Native American athletes and fans face ongoing racism

The U.S. has seen a rise in hate crimes, but data shows that bigotry is a constant in Indian Country.


Some of the students were crying as they got back on to the bus. In early 2015, Justin Poor Bear, now 39, chaperoned dozens of Native students to see a Rapid City Rush ice hockey game in South Dakota. The trip was part of an after-school program at American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “It’s not your fault,” Poor Bear told the bus full of kids as he drove home. During the third period, the chaperones alleged a white man poured beer on two of the students and called them racist slurs, a claim that could not be proven in court. Poor Bear was angry: He remembered experiencing the same kind of treatment during his high school basketball games in the ’90s.

“When you first hear the words, ‘Go back to the rez, prairie nigger,’ or name calling, it’s a shock moment,” said Poor Bear. “Then you realize they’re referring to us.” His basketball coach would tell the team: Don’t engage.

Rural towns are often highly supportive of their high school sports teams, and reservation athletics are no different. But racism has been rising in U.S. sports for the past four years, according to the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, and Native American athletes and fans are often subjected to racist bullying at sport events. In fact, for Native Americans, this treatment has been the rule, not the exception, for many years.

A frequented basketball court in Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. Though sports are at the center of Indigenous communities, teams often face targeted racial bullying from competitors.
Kalen Goodluck

From 2008 to 2018, there have been at least 52 reported incidents across the U.S. of racial harassment directed at Native American athletes, coaches and fans, according to data compiled from news articles, federal reports and court documents by High Country News. Reported incidents ranged from racist vandalism and tweets, to banners that read, “Hey Indians, get ready for a Trail of Tears Part 2,” a reference to the 19th century death march endured by tribal citizens who were illegally and forcibly relocated to Oklahoma by the U.S. government. Other instances include players being called names like “prairie nigger,” “wagon burners” and “dirty Indians.” Nearly all 52 reported incidents involved high school sports, but there were also four university game cases and even a fast food restaurant sign that read, “‘KC Chiefs’ Will Scalp the Redskins Feed Them Whiskey Send – 2 – Reservation.” Nineteen incidents occurred at basketball games; 20 incidents were at football games.

Of the 52 incidents, 26 resulted in remedial actions, including 15 apologies to the Native victims. At times, multiple responses were taken, including nine disciplinary actions — a team suspension, a few school investigations, an academic suspension, volunteer positions revoked at school, an athletic team meeting, a juvenile detention sentence and a disorderly conduct charge. But in the remaining 26 incidents, no remedial or disciplinary action was taken.

“In places we think of as ‘Indian Country,’ and especially adjacent border towns, Indigenous athletes do experience escalated rates of harassment,” said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, who spent years studying hate crimes against Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada. This harassment level may also extend, Perry said, to schools outside Indian Country with Native mascots. In a 2012 report to the Oregon State Board of Education, the state superintendent wrote that the use of Native American mascots “promotes discrimination, pupil harassment, and stereotyping” against Native American students in school and during sports events.

At a hearing in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last year, Vice Chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Barry Thompson testified on racism against Native American athletes. A former basketball coach himself, he recalled an episode that occurred when his team travelled to Miller, South Dakota, in 2002. Throughout the game, Thompson said, a handful of grandparents from the other team made derogatory comments to him and his players, including the epithet “prairie nigger.” After the game, while his team ate at a Dairy Queen, a group of boys rolled up in a car and began yelling at them. As the players left, the other boys fired a shotgun into the air over their heads.

Broadly speaking, professional athletes are more likely to experience racism in the forms of hiring opportunities than public overt acts of racism, according to Richard Lapchick, founder and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. “This stands in stark contrast to Native Americans who are confronted with racist names and mascots in many sports across the country.”

Reported acts of racism in U.S. sports reached a high in 2018.
Source: Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports

According to psychology studies, race-based mascots evoke associations with negative stereotypes, and establish unwelcoming and even hostile school environments for Native students. A 2008 study found that when Native youth were presented with Native American mascots, they were more likely to express lower self-esteem. Yet white youth “feel better about their own group” when presented with a Native mascot, said researcher Stephanie Fryberg, professor of psychology and American Indian studies at the University of Washington.

