Not just Cleveland Indians: It’s time to retire ALL offensive Native American logos

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian takes a look at the predominance of Native American images in American culture.

The news that the Cleveland Indians are finally retiring Chief Wahoo, the offensive, grinning image that serves as the team’s logo, is long overdue. But actually, it’s long overdue to get rid of every offensive image of Native Americans on sports teams, advertising, products and even official government seals.

The Indians won’t remove the image until 2019, which means the silly face with the single feather will still be on team uniforms, hats, and banners at Cleveland’s Progressive Field throughout the season. The team probably thinks it will earn public relations points for Chief Wahoo’s retirement while it unloads Indians’ merchandise that’s still in stock. (“FINAL YEAR!” You can see the ads now.)

The Indians are not the only team with a name or image that co-opts an offensive image of a Native American for profit—that’s true for teams throughout professional and college sports. Some have changed team names or removed the worst of the images, but too many still keep the red-faced logos.

As bad as the logos are, fan behavior (especially when fueled by alcohol) can be even worse. Use of these logos often encourages some fans to emulate the teams’ images, showing up to games wearing headdresses and other interpretations of Native American garb.

Here are just a few examples—and a look at a new exhibit at Washington’s National Museum of the American Indian that highlights the problem.

The Washington Redskins are still one of the biggest offenders, but don’t expect team owner Daniel Snyder to come up with a new team name. “We’ll never change the name,” he told USA Today in 2013. “It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.” Oh, and Snyder also donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration. Most sports team owners tend to be Republicans who donate money to GOP politicians while demanding local tax breaks for new stadiums.

In Illinois, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (full disclosure: my alma mater) retired the mascot of Chief Illiniwek in 2007. For years, many groups, including Native American organizations, had lobbied for the removal of the barefoot dancer dressed in buckskin and feathered headdress and adorned with orange and blue warpaint who danced and entertained the crowds at halftimes of football and basketball games. It finally came down to money: The NCAA ruled that no post-season tournaments could be held on the campus as long as the mascot was still around.

But fans refuse to give up “the Chief.” At a recent home basketball game, a student dressed in full chief regalia prepared to make an appearance, only to be stopped by a faculty member armed with a smartphone camera. As described in the Chicago Tribune:

Jay Rosenstein, a professor and filmmaker who has made a documentary critical of the symbol, said he went to the arena to investigate his suspicion that university employees were helping the Chief, an act he said would undercut the university’s agreement with the NCAA.

He overheard security guards talking about the Chief’s planned appearance, he said, and while recording with his cellphone, followed them to a bathroom he believed served as a staging area.

He said he walked in and encountered Illinois graduate Ivan Dozier, who portrayed the Chief from 2010 to 2015 and is part of the Honor the Chief Society.

Dozier’s version is slightly different. He said he spotted Rosenstein in a concourse and ducked into the bathroom to avoid a confrontation. Rosenstein soon entered, Dozier said, holding up his cellphone.

“He caught me between the urinal and the sink,” Dozier said. “It was definitely a violating experience. There was no way he would have known what he would have seen when he walked in.”

Rosenstein was arrested (“unauthorized video recording”) but the local state’s attorney declined to prosecute. He’s on paid administrative leave while the university investigates. And it wasn’t the only incident.

It was the third Chief-related dispute in recent months to draw police attention. In October, anti-Chief protesters temporarily blocked the route of the homecoming parade, and in a separate incident, a school employee allegedly tore up posters during a presentation Dozier was giving on Chief Illiniwek.

Eleven years after the removal of the Chief Illiniwek mascot, the university still hasn’t chosen a new one. A Tribune editorial thinks more is needed:

Sorry, but simply picking a new mascot isn’t going to solve the problem. College kids who fervently believe the Chief must live on aren’t going to be swayed by the new mascot in town, be it Eagle, Tiger, Bear or Duck.

They might be willing, however, to hear out a reasoned, back-to-basics discussion about how and why a prancing, headdressed mascot in war paint is offensive to many Native Americans. That’s the tack that Chancellor Robert Jones wants to take, and we think it’s the right move.

For some time now, the country has been moving — albeit slowly — away from stereotypical depictions of Native Americans. In the 1990s, the Marquette Warriors became the Golden Eagles. New York’s St. John’s University Redmen are now the Red Storm, and Miami University (Ohio) switched from the Redskins to the RedHawks.

See? It’s not hard to do.

The Smithsonian Institutions National Museum of the American Indian has a new exhibit called “Americans.” It gives a history of the how images of Native Americans became so prevalent in American life. This introductory video, “The Invention of Thanksgiving,” takes a look at that process.

The Los Angeles Times offered a glimpse of the new exhibit, which will run through 2022, in a recent story.

“Many Americans have no interaction with American Indians,” says Paul Chaat Smith, who co-curated the exhibition with Cécile R. Ganteaume, “yet they do know these images and symbols really well and have emotional connections with them.”

A central gallery, which serves as the exhibition’s spine, gathers examples of the ways images of indigenous people have been employed over the centuries: early government seals, fruit crate labels, a Native Barbie doll, an Indian brand motorcycle and even the aforementioned Tomahawk missile. It’s part of the phenomenon that Smith describes in his 2009 book, “Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong,” in which the American Indian became “a kind of national mascot.” …

“It’s looking at how those events entered the national consciousness and lingered there, and how, over time, they entered the popular culture,” says Ganteaume, who is also the author of the highly informative companion book, “Officially Indian: Symbols That Define the United States.” “We are walking the visitor through a shared history that is the history of the country.”

That shared history is wildly complicated. It is one of brutal dispossession, moments of triumph, curious celebrity and a historical narrative that has over time inextricably woven together the Indian with the American in ways that are both meaningful and spurious: the Indian Removal Act, the Battle of Little Bighorn and the tale of Pocahontas, who over the centuries has evolved from key historical figure to Disney princess to racialized term employed by a sitting U.S. president in reference to a senator’s purported Native heritage. …

But the most common visual trope when it comes to American Indians is linked to the cultures of the Plains: the image of an Indian man in an eagle feather headdress.

That image has been featured on T-shirts, matchbooks, feed sacks, baking powder (the still-popular Calumet), hydraulic brake fluid, World War I Army uniforms, fruit company logos, the cover of Cher’s 1973 “Half Breed” album and pouches of chewing tobacco (Red Man — still going strong). There are countless others.

The museum’s website lists other examples: the Land O’Lakes Butter maiden, classic Westerns and cartoons, episodes of Seinfeld and South Park. “Pervasive, powerful, at times demeaning, the images, names, and stories reveal the deep connection between Americans and American Indians as well as how Indians have been embedded in unexpected ways in the history, pop culture, and identity of the United States,” the website adds.

Hey, you think Donald Trump will ever stop referring to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas”? Nah, me neither.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Feb. 4, 2018.


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