Aboriginal Stereotypes in Sports: Intentions gone horribly wrong?
“What is the problem with naming sports teams and mascots after Aboriginal people?” Is a refrain that is often heard throughout North America. Aboriginal is the term used in Canada to describe First Nations (Indians), Metis (People of Indian & European blood), and Inuit (Eskimo). As the struggle to rid the North American sports lexicon of racist, stereotypical images and nicknames of Aboriginal people increases, so does the backlash to that struggle. With the recent ruling by the NCAA to ban such nicknames (NCAA, 2005, ¶12), there remains much hope for Aboriginal people to be properly represented by institutions of higher learning, and society in general. However, the backlash remains stronger than ever for such a change, with one example being Florida governor, Jeb Bush, who has vehemently spoken out in opposition to the NCAA ban, even claiming that the Seminole tribe of Florida is opposed to the NCAA ruling (AP, 2005, ¶3). Bush’s actions speak volumes to the marginalization that allows the stereotype of Aboriginal people to continue.
This article will examine why Aboriginal stereotyping persists in sports. It will examine the background to the problem, highlight relevant research findings, state factors that give rise to stereotyping, look at who is doing the stereotyping, and finally, what can be done about stereotyping that currently exists in sports. The goal of this article is to further highlight the need for change in the minds of those who feel that racist nicknames, images, and rites of passage are intended to bring honor to others, without realizing they are reinforcing negative practices that demean an entire race.
What is the Problem?
The central theme of this controversy is of a dominant culture asserting its authority over a sub-dominant culture all in the name of honoring the sub-dominant culture through the continued use of racist logos, nicknames, and rites of passage. Professional leagues, colleges, and high schools have the authority to make necessary changes if they want to, but as their action or non-action shows, most have chosen to keep the status quo, and in turn, are condoning racist actions towards Aboriginal people. The continued use of Aboriginal stereotypes in sports demeans Aboriginal people, makes them appear as subhuman, and at the same time marginalizes many of the other issues that Aboriginal people face in their continued struggle against colonialism.
In their book entitled “The Color of Democracy-Racism in Canadian Society” Frances Henry and Carol Tater define racism as an ideology “that organizes, preserves, and perpetuates the power structures in a society. It creates and preserves a system of dominance based on race and is communicated and reproduced through agencies of socialization and cultural transmission, such as the mass media, schools and universities, religious doctrines, symbols and images, art, music and literature” (pg. 16).
This ideology falls in line with what is happening in regards to Aboriginal stereotyping in sports. The dominant group creates the immoral situation (racist logos) then determines the solution to that situation (NCAA rulings), as long as it retains the status quo that was created by the dominant group in the first place. Rulings such as the recent NCAA ruling against the University of North Dakota (NCAA Upholds ban on Fighting Sioux, April 28, 2006) should be held in the same light as Brown Vs. The Board of Education, but neither government nor the general public feel the issue is worth standing up for, or paying attention to.
There has been much written about the different types of racism, but the one that comes to mind on this issue is known as aversive racism, which is when one believes in equality and freedom for all people, but is not aware of their own prejudice or they actively avoid confrontation with minorities and act polite when they do come into contact (Henry, Tator, 2006, 21). Wolfe & Spencer (1996) theorized: “Although people may consciously hold egalitarian views, they often have feelings, beliefs, and stereotypes that were ingrained by a racist system and are perpetuated by some aspects of contemporary (in this case, sports) culture.” (pg. 179).
Most people are by nature aversive in their racist actions when it comes to stereotypical mascots and nicknames. To avoid being seen as racist, they rely on the tired excuse that this is not a question about racism, but about tradition and political correctness, and by playing the mascot game on their own terms, they avert contact with the very people who are the most affected by this issue.
In terms of specific examples of these stereotypes, there are hundreds that can be explored, but for the purposes of this paper, we shall give a few examples that are glaring in their racist overtones. The first of these has to be the logo of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, which has been described as “a buck-toothed, big-nosed caricature of a Native American (Heffern, 2005, ¶1). King (2004), describes the Cleveland mascot, Chief Wahoo, as a Pseudo-Indian mascot, that is anti-Indian and appears on caps, jerseys, and jackets worn by fans, found in media coverage about the team, and populating the publicity materials produced by Major League Baseball Inc. (p. 4). It is interesting to note that the New York Times continues to use the image of Chief Wahoo, while it once disallowed Spike Lee’s original satirical cartoon image of an offensive watermelon-eating “pickaninny”, in an advertisement for one of Lee’s movies (Strong, 2004, pg. 80).