Reported acts of racism in U.S. sports have been increasing each year since 2015, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. The institute counted 11 in 2015; 31 in 2016; 41 in 2017; and 52 racial incidents in U.S. sports in 2018. “The rise in hate crimes and hate incidences are up all across the country,” said Lapchick, the institute’s founder. Meanwhile, the number of hate groups in the U.S. has reached a historical high, while federal authorities reported a 17% increase in hate crimes between 2016 and 2017.

Though it’s clear that racial harassment happens in many sports, it’s difficult to know how frequently other racial groups are affected, mainly for lack of research. For example: Last fall, a number of black and Latino high school football players across the country reported seeing racist signs and hearing racial epithets. Numerous studies on race and athletics focus on subtle, systematic forms of racial discrimination in professional and collegiate sports, as seen in team demographics, media representation, and the opportunities and salaries that athletes receive, though mostly for black athletes. Several studies with small cohorts conveyed a range of anecdotal evidence that African Americans face significant racist treatment by coaches, media, fans and teammates. 

An analysis of a 2013 statewide survey of Minnesota public, charter and tribal schools may give a possible glimpse into the scope of the problem for Native students. The study found that Native American students reported being bullied because of their race over three times as often as white students did. Hispanic, black and Asian students reported racist bullying nearly four times more often than white students did. While the rate at which each group is targeted by race in sports remains unknown, Barbara Perry said, “Indigenous communities likely are among the most vulnerable.”

Though national rates of bullying have remained relatively steady in recent years, in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control found that nearly 22% of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives were bullied on school property, higher than the national rate of 19%. Yet research into the effects of bullying against Native Americans and Alaskan Natives is “nearly non-existent,” according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a government agency devoted to mental and behavioral health. 

Not only is there a study gap in overt sports racism, but the data High Country News gathered also suggest that accountability is an issue: Half of the publicly reported racial incidents against Native Americans received no disciplinary or remediating action.

“Racism is everywhere, and it’s about nothing that you did wrong,” Justin Poor Bear told his son after the hockey game incident. “You move past it.” He was sad because Brendan was so young at the time, experiencing that kind of racism in sixth grade. Now an athlete like his dad, Brendan Poor Bear started running cross-country as a freshman in high school. “Racism needs to be talked about now, especially with Natives. Everybody, not just Natives.”

Examples of reported incidents against Natives at sporting events, from 2008-2018

In October 2017, the day before Sturgis High School in South Dakota was about to compete against Pine Ridge High School, an Oglala Lakota tribal school, social media showed an unauthorized pep rally that ended with students smashing a windshield with sledgehammers and spraypainting “go back to the rez” on a car.
In January 2017, fans from Pryor said they were denied entry from a basketball game at Reed Point High School because they were Native American. They were supported by a complaint filed by the Montana ACLU, but the Montana Human Rights Bureau found “no reasonable cause” for discrimination by Reed Point High School.
In early December 2013, Native American onlookers spotted a Sonic Drive-in signage in Belton, Missouri that read: “ ‘KC Chiefs’ Will Scalp the Redsk*ns Feed Them Whisky Send – 2 – Reservation,” referring to the Kansas City’s professional football team.
In 2013, a Cherokee high school football player in North Carolina received racist messages from a Swain High School player after the his team lost 32-0. The messages included racial slurs for American Indians and African-Americans as well as sexually vulgar references to the Cherokee player’s older sister.
In August 2014, at an OSU Cowboys vs. Florida State Seminoles game, a fan held a sign that read “Hands Up, Don’t Spear,” a combination of the phrase used to protest police brutality in the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the “Fear the Spear” phrase used by Florida State University. Another sign that read “Send ‘Em Home. #Trail_of_Tears #GoPokes” sparked immediate backlash across social media.

Kalen Goodluck is an investigative reporter and photographer covering the environment, business and tribal affairs.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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