A name is not harmless

Racist mascots matter, and it’s time we made that more clear.


Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

There are few bolder examples in American culture of the consensual marginalization of Indigenous peoples than the NFL team that represents our nation’s capitol. For what other race would we so publicly accept a racial slur? 

As the journalist Baxter Holmes put it in his 2014 piece for Esquire, the term “redskins” is more than “just a twisted compliment, like ‘Savages,’ ‘Warriors,’ ‘Braves’ or ‘Red Men.’ It represents a trophy of war—the bloody scalp of a murdered Native American, slaughtered for money, the amount dependent on whether it was a man, woman or child.”

Holmes, who comes from both Choctaw and Cherokee lineage, goes on to say that many argue the name has been around for decades. It’s tradition, they say. “But if America ‘always did it this way,’” he wrote, “then terms like ‘Wetback,’ ‘Negro,’ and its much uglier cousin would still be a part of our lexicon. We learn.”

Besides, the “always-did-it” argument doesn’t hold water. Native Americans have been challenging the name for decades. Never mind misguided surveys like this one, which asked Native Americans if the name offended them (why would you even ask someone if a racial slur is OK?).

Last week a group of savvy advocates pulled off a pretty elaborate hoax, fictitiously (and thoroughly) exclaiming the team had changed its name to the Washington Redhawks. The fake campaign, which even fooled some journalists, was the latest in a growing movement to have the team change its name. It also reignited a conversation many researchers and scholars have been having for years about the detrimental affect the name has on Native communities, particularly children.

This week, High Country News discussed the issue in our review of the documentary More Than a Word, which examines the continued and pervasive use of Native Americans as sports mascots.

A local team mascot is emblazoned on the side of a building in Wynnewood, Oklahoma.
Graham Lee Brewer

Growing up in Oklahoma — in a state named for a tribe and that used to be “Indian Territory” — I’ve seen a lot of those mascots over the years, and the nasty ways they manifest intolerance. Driving through Wynnewood, Oklahoma, a few months ago with my son, we both marveled at the cartoonish depictions of our race that graced buildings like the Savage Coin-Op Laundry, named after the local high school mascot. My son is 12 now, and I explain to him that’s not how most people see us. Still, as we drove past it, I recognized the shock in his eyes. These things matter — names, images, ideas. We should all know that by now.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

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