The University of North Dakota has the Fighting Sioux, which has been the school’s nickname since it was changed from the Flickertails in the early 1930s (Tovares, 2002, pg. 82). The logo was chosen by the school after many alumni favored the design, including wealthy alumnus, Ralph Engelstad (Black Issues in Higher Education, 2001, ¶11). The Fighting Sioux logo contains images of eagle feathers, which are considered sacred by some tribes, and the logo is imbedded into the floor of the Ralph Engelstad Hockey Arena much like a doormat. Many Aboriginal people see this use of the logo as sacrilegious, as eagle feathers are never supposed to touch the ground, let alone be walked upon literally or symbolically (Borzi, 2005, ¶ 4).
The University of Illinois has its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, who dresses in buckskin regalia, paints his face orange and blue, and does dances at many sporting events to the delight of most fans (Wills, 2005, pg. 29). Farnell (2004) has pointed out that although the student who portrays Illiniwek receives the approval of the Illinois tribe, the dance is based more on white perceptions of Aboriginal dances than the actual dance performed traditionally by the Illinois (pg. 32). Parnell also notes that the regalia worn by Chief Illiniwek are that of a plains person (Lakota) rather than anything historically worn by the Illinois tribe (pg. 32). Chief Illiniwek’s patronizing image is more the creation of Hollywood than it is of the Illinois people.
The Atlanta Braves baseball team may not have a racist logo and their team name is not overtly offensive, but Braves fan have a rite of passage that is as equally demeaning and offensive as the buck-toothed Wahoo. The fans of the Atlanta Braves use the “Tomahawk Chop”, accompanied by a chant to intimidate opposing teams (Hatfield, 2000, ¶1). The chant is usually performed along with music playing throughout the stadium, which sounds very reminiscent of the types of music you would hear in a John Wayne movie as the evil savage Indians surrounded innocent white settlers. Braves fans adopted this practice, first dreamed up by Florida State University fans in the early 1980’s, during the summer of 1991 (Konrad, 1991, ¶2).
There are far too many examples to list here. Currently, there are six pro sports teams that use Aboriginal images in their logos or nicknames: Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves; the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Golden State Warriors; the National Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins; and NHL-Chicago Blackhawks. Eighteen schools remain on the NCAA list of schools that continue to use offensive logos or nicknames (Weekly Reader, Oct. 7, 2005, ¶6). Amazingly enough, there are over 1000 educational institutes (100 college teams and 1000 high school teams), that continue to use Aboriginal images in their logos or nicknames (Native American Mascots Big Issue in College Sports, May 9, 2001, ¶8). This is a prevalent problem based on numbers alone, when one realizes that over 1000 schools have already retired their logos and mascots (Strong 2004, pg. 81)
Background to the problem
Sports logos and nicknames are not supposed to be racist, and by their nature they are supposed to be representative of a team’s history, geographic location, expected characteristics of its players, or to honor the past. Some team names are derived from historical events, some team names are derived from animals which represent images of animals that are fast or ferocious. Some logos represent powerful forces of nature and some names are derived from cultures or races such as the Notre Dame Fighting’ Irish, or the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings, of course, pay homage to the Nordic immigrants who vastly populated the Midwest region of the United States, while the Fighting’ Irish was a nickname chosen by Irish students attending Notre Dame (King, Staurowsky, Baca, Davis, Pewewardy, 2002, pg. 388).
As mentioned above, the University of North Dakota was once known as the Flickertails long before they were to become the Fighting Sioux in 1930 (Tovares, 2002, pg. 82). Before they became the Indians in 1915, the Cleveland baseball team was known as the Naps after former player Napoleon Lajoie (Staurowsky, 2001, pg. 94.). Chief Illiniwek’s fancy dances were decided upon by students in 1926 (Farnell, 2004, pg.33). Tovares (pg. 81), makes an interesting point about how UND had supposedly made the decision in 1930 to “honor” a people it hardly allowed on campus and who only 50 years earlier were hunted down and killed like dogs by people who were now supposed to be honoring them.
