The Trail of Teams

The Trail of Teams

journalism by Kamren Gilbard, age 17

“Kill the Redskins!” “Send them down the Trail of Tears!” “Watch your Red-Skinned back.” More consistent with slaughter than sport, these threats erupt during a typical Redskins football game.

Although Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder feels he is honoring Native Americans by associating them with violent imagery, many Native Americans feel that the distortion and commodification of their cultural identity is a form of aggression.

In June 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ignited backlash from the team when it canceled six of the franchise’s federally registered trademarks for being offensive. Although this ruling fails to restrict the commercial use of racial slurs, it has revived attention on the inadvertent subjugation of ethnic minorities and the definition of racism in today’s society.

Dr. Stephanie Fryburg, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, warned in a recent report titled “Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Teams on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth” that turning culture into commodity promotes factionalism and perpetuates destructive stereotypes.

“American Indian mascots are harmful not only because they are often negative, but because they remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them. This, in turn, restricts the number of ways American Indians can see themselves,” Fryburg warned.

Within that report, The Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan organization, criticizes schools with Native American mascots for fostering “racial microaggression” by transforming “learning environments into hostile environments.”

Last year, there were 62 high schools in 22 states using the Redskins name, according to a project published by the University of Maryland. “Missing the Point” authors Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips believe native appropriations terrorize American Indians, whitewashing the problems that indigenous communities grapple with daily, such as poverty, extreme health disparities, gross education inequalities and high suicide rates. According to Stegman and Philips’ analysis, these mascots’ abuse of native traditions breeds long-lasting animosity.

During an interview with Stegman and Phillips, Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a Miwok student football player in California, described how easily school spirit can turn into mob mentality.

“Our cheerleaders dressed up one of our own [students] in a Halloween ‘Pokeahottie’ [Pocahontas] costume and tied her to a stake after dragging her out on the field in shackles against her will,” Brown explained. “They proceeded to dance around her, acting as if they were beating her and treating her like a slave. This is the most sickening halftime show I’ve ever witnessed.”

Besides bleeding into campus politics, the Redskins controversy is amplified in Arizona. In early October, the Cardinals-Redskins game in Glendale set the stage for conflict between team executives and native protesters. About 100 Native Americans from tribes across Arizona gathered to protest. San Francisco and Minneapolis have also hosted protests.

Snyder tried to mitigate negative attention by inviting Native Americans for a free tailgate. Among the attendees were students from Red Mesa High School on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Unlike most Native Americans, students from Red Mesa don’t see Redskin as an insult, and Snyder’s generous donations to the school have helped reinforce this way of thinking.

“I don’t know what [they] mean that it’s a racial slur,” Red Mesa junior Mckenzie Lameman said during an interview with Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira. “It’s not a racist slur if it originates from a Native American tribe. It’s always used in the context of sports.”

The National Annenburg Election Survey of 2004 found that 90 percent of individuals who identify themselves as American Indian do not consider the team’s name offensive. However, the survey only questioned 768 people, which is a mere fraction of the two million Native Americans enrolled in nationally tribes and 3.2 million who independently identify themselves as American Indian. Saying that less than one percent of Native Americans tolerate the perversion of their culture is not saying much.

North Dakota Sioux, Eunice Davidson, also fails to see the negative connotation of Redskin and eagerly supports Snyder’s refusal to change the name, saying, “I would stand with [Synder]. We don’t want our history to be forgotten,” Davidson declared during a CBS News interview. The term Redskin does originate from indigenous peoples, but it refers to the bloody, scalped head of a Native American sold for cash.

While delivering a speech at the rally, prominent anti-Redskins activist Amanda Blackhorse acknowledged that, while the Redskins may not have intended to be offensive, their cultural misrepresentation cripples indigenous communities. “That is not our culture. That is their culture, their culture of racism,” Blackhouse declared.

Despite overwhelming outrage from the general public, Snyder remains firm in his decision to use aspects of Native American culture.

“A Redskin is a football player. A Redskin is our fans. The Washington Redskins fan base represents honor, represents respect, represents pride,” Snyder refuted during a heated discussion on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”

The Native American community has erupted in anger over Snyder’s lack of cooperation, arguing that he is more concerned with protecting the team’s traditions than actual people. On the online forum, “Native Appropriations,” several tribes started a petition titled “Natives Against Redsk*ns.” With over 5,000 signatures, the petition questions how and why references to genocide and stereotypes “honor” Native Americans.

This pervasive issue runs deep in the veins of the general public, and its implications reach far beyond the football field.

From 1967-1971, the Frito Chips mascot was Frito Bandito, an armed Mexican con man who spoke broken English and robbed innocent bystanders. In the 1960s, Pillsbury created a brand called Funny Face Drinks, featuring flavors like Injun Orange and Chinese Cherry. In the 1940s, a popular toothpaste companies was called Darkie Toothpaste and has remained prominent in China, where its name directly translates to “Black People Toothpaste.” Following the American tradition of cultural commodification, Ralph Lauren recently released a holiday ad campaign blazoning pictures of Native Americans from the 1800s who were exhorted by the government’s volatile, violent policies to abandon their culture and assimilate to the reigning standards of acceptable behavior. Lauren’s use of the Americanization of indigenous communities as a marketing ploy is an egregious embrace of the inequalities that plague Native American communities all over the country, highlighting the cultural insensitivity upon which this nation was built.

The United States appears to have a history of taking advantage of ethnic minorities for economic gain, particularly with the settlement of this nation. Between usurping land from natives and prolonging the institution of slavery, individuals are hardly alien to this racial stratification. However, The Cleveland Indians, The Chicago Blackhawks, The Washington Redskins and other teams do not intend to be insensitive, do not offend all Native Americans and even donate to reservations.

While Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians mascot, can take off his costume after the game, racism is a problem that Native Americans will unfortunately continue to face, regardless of what they are wearing.

2015 Scholastic Writing Awards Gold Key, American Voices nominee

Works Consulted

“How Many Native Americans Think ‘Redskins’ Is a Slur?” CBS News. 8 Oct. 2013. Web.

LeTrent, Sarah. “Ralph Lauren Apologizes for Native American Ads.” CNN. 19 Dec. 2014. Web.

Levine, Sam. “Senator To Introduce Legislation To Revoke NFL’s Tax Breaks Over Washington Football Team Name.” The Huffington Post. 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

“Natives Against Redsk*ns.” Native Appropriations. 23 June 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

Shapira, Ian. “In Arizona, a Navajo High School Emerges as a Defender of the Washington Redskins.” The Washington Post. 26 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Stegman, Erik, and Victoria Phillips. “Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth.” (2014): 33.AmericanProgress.org. Center for American Progress. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Taube, Aaron, and Katie Richards. “15 Racist Brand Mascots And Logos

That Make The Redskins Look Progressive.” Business Insider. 19 June 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Terkel, Amanda. “How Washington’s Football Team Creates A Hostile Environment For Native American Students.” The Huffington Post. 22 July 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

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