Native American Mascots: Honorable or Ignorant?

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Native American Mascots: Honorable or Ignorant?
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It's been a prickly topic for years, even decades. It spans not just every professional sport, but collegiate sports as well. Depending on who you talk to, it's a stain on the organizations it affects or a way of honoring those who came before us.

Native Americans were exploited almost from the moment Europeans arrived on this continent, pushed and shoved off their land for centuries until they were confined to the reservations that are now common across the south and midwestern parts of the United States.

When sports teams and, more importantly, sports team's nicknames and mascots, came into being in the middle and late 1800s, Native American tribal names and symbols were commonly used to represent them.

Over the years, this pattern has given us the Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, Florida State Seminoles, Atlanta Braves and Washington Redskins (to name a few).

It might be that last one that generates the most controversy.

"Redskins" is, outside of sports, a racial moniker reserved for those of Native American descent. While the term has thankfully fallen out of common use, the connotation remains.

But is it meant to be offensive?

Originally the Boston Braves (another Native American reference) and the Washington Redskins were owned by George Preston Marshall, a noted racist. The name Redskins arrived during their second season, 1933.

It is unclear whether Marshall, who would famously refuse to integrate his football team in the 1950s, and his racist leanings had anything to do with the choice of nickname.

Regardless of this, several people have found the name insensitive enough to file lawsuits, the aim of which would be to force the Redskins to change their famous name.

A 2002 poll conducted by Sports Illustrated found that 75 percent of Native Americans polled had no problem with the team's nickname. Regardless, the lawsuits and appeals continue.

Florida State University provides an interesting counterpoint.

The Seminoles have official permission from the two remaining Seminole Indian groups (the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Seminole Nation in Oklahoma) to use the name for their sports teams. It is the only official exemption for any sports team.

Florida State remains the only NCAA school exempt from a ban on Native American mascots.

Several colleges, both large and small, have switched from Native American names to more innocuous ones. For example, Division II's Indiana University of Pennsylvania changed from the IUP Indians to the IUP Crimson Hawks. Other schools have followed this example.

But the question remains. Is this disparaging to Native Americans or not? The Seminole tribe and nation seem to think it is nothing to be concerned with, a mark of pride for their groups to be honored by a large school.

It is certainly hard to find names like Braves or Chiefs offensive. Neither is an outwardly or historically negative term. Instead, they are more reminiscent of pride and leadership and courage.

The debate rages on. What do you think?

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