sixties. The passion for dignity and equal treatment was palpable. The civil rights movement stressed self-image, self-description, pride. Blacks were demanding an end to "Sambo's," the outdated "Negroes" and the "n-word." Chicanos were moving in on "Frito Bandito." Asian-Americans were ducking stinging words used against the enemy in Vietnam. Women were telling men to stop calling them "girls."

And, Native Americans were doing something about racism in sports. The support of other minorities and whites with a human rights commitment increased the numbers of protesters to a critical mass to be reckoned with.

In a misguided appeasement attempt, OU chose Indians to play Little Red. Each one was used as the prime example of divided Native opinion on the mascot. In 1969, Native students intensified their demands, formed a chapter of the National Indian Youth Council on the Norman campus and were branded as "militants."

 


From red to orange: Syracuse University's mascot has gone through major changes over the last 50 years, from the Saltine Warrior (left), which depicted a fictional Onondaga chief to a Trojan warrior to Otto the Orange. The Trojan Warrior was a stopgap after the university responded to objections raised by Native American students and community members. Photos courtesy of Syracuse University.
That year's Little Red, Ron Benally (Navajo), stunned the mascot's boosters when he sat out the big Thanksgiving game, saying he would not dance if other Native students opposed it. Fans chanted, "Be Good Sports, Keep Little Red."

 

"It is irrelevant what non-Indian students think about keeping Little Red," said the Indian students' petition to the OU president. "The essential issue is whether OU will support a stereotype...that is abusive and insensitive to American Indian identities and cultures."

In 1970, after a Native sit-in at the president's office, the school's human relations committee called for the "total abolishment of Little Red.... Perhaps for the first time since statehood, Oklahomans have the proposition forcefully thrown up to them that being Indian is being a certain kind of human being and not an object of entertainment."

Little Red was history.

Changing Names, Changing Society

About 3,000 U.S. schools used Native names and images in their athletics programs thirty years ago. Nearly one-third have scrapped them. The movement to end stereotyping of Native Americans in sports is now a societal trend, but it still happens campus by campus.

Encouraged by the victory in the heartland, Native students in the East and West stepped up their efforts to end stereotyping in sports. The 42-year-old Indians were traded for the Cardinal at Stanford University in northern California and joined the ranks of Little Red in 1973. Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, ended the half-century run of the Indian in 1974, for Big Green.
Syracuse University's symbol was the next to fall. It began as a joke in 1931, when a student rag described the unearthing of fictitious artifacts, including a "portrait of an early Onondaga chief, O-gee-ke-da Ho-achen-ga-da, the saltine warrior Big Chief Bill Orange."

Citizens of Onondaga Nation, six miles away, were not amused by the hoax, but the school embraced the Saltine Warrior.
"There was the Army mule, Navy goat, Georgia bulldog and Syracuse Indian," said Oren Lyons, an Onondaga faithkeeper who played lacrosse under the Saltine Warrior emblem. "We were subhumans in sports." Syracuse consigned its 45-year-old symbol to the archives in 1975. In its place they chose to honor a fruit and school color, the Orange.

The "S-Word"-Victory over Vulgarity

St. Bonaventure University is in upstate New York, not far from Seneca Nation. For most of its athletics history, men were the Brown Indian and women the Brown Squaw. In 1975, Seneca clanmothers and a chief informed the players and faculty that "squaw" meant "vagina" in certain Iroquoian and Algonquian languages. Brown Squaw was retired, quickly and quietly.

Twenty years later, Brown Indian was swapped for Bonafanatic.

This year, Erwin High School near Asheville, North Carolina, got rid of Squaws as its girls' team name. Acting on a parent's complaint, the Justice Department's office of civil rights queried the county school board about the team names, sending some locals into a tailspin over "government word police telling us what we can call our teams." The school board dropped Squaws, Eastern Cherokee leaders let Warriors stand and Justice bowed out.

"The good news is that the 's-word' is eliminated," said Monroe Gilmour, coordinator of a coalition to end bigotry. "The bad news is that (Justice) cut us off at the knees. . .and (Cherokee leadership) approved (Warriors) as OK and honorable."

The "R-word" and Other Slurs

 


Left: Protestors unfurl their objections to the University of Illinois mascot Chief Illiniwek, pictured right. Left photo by Christine Jones. Right photo courtesy of University of Illinois.
In a crowded field, the "red-Indian" references are stand-out slurs, and the "r-word" is the worst. Several schools have dropped them with little prompting or fanfare. Brainerd Community College in Minnesota went from Red Raiders to Raiders in 1989. St. John's University in Jamaica, New York, ended its half-century tradition in 1994, changing Redmen to Red Storm. Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma, replaced Redskins with Crimson Storm in 1998.

The effort extends to the high schools. Little River in Kansas ditched Redskins in 1992, and the Redskins were dumped in Arvada, Colorado, in 1993.

In Louisville, Kentucky, the Seneca Redskins' symbol was cartoonist Al Capp's grotesque caricature, Lonesome E. Polecat. The school's defense was that Capp had given them the right to the image. The last hold-out in its county, the high school recently surrendered both name and symbol in favor of Red Hawks.

Miami tribal leaders in Oklahoma once backed the Redskins at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The Miami Tribe requested discontinuation of the name in 1996, stating that "society changes, and what was intended to be a tribute is no longer perceived as positive." University trustees immediately voted the name out, "as a sign of respect and to preserve Miami's long-standing relationship with the tribe." Its team is now the RedHawks.

Statewide and Regional Strategies

The growing movement toward comprehensive regional actions was sparked in Minneapolis by Phil St. John (Sioux) and the concerned Native parents group he founded in 1987. The city declared that schools statewide should abandon sports names or mascots that stereotype Native Americans.

Within a year, Minnesota and Michigan urged statewide elimination of racially derogatory symbology. Nebraska, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Dallas, Texas, soon followed suit, and New York is investigating the matter. The Los Angeles County school district decided to stop using Native names and motifs in their schools in 1997. The decision was challenged in federal court on free-speech grounds, but the mascots' fans lost last year.

To celebrate their victories in California, the Machamer family and their statewide coalition organized the first national conference on the subject, entitled "People, Not Mascots," at UC-Santa Barbara in 1997. "We've been effective because we are educators," said Amber Machamer (Chumash), a Ph.D. candidate whose parents are teachers. "We're just going school by school until we finish the job."

Continuing Controversies

Despite the victories, nearly 2,000 school athletic programs-including North Dakota's Fighting Sioux, Illinois' Chief Illiniwek and Florida State's Seminoles and Osceola mascot-continue their offenses. So do such sports businesses as the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians and their Chief Wahoo mascot, Atlanta Braves and their tomahawk chop, and the Kansas City Chiefs and their Sacred Ground end zone.

Efforts to end race-based mockery in sports exist in most states. Some are calm and reasoned; others are heated and rife with racial epithets. After a century of offenses and three decades of victories, most Americans are aware of anti-Native racism in sports and want to end it.