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.
So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when half a century later, a Los Angeles Times editorial about legislators in North Dakota struggling over whether the University of North Dakota should be forced to change its team name and mascot from the Fighting Sioux provoked such a strong reaction. It was an irritant, like a long-forgotten piece of shrapnel working its way to the surface.
Most stories about sports teams and their ethnic mascots are treated like tempests in a teacup. The Times' editorial writer, however, while noting that the solons probably had better things to do, understood the sensitivity and pain that can accompany such a seemingly trivial subject. It is a small matter, perhaps, but far from trivial.
Many of the fights over team names and mascots cover familiar territory. Usually the team name in question has been around so long as to lose a good bit of its meaning. The University of Illinois' Fighting Illini, for example, refers to an Indian nation, but now that its Chief Illiniwek mascot has been abandoned, few people make the connection. Nor do they think twice about what the Atlanta Braves or Edmonton Eskimos or Florida State Seminoles represent other than sports franchises. But that doesn't necessarily make the brands benign. And the irony that the football team in our nation's capital is called the Redskins is not lost on a single Native American.
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.
When I went to an Atlanta Braves game in the 1970s, the Braves name wasn't the biggest problem. It was that cringe-worthy Chief Noc-A-Homa who came stomping and war-dancing his way out of a tepee in center field every time the Braves hit a home run that got to me. He was dressed in a Plains Indian chief's eagle bonnet and acted like a village idiot. To their credit, the Braves retired Chief Noc-A-Homa and his girlfriend Princess Win-A-Lot in 1983, amid assertions by the Brave's home office that the protesters were over-dramatizing the issue.
Few people complain about Florida State University calling itself the Seminoles. But its war-painted and lance-threatening mascot Chief Osceola is intended to be menacing, and that's the take-away many children will have. Such casual stereotyping can breed callousness. In the "only good Indian" category, in 1999 the New York Post entitled an editorial about the pending New York-Cleveland baseball playoffs, "Take the Tribe and Scalp 'Em."
It isn't easy or inexpensive to remove ethnic and racial stereotypes from college and professional sports. When Stanford University changed from the Indians to the Cardinal in 1972, recriminations were bitter. Richard Lyman, a friend of mine, was president of Stanford at the time. He said the university lost millions of alumni dollars in the short run, but it was the right thing to do.
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.
Jack Shakely is president emeritus of the California Community Foundation and former chairman of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission.