• History
  • Sports

The Deep History—and Troubling Impact—of Sports Teams Using Native American Mascots

11 minute read

On Monday, Washington, D.C.’s NFL team announced that it would be retiring its logo and changing its name. Though the news came just 10 days after the team announced a “thorough review” of its name, it follows years of criticism of a name that has been widely recognized as a slur against Native Americans. In 2013, Dan Snyder, the team owner, had vowed to keep the name as it was, and stuck by his vows until now, despite the urging of Native American activists as well as sportscasters’ and media outlets’ decisions to stop using the term.

“Today, we are announcing we will be retiring the Redskins name and logo upon completion of this review,” the team said in a statement. “Dan Snyder and Coach Rivera are working closely to develop a new name and design approach that will enhance the standing of our proud, tradition rich franchise and inspire our sponsors, fans and community for the next 100 years.”

But while the Washington team’s situation has stood out for evoking a slur and not just a stereotype, the team has never been alone: More than 2,000 high schools use Native American imagery, according to Mascot DB, and that larger context has also been criticized by activists.

Adrienne Keene — a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and faculty member at Brown University’s American Studies and Ethnic Studies department, who is also the author of the Native Appropriations blog and a co-host of the All My Relations podcast — spoke to TIME about the history of Native American mascots and imagery.

TIME: The push to change the Washington NFL team’s name and logo has been going on for many decades. Why do you think the change is happening now?

KEENE: I think what we are seeing now is the culmination of generations and decades of work by Indigenous activists, scholars and community members, coupled with the incredible momentum and organizing around Black Lives Matter for the current moment. That combination created that final push that we needed to get over the precipice and finally convince the team to change the name.

So many U.S. athletic teams have Native American mascots. Why was that idea so appealing to the sports world in the first place?

This idea of Native people as mascots or the idea of “playing Indian” and dressing up like a Native person is something that goes back to the very founding of what is currently known as the United States. Philip Deloria, who wrote Playing Indian, talks about this phenomenon as something that the early settlers and the colonists were searching for—an identity that was distinct to this land and this place—because they were trying to be not British.

Even with the Boston Tea Party or some of these early events in our U.S. history, folks dressed up like Native people in those moments, so this idea is deeply tied to this place and is really hard to disentangle in terms of people wanting to identify with the land that they are occupying, and associating Native people with ideas of being wild and free and unbridled by the bounds of modern society. This is something that people hold on to really tightly because they see it as foundational to their identity, whether they think about it consciously or not.

How did the use of these mascots spread and become so ubiquitous to the point where we see them in country clubs, public schools and everyday products?

The American fascination with “the Indian”—not even Indigenous people, not Native peoples—as this very stereotypical, abstracted idea, is something that carries out into products and sports teams, and it becomes just ubiquitous. The National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. had a really incredible exhibit that showed the vast number of places that these stereotypical images show up. And it’s been from the beginning. Some of the earliest images of the Americas were etchings of people’s imaginings of American Indians, and then some of the earliest universities and colleges in the U.S. were founded as places to educate and assimilate Native young people, so places like Dartmouth and William and Mary… their mascots were Indians because that is the origin of their institution. These ideas are so hard to disentangle from the history of our country, but it’s really this fascination with what Native came to stand in to be.

In terms of what Native stands for, you’ve written misrepresentations like these mascots and names don’t just reinforce but actually further the stereotypes. How does that work?

The way that we think about sports and competition, in particular, feeds into the ideas of savagery and of warrior stereotypes. The images themselves get reproduced on all of the merchandise, the advertising and the products that go along with the team name. Because of that, the stereotypes become even more ingrained in American culture.

Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter

Beyond sports, what’s the impact of these misrepresentations?

The images are harmful, not just because they misrepresent Native people and paint us in stereotypical ways, but there’s actual empirical research that shows these images are harmful to Native youth. Stephanie Fryberg, who is an incredible scholar, did the first empirical study on the psychological consequences of professional sports teams using American Indian mascots and looked at the ways that being exposed to the images affected self-esteem and community worth and a few other measures for Native youth. And in those circumstances, even for images that we deem as “good images,” such as Pocahontas, measures of self-esteem still go markedly down. What was even more interesting to me, and in some ways more dangerous, is that in another set of studies examining the impact of American Indian mascots on European Americans, the self-esteem of white subjects went up.