As one can see from the examples listed above that a great deal of the controversies that are prevalent today had their roots in a time when things were much different in terms of racial awareness or even the proliferation of basic human rights. The historical origin of the problem of these racist stereotypes is rooted in a time in history when Aboriginal people were not being honored by neither the country that at one time was rightfully theirs, nor the general public who often viewed them as a “problem” (Staurowsky, 2004, pg. 13). King (2004) has noted that these mascots can be interpreted as misappropriations and misinterpretations rooted in antiquated, fictitious, and racist if often romantic notions of Indianness, and that historically, conditions existed in such a way that Native American mascots embody the paradoxical legacies associated with the Euro-American conquest of North America (pg. 4). These mascots are stuck in a time that historically has past, but the images remain to stereotype future generations of Aboriginal people.
Relevant Research Findings
A great deal of research on this topic has focused on the historical context behind the current situation. Writers such as Tovares (2002), and Farnell (2004), give great detailed research into a specific mascot (UND’s Fighting Sioux and Chief Illiniwek respectively), and the origin of such nicknames. They along with Staurowsky (2001), bring into question the notion that such mascots are intended to honor Aboriginal people. This type of research allows the general public the opportunity to understand the racist origins of many of the logos and nicknames that schools and teams have chosen, and the continued struggle to have such logos and nicknames banned from further use. They also show how reluctant people are to change such logos and nicknames.
King (2004), Springwood (2004), and Staurowsky (2004), have deconstructed many of the arguments that are put forth by those who support the ongoing use of Aboriginal images in nicknames and logos. Springwood has looked at the argument that many Aboriginal people support the use of such logos, but King brings into question whether or not many whites have constructed their Aboriginal identity to suit their political needs. King has looked at how many create a pseudo-Indian image to perpetuate the offensive images currently in use. Staurowsky looks at Cohen’s philosophy of Aboriginal rights and his notion of “transcendental nonsense’ as it relates to racist logos and nicknames.
Factors That Give Rise to Stereotyping
One factor that allows the continued use of such imagery is the perceived financial loss that would be suffered by the teams who would be so brave as to retire their racist logos. Sports, at the college and pro level, receive a significant amount of revenue through sales of these racist logos, through the selling of these images on all sorts of souvenirs, or Sioux-venirs as they are called at UND (David, 2001, ¶4). Some teams and supporters display counterfeit Aboriginal paraphernalia, including foam tomahawks, feathers, face paints, and symbolic drums and pipes (Heffern, 2005, ¶4). Konrad (1991) showed how entrepreneur, Paul Braddy, was able to quit his $60,000/year job (¶4) and begin to sell foam tomahawks to Atlanta Braves fans who of course, use them in what has become a disgusting ritual known as the “tomahawk chop”. Braddy has received quite a bit of revenue from these sales as he estimated he sold about 200,000 tomahawks in this first year, at $3 per tomahawk (¶5).
At the college level, much revenue for sports teams is generated through donations from alumni or booster clubs that provide much needed revenue that is not given by the college itself. These alumni and booster clubs are often at the centre of the mascot/nickname storm. Often times they cite that they are proud to come from the school and to retire the mascot/nickname would be sacrilegious and pandering to the minority. As most colleges are under-funded, colleges have no choice but to retain the status quo to keep the peace among alumni and booster club donators. Although many examples do exist, this paper will focus on one such example, that of UND alumni, Ralph Engelstad, and his fight to keep the Fighting Sioux logo and nickname alive at UND.
Standing as its crown jewel, the University of North Dakota’s, Ralph Engelstad arena, is a world class facility that stands alone. From it’s 11,400 seats, which are covered in leather (Dohrmann, 2001, ¶1) to its 40,000 square foot training centre (Muret, 2001, ¶9), the Ralph Engelstad Arena, is the envy of all other NCAA Division 1 schools that play ice hockey. Many have commented that in terms of a facility, the Ralph Engelstad arena is a facility that many professional hockey teams would love to have. Ralph Engelstad was a wealthy alumnus of UND, who once played goalie for the hockey team in the 1950’s (Black Issues in Higher Education, 2001, ¶10). Dohrmann (2001) has shown that because of their chronic funding problems caused by a small population and tax base, UND has relied heavily on Ralph Engelstad and other alumni for donations. A great deal of Engelstad’s donations and efforts have gone towards the struggle of keeping the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo a permanent part of UND. He has lead petitions against the school administration changing of the logo by obtaining the signature of virtually every living former hockey player from UND (Vorland, 2000, ¶31) at a cost he no doubt funded. His efforts were in vain as the old Chicago Blackhawks style logo was retired in 1993 by UND president Kendall Baker (Tovares, 2002, pg. 87). However, this was not the end of the issue for Ralph Engelstad.
