It’s been almost five years since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee at the beginning of a preseason game in a peaceful attempt to raise awareness for racial inequality in the NFL and in the United States at large. In that time, the country has been rocked with racial justice protests time and time again, which have seeped into the entertainment space and continued to rock the sports industries. One of the biggest changes came when the football team from Washington, DC, formerly known as the “R*dskins,” decided to change their name. New name pending, they are currently known as the “Washington Football Team.” The term is a deplorably racist one beyond a doubt, and indigenous peoples have been protesting against it for years. Finally, in July of 2020, the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, finally bowed to the pressure that had been exerted against the team since 1972 and announced the name change. An important step when it comes to racial equality, now it’s time for other NFL teams to follow that example.
Last weekend, many of us (myself decidedly not included) watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs. Although I did not watch it, the specifics of this game in particular were uniquely interesting to me, considering the facts that I’m from Massachusetts but do not care about Tom Brady at all, and that my high school mascot was the Buccaneers, and that the stadium had thousands of people inside despite a global pandemic, among other things. But, the most interesting thing to me was the fact that the end zone had the words “END RACISM” painted small onto the grass, and then the word “CHIEFS” in big bold letters right underneath. It was also, ironically, Chiefs fans in the stands on the opening night of the NFL season who booed during the national anthem as players kneeled for racial equality last September. As someone who is not indigenous, I have no authority over whether or not to say the name “Kansas City Chiefs” is racist. As someone who grew up on Wampanoag land, the land of the “first Thanksgiving Tribe,” though, I have always been attuned to the history of indigenous peoples here on Turtle Island, and so I will direct your attention to what indigenous activists like those at the National Congress of American Indians have been saying for decades: “The intolerance and harm promoted by these “Indian” sports mascots, logos, or symbols, have very real consequences for Native people. Specifically, rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful, perpetuate negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples, and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples.” There are still over a thousand references to harmful stereotypes of indigenous peoples in the mascots of sports teams across the country, although almost two thousand sports teams, from high school through college and the pros, have heeded indigenous voices and changed their names since 1963.
The harm that these sorts of mascots cause is not negligible. The American Psychology Association released a report in 2011 that studied the effects these mascots have on the self-esteem and social standing of indigenous and non-indigenous children: “American Indian mascots are harmful not only because they are often negative, but because they remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them. This, in turn, restricts the number of ways American Indians can see themselves.”
The R-slur that has recently been removed from the football team representing the United States Capitol has finally been changed, to the great relief of many activists. However, it should be noted that, even though indigenous people have spoken up about the racist name and logo for decades, the Washington management only decided to drop the name when their major donors FedEx and Nike asked them to. In 2013, Snyder explicitly said in response to petitions and protests, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” It was only until investors demanded change that he finally relented — as demonstrated time and time again, money is a larger driving factor in the fight for racial equality than human voices and lives are. As of now, the “Washington Football Team” has not found itself a new logo. The Cleveland baseball team, currently known as the “Indians,” has for years been phasing out the racist caricature, the red-feathered “Chief Wahoo,” that had long served as its mascot and recently has also decided to take steps in changing its name as well. Most activists agree that the R*dskins was the most egregious example of anti-indigenous racism in mainstream sports media. Some might argue that the Chiefs’ name isn’t “even so bad”; never mind the fact that non-indigenous people should not be making value judgments about anti-indigenous racism, the Chiefs’ fans have been known to don headdresses and war paint and carry fake tomahawks while cheering on their players in Arrowhead Stadium.
The steps taken to rectify the harm have been carefully applauded, of course with recognition of the financial incentive rather than the moral one that finally drove Snyder to his tipping point. But, the point is that racism against Black people and indigenous people in particular has been so normalized and institutionalized in this nation that even asking people to do a fairly harmless deed like change the name of a sports team is seen as an infringement of some unspecified “right,” or as indigenous people being “too sensitive” to the mockery of their genocide, or as “cancel culture” gone amok. Accountability is not “cancel culture;” but unfortunately, for too long, racism has been sewn into the fabric of American culture itself. The Washington, DC, football team finally, for better or for worse, decided to change their name; the Cleveland baseball team is taking similar steps. It’s time for the last aspects of anti-indigenous racism to be wiped from the forefront of American entertainment culture. Entire racial groups are not mascots on the same level as a bear, a wolf, or even a leprechaun, for indigenous peoples are not wild animals nor are they mythical creatures; it is time that their voices be heard and heeded.