Dan Snyder, the D.C. team owner, has said that the name represents “honor, respect and pride.” What does your research say about that idea and what can history tell us about this?

I would be honored and respected as a Native person if our treaties were honored, if our sovereignty was recognized, if our lands were taken back into Indigenous hands. Those are the type of things that honor me as a Native person, not a stereotypical image combined with a racial slur. I think what happens is that when Native youth or Native people are looking at these images, even if they’re not a wild-eyed, grinning caricature, it limits the possibilities of what they can see for themselves and reflects what broader society thinks of them as a Native person. So it doesn’t matter if it is an “honorable” image or representation, it still is limiting. It still is a stereotype, and it still is problematic.

For this name change to be meaningful, what do you think needs to happen next?

There needs to be a move to eliminate the uses of the image and the name in all areas into the future. I went to Stanford University as an undergrad, and we used to have an Indian mascot until the 1970s, and it was changed due to Native student activism on campus. One thing I’ve always appreciated about the university is that they unilaterally said from the time that the change happened that there was no more sanctioned use of the Indian mascot. And so whenever things would bubble up or people would try to revive it, the administration would come out and say “No, we don’t use that anymore.” And that’s the type of leadership that needs to happen because fans are not going to let go of this easily. There needs to be some sort of unilateral statement of why this change happened, acknowledging the harm of the image rather than framing this as solely a kind of economic response to the sponsors. I think it needs to be the start of a chain reaction among all of the other professional sports, college sports, high-school sports and elementary-school sports that still use Indian mascots.

The broader conversation needs to tie back to the ongoing challenges that Native communities are facing and how these images contribute to that. I don’t want to just be talking about representations for the rest of my life and career. I want to be talking about our land and water rights, about our treaty rights, about education in our communities, about nation building, about all of these things, and I see these images as a barrier to that. So, I hope that the broader conversation can change from just trying to tear down the images to the why and what’s next.

Given that the team in question is based in D.C., what does the naming say about the relationship between policymakers and Indigenous cultures?

When you’re in D.C., you are surrounded by that image and the team name. It’s on packages of potato chips in the grocery stores, it’s on packages of paper towels, it’s on billboards, it’s on the side of cars, it’s everywhere. D.C. is where our legislators live, work and interact, and so I always think about the fact that the person who is going to be voting on a bill for Indigenous water rights or to stop a pipeline or whatever it is, they’re not thinking of Native people as the living, vibrant, contemporary Indigenous communities that we are, they’re thinking about that image on the bag of potato chips.

Some people have argued that the word isn’t actually a slur. Why do you think there is debate surrounding this?

That’s always frustrating to me because there’s not really much debate among Native people that the word itself is a slur, and I have never seen it used to refer to a contemporary Native person in a positive way. There’s no case that I know of where the team has talked about the opposition to the name and referred to us as R-words and said “those ‘R-words’ are really pushing to change the name” or “there are groups of ‘R-words’ who are fighting the mascot.” There’s an inherent knowing that it is an inappropriate term to refer to Indigenous people. To me, as one opinion and as one Native person, I’m not super concerned with whether or not it’s a dictionary-defined racial slur or where it first was used. I know how it’s used today, and I know how it feels to be referred to by that in emails or in comments on blogs.

The Navajo Nation responded to the D.C. team’s announcement, saying that the team could rename to the “Code Talkers” as a way “to honor the Navajo Code Talkers, and other tribal nations who used their sacred language to help win World War II” and be “on a path to restoring its reputation and correcting the historical misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples.” What effects do you think this could have?

My preference, again as one Indigenous person, is to move away from any Native imagery at all. What we see very often with Indian mascots is that it’s not necessarily the harms of the fans of the team itself, it’s a lot of times the harms of the opposing teams’ fans. With schools that do this, students come to their opponents’ campus, and they make signs that say “scalp the Indians” or “hey Indians, get ready to leave in a Trail of Tears round two,” and other very harmful and derogatory statements. For better or worse, that’s how competition in sports happens. You have pride for your team, and you try to diminish or tear down the opponent, so the thought of having Navajo Code Talkers in that role really scares me. I think that’s something for the Navajo people to decide, but I do think that the harms of the opposing team are something to think about in rebranding as a more honorable, realistic or important Native mascot.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Anna Purna Kambhampaty at Anna.kambhampaty@time.com