Appropriation of Indigenous Culture in Sports

Appropriation of Indigenous Culture in Sports

Angela Chien, Staff Writer

The Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Braves. What do these names have in common? Besides being professional sports teams under their respective leagues and organizations, they also appropriate Indigenous culture by using Native American mascots and traditions as part of their branding.

Across the country, Indigenous groups have demanded professional sports teams revise their use of Native American names and imagery for decades. Utilizing Native American mascots in American football began in 1926, when the assistant band director of the University of Illinois, Ray Dvarak, thought of performing a Native American dance during its halftime show. Their symbol “Chief Illinewek” ran onto the field while performing a lively dance, and proceeded to smoke a peace pipe with “William Penn.” The crowd soared with positive reactions, marking the beginning of the normalization of using Native American imagery as mascots.

The exploitation of Native American culture for sports team mascots is more detrimental than it “honors and celebrates” American Indians. For example, the Washington Football Team was previously known as the Washington Redskins. “Redskins,” a racial slur, referred to the bounty hunters who were paid by the numbers of Native Americans they skinned and killed; yet, the name was defended by fans and the team’s owner, Dan Snyder. Such behavior perpetuates and normalizes racism against Native Americans, and in effect, emphasizes the blanket dehumanization of Native Americans: they are no more than face paint and headgear with feathers.

“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVERyou can use caps,” Synder said in a 2013 USA Today interview when asked about the matter.

It wasn’t until July 2020 that the Washington Football Team released a statement about the retirement of its previous name.

Appropriation of underprivileged and marginalized cultures poses negative psychological, social, and cultural consequences through misrepresentation (for example, the Chiefs’ “tomahawk chop,” a team custom copied from Native American traditions) and offensive stereotypes. A research paper by Robert and Hope Longwell-Grice of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee stated that the equipment used by fans and cheerleaders are essentially “bastardization[s] of traditional and sacred practices,” trivializing the spiritual nature of their symbols and instruments, which prevents historical and cultural comprehension of Native Americans.

Furthermore, it minimizes and strips away the historical impacts of the United States government on Native Americans, who were forced through genocide, racially-motivated violence, and segregation. Even today, Indigenous groups still have to endure little to no federal and state support as the government has limited their access to resources. In the 2018 U.S. Census, Native Americans ranked first as the minority group with the highest poverty rate at 25%.

Activists are pushing for more sports teams and professional franchises to get rid of their racially-stereotyped mascots. Suzan Shown Harjo, an activist of Cheyenne and Creek ancestry, has pursued protests and lawsuits to ban the use of Native nicknames and imagery in sports, voicing that such exploitation and misappropriation needs to be discontinued immediately. According to Sports Illustrated, the Washington Football Team was put on the line when investors pushed its sponsors (Nike, FedEx, and PepsiCo) to terminate their contract unless it changed its name, proving the effectiveness of corporate pressure.

Aside from changing their names, professional sport teams have yet to apologize to Native Americans for misappropriating their identity. Nonetheless, sport fans can push for the removal of inappropriate depictions by building an understanding of Native American culture and history. It is important to hold these multi-million dollar franchises accountable, for they have a huge impact on the fans and media representations of Native Americans.


Photo courtesy of ADL.ORG