While debate around the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo raged on throughout the 1990’s, Ralph Engelstad announced in 1998, that he would donate $100 Million dollars to UND for a new hockey arena (Dohrmann, 2001, ¶12). However, there was a contingency attached to the $100 Million donation; that UND retain the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo (Morell, 2001, ¶1). In a move that enraged Aboriginal people throughout North Dakota, recently appointed UND president, Charles Kupchella, unveiled a new “Indian Head” logo in November 1999. After facing much opposition from Aboriginal people, students and staff at UND, Kupchella temporarily shelved the new logo and appointed a committee that would look into the issue further. After much thought and at the recommendation of the committee, Kupchella informed the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education that he wanted to respect the wishes of the Sioux people and retire the Sioux nickname and logo (Dohrmann, 2001, ¶11-13). In a letter sent to Kupchella on Dec. 20, 2000 (Dohrmann, 2001, ¶14), Engelstad made his feelings known on the issue (You can see the letter at http://www.und.edu/org/bridges/index2.html). In this infamous letter Engelstad informed Kupchella that if the nickname and logo were not approved before December 29, 2000, then he would cancel all remaining contracts with contractors constructing the rink, thereby shutting down construction of the rink. It should be noted here that at the time, as pointed out by Engelstad, that $35 Million had been spent on the rink, and that if Engelstad were not to get his way, UND would have to find the funding for the completion of the rink. Copies of this letter also were sent to North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education, who then voted to accept the nickname and logo, ignoring the state legislature and the wishes of the Sioux people (Borzi, 2005 ¶19). In a move that seemed like a gratuitous swipe at the Sioux and UND, Engelstad placed the Fighting Sioux logo in 1000 places throughout the entire building (Dohrmann, 2001, ¶16.) If and when UND ever decides to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, it will be very costly to remove all logos from the physical building.
A second factor that helps give rise to the stereotypical use of Aboriginal images in sports is the public’s lack of awareness on this issue. Time and time again, studies involving the public’s reaction to racist logos and nicknames show that the general public is in favor of such logos and nicknames (Sigelman, 1998). What most people are unaware of is how demeaning and racist these logos and nicknames are to Aboriginal people. Sports teams that allow this practice to continue are doing a grave injustice to Aboriginal people. Heffern (February 25, 2005) has commented in regards to those who oppose retiring racist logos and nicknames that, “Much like Holocaust deniers, mascot lovers seem to willfully ignorant of the large body of evidence against their position” (¶5). Overall, it can be said that the general public has a total lack of awareness when it comes to the seriousness of this issue.
Another factor that has been played out during the controversy surrounding this issue time and time again is that of marginalization. As shown earlier, the majority of these logos and nicknames were chosen without the guidance or the approval of any Aboriginal person, tribe, or nation. As Baca has stated, Aboriginal people are treated differently than other minority races, and that racist images of Aboriginal people are commonly accepted while other racist images are not (Baca, 2004, pg.71). Ong has stated that using these images excludes Aboriginal people from full citizenship by treating them as signs rather than as speakers (Strong, 2004, pg. 83).
The final factor that gives rise to these logos and nick names is one of power and control. There exists an element of power wielded by many who feel that these logos and nicknames are no big deal, and that anyone who opposes them is just trying to cause trouble. In a speech given at UND in regards to the logo and nick name controversy, Robert Jensen, had the following to say:
Likewise, I think a similar power dynamic is at the core of white resistance to the simple act of dropping nick names such as the Fighting Sioux: Indians don’t get to tell white people what to do. Why not? Polite white people won’t say it in public, but this is what I think white folks think: “Whites won and Indians lost. It’s our country now. Maybe the way we took it was wrong, but we took it. We are stronger than you. That’s why we won. That’s why you lost. So, get used to it. You don’t get to tell us what to do.” I think for white people to acknowledge that we don’t have the right to use the name and logo would be to open a door that seems dangerous.” (Jensen, October 10, 2003, ¶18).
Who Is Doing The Stereotyping?
It must be noted here that the concept of White privilege can be one of the characteristics of those who stereotype. Hays and Chang define white privilege as follows:
White privilege is the belief that only one’s standards and opinions are accurate(to the exclusion of all other standards and opinions) and that these standards and opinions are defined and supported by Whites in a way to continually reinforce social distance between groups, thereby allowing Whites to dominate, control access to, and escape challenges from racial and ethnic minorities.” (Hays, Chang, 2003, ¶5.)
