Thursday, October 10, 2013

Guest column: Pull plug on Native American mascot names


The Washington Redskins. Kansas City Chiefs. Chicago Blackhawks. Atlanta Braves. Central Michigan Chippewas. Twin Lakes Indians.

What’s in a name of a sports team? What does it mean if that name is considered offensive or derogatory to the group, even when the sports team or school suggest the name was meant as an honor?

The issue around the use of Native American nicknames for sports teams has been around for a long time. Interest in the Washington Redskins changing its named picked up steam in May, when a group of congressmen as diverse of Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Democrat Betty McCollum of Minnesota urged Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to change the name of the NFL team, which has been around since 1932.

Snyder, like past owners of the franchise, dismissed the recommendation, saying he would never change the name of the Washington Redskins. Never, ever. Period.
Of course, names such as these are meant to honor Native Americans for their strength, bravery and courage. Right? They are meant to recognize a location of Native American history or recognize their contributions. Yeah, that’s what they all say.

Yet, it seems strange that the honors and recognition never extend beyond the cheering crowds of the athletic teams or the mockery of Native American traditions in the name of sports.

Patrick Freeland, a Native American doctoral candidate studying at Purdue University, called the use of such names “outdated,” but people continue to hang on to them for a supposed sense of tradition. He said he believes it builds a false persona about Native Americans.

“The larger argument right now is that it builds an entire perception of people, like Native American, that is false. Not only that it’s false, but it’s glorified, bought, sold and heralded as something that is proper and praised. That’s an insult to native people and indigenous people in the U.S.”

Opponents of the Washington Redskins nickname continued to grow, including Peter King from Sports Illustrated, Christine Brennan from USA Today, and, which is refusing the use the term Redskins and other Native American nicknames in its sports stories.

Granted, I never gave much thought about the subject until 1994, when I attended what was called the Unity Conference, the first joint convention of national minority journalists groups in Atlanta. During one forum, I met the late Native American activist Vernon Bellecourt.

His passionate speech about his stand against Chief Wahoo, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians, still moves me today. The way he described how native children are teased and taunted by images that are massed produced and glorified in sports pages, and the way Native Americans were portrayed in general as only these savage warriors to be feared, stopped me cold.

I wrote a column on the subject in 1997 when I was a reporter at the Toledo Blade, at the time Miami University changed its nickname from the Redskins to the RedHawks.
The great thing about America is our capacity to look at ourselves and right our own injustices. On some issues, we are little slow; on others, we may walk sideways or backwards at times. But eventually, we get it right.

In this case, that only happens with an honest, frank discussion about targeting one specific ethnic group for these names. Would we accept the Ragin’ Caucasians? The Runnin’ Negros? The Fightin’ Latinos? If not, why do we insist on keeping the Redskins and Indians?

When I hear some people say that the issue of Native American nicknames is not even matter worth discussing — which is the position Snyder has taken with the Washington Redskins — it tells me one thing: You don’t want the discussion because you know you are on the losing side of the issue.

My challenge — more of a dare — to those sports teams, colleges and high schools that use Native American nicknames is to invite someone such as Freeland or another Native American to speak to your masses. Purdue’s Native American Educational and Cultural Center would be an outstanding place to start.

“You almost have this perception among people that we’re just a symbol,” Freeland said. “You have to remind them that we are actually people. The majority of people have never met a Native American person in their life. The primary problem is they are unable to empathize with each other.”

Think about it. Would Robert Griffin III be any less of quarterback if his team wasn’t named the Redskins? Would Hank Aaron be any less of a Hall of Fame baseball player if the team he played for wasn’t named the Braves? Would Twin Lakes High School would any less of the outstanding institution it is for his children if its sports teams were not named the Indians?

If the answer to those questions is no, then why is it so hard to even have talk about its use of its use of Native American sports nickname?

Hughes is a member of the Greater Lafayette Commerce's Diversity Roundtable.

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