This ideology is consistent with the actions of many schools and teams that do not consult Aboriginal people nor obey their requests to retire racist logos and nicknames. In doing so, they are trying to reinforce the idea that Aboriginal people are not important, nor are their ideas valid. In her deconstruction of written letters from Chief Illiniwek supporters, Farnell (2004) theorized that Illiniwek supporters try to determine how real Aboriginal people should act noble and silently stoic (pg. 44).
The main intent of those stereotyping Aboriginal people through the use of racist logos and nicknames is to keep the Aboriginal person forever embedded into an image that feels safe for the public, and as Baca (2004) has pointed out when a race is reduced to a stereotype its members are not real (pg. 77). It offers people a chance to exert their dominance over another group by telling one group how it should act and how it should be represented (Strong, 2004, pg. 83). It allows people to play the role of the Indians and in doing so they figuratively lay claim to another piece of territory: that of the Aboriginal person’s dignity and self-determination (King, 2004, pg. 5). Hill argues that within the context of a sports arena, imitation is not a sincere form of flattery, but rather that of a disguised assertion of power, and an admission of how Aboriginal people have been used for profit and entertainment (Staurowsky, 2004, pg. 21). There is an intention to constantly portray the Aboriginal person as a person who is not real, does not have feelings, nor the ability or right to say how they wish to be honored.
What Can Be Done About Stereotyping?
There is much work to be done as it pertains to this issue. Many have taken the monumental task of educating a public that is by and large uninformed about this issue. This by far is the biggest task in addressing this issue. Education is the biggest tool one has in this fight. Education should always be the first step in addressing issues such as this one. Institutes of higher learning need to have more courses on this subject, particularly in states and provinces where there are higher numbers of Aboriginal people, or where there currently exists a racist team logo, nickname, or rite of passage, and these courses should be mandatory for any student that is enrolled in teacher or coach studies. Teachers and coaches hold a special place in the lives of children, and it is hoped that these coaches and teachers would teach their students and athletes the tragic history and intent of the logos and nicknames.
There have been efforts by others in this fight, and those efforts have varied over the years. As Sigel (1998) has found there have been efforts in the United States to introduce legislation that would force teams like the Washington Redskins to change their name before federal land was allocated for their new stadium, and familiar legislation was also sought against the Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo, which was intended to block the use of public money for Cleveland’s new stadium (pg.207). The Cleveland effort failed in its attempt and the new field is named, not after Louis Sockalexis, but after Indians owner, Richard Jacobs (Staurowsky, 2001, pg. 100).
The battle against the Redskins name has not gone quietly in the night as Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muskogee nation member, Suzan Shown Harjo, has lead an eleven year fight to cancel the federal registrations of seven trademarks of the Redskins (Coyle, Sept 4, 2003, ¶1). Harjo and six other Aboriginal people were able to petition the trademark under the Lanham Act which states that the Patent and Trademark office must deny registration that “may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt or disrepute” (Debate Over Redskins, July 2005, ¶5). In 1999, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed with the Harjo group in ruling that the name Redskins was disparaging to Aboriginal people, and ordered cancellation of the trademarks including the team’s name and helmet logo (Coyle, Sept 4, 2003, ¶4-5). The Redskins have appealed the ruling through the federal court of appeals, and as this paper is being written, the matter is still before the courts (Debate Over Redskins, July 2005, ¶1).
Greaves (1995) offers another way of addressing this issue, when he brings forth his ideas surrounding the intellectual property of sovereign tribes. However, he cautions that by making trademarks out of tribal property, it does not protect the entire culture, because trademarks offer restricted rights (pg. 205). However Greaves does mention that trademarks cannot disparage population groups and that they must be renewed every ten years, which allows complaints against disparaging trademarks to be heard (pg.205). This is of great interest to Aboriginal groups looking to fight against such registered trademarks like the Washington Redskins, and could possibly discourage other sports teams from registering possible disparaging trademarks, or at least not allow teams to gain financially from racist logos.
The Aboriginal people of North America are a race of people who have a survivalist nature to their very being. How could one explain the very fact that they are still in existence to this day in spite of being the target of colonialist thinking and genocide. Aboriginal people have seen their lives change drastically as they continue to live on what is called Turtle Island (North America). However, in order for their existence and the existence of others, there needs to be an acknowledgement of past wrong doings in order for the healing to begin. One such issue is the one that this paper has discussed; racist team logos, nicknames, and rites of passage.
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