It was the Washington Redskins last week. And the Cleveland Indians tonight.
For decades, Native Americans have been protesting the use of their images and names as mascots, but the conversation has grown louder since last week, when Arizonan Amanda Blackhorse defeated the NFL’s Washington team in U.S. Trademark Court.
She and other advocates from the group Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry will protest the Indians, who play the Arizona Diamondbacks tonight and Wednesday in Phoenix.
“I know people don’t understand why we do this,” said Blackhorse, a social worker in Kayenta, on the Navajo Nation. “They say things like, ‘What about the Vikings? Are they next?’ But the Vikings aren’t an indigenous people of North America who are historically oppressed.
“We still exist. People think we’re actually like the Vikings...”
Later in the day, she added the thought that some think of Native Americans as “an idea of a people from the past.”
Change leads to fear of being labeled a bigot
Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo is a Native American caricature. Opposition to the image has been mounting for more than 20 years, and while the team said in a May statement that it will keep using Wahoo, the franchise removed him from its road cap in 2011 and from its home batting helmet in 2013.
The real issue with the Native mascots and the backlash against changing them isn’t necessarily racism, or a love of sporting tradition.
Those who study social change say the issue is that people fear a future of always being misunderstood as bigoted. People fear that one day, there will be no acceptable words left.
So they lash out, in person, and on the azcentral Facebook page:
“Its a name for godsake, there aren’t bigger issues in the world other than a football team name.”
“This Whiteskin is tired of political correctness!”
“Seems we have become a nation of thin skinned whimps. How soon before a Jaguar or Cougar is offensive. Just to silly of an issue. And I am of Seminole Indian decent.”
“In White society, the worst thing you could be called is a racist and there’s a lot of fear of that,” said blogger Adrienne Keene, who has a doctorate in culture, communities and education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“They have that discomfort or that dread of feeling that something is being taken away,” said Keen a member of the Cherokee Nation, runs Native Appropriations from her home in Phoenix. “People get nervous when I say (Native regalia) are sacred... you shouldn’t wear these. And people say, ‘Are we all going to walk around naked?’ or ‘Then what am I allowed to do?’ And I do hear that fear under those questions.”
No one wants to be wrong
Race-relations experts and Native Americans don’t all agree about which mascots, if any, are acceptable.
But last Wednesday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the trademark registration for the Washington team. The revocation of six of the team’s trademarks was necessary, the office ruled, because the name is “disparaging to Native Americans.” The team will appeal and can continue using the name and all images.
Few who refuse to stop using offending language see themselves as racist. Instead, people who want to keep using certain images or words are experiencing what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.
“You don’t want to admit it’s offensive, or that there’s a problem because then you might feel that you’re being a racist and that makes you feel bad,” said Dawn C. Reid, who has a Masters in psychology and social behavior and runs the life consulting firm Reid Ready Coaching.
“It’s easy to project onto the other person that ‘I’m not prejudiced. You have the problem because you’re the one who feels some way about it. I’m just speaking the way any other American would speak.’ Its a way to make yourself feel better about the conversation.”
It can be hard for people who are not members of marginalized groups to identify with such people’s hurt feelings, said Robette Dias, with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training, which helps companies and communities tackle institutional prejudice.
“We are racialized groups, and the way whiteness works is when I see a sexy Sacajawea costume, I know it’s not just Sacajawea,” said Dias, who is a member of the Karuk Tribe. “All Indian women are lumped into that with me.”
“But for white women, I think it’s different. When they see the Swiss Miss, they might think that it’s a sexualization of women, a character of a woman, but they don’t relate to Swiss Miss as a white woman like themselves. They don’t see themselves as members of a white group, so it’s less obviously offensive racially.”
Today, conversations about appropriate language and sensitivity often happen online, covering all aspects of society.
Bloggers call for an end to fat-shaming. Feminist sites catalog sexism in coverage of female politicians. And Twitter enables consciousness raising through hashtag activism like the ones associated with Tuesday and Wednesday’s protests, #deChief and #NotYourMascot.
“Various media platforms encourage us to... identify ourselves in all these fine-grained ways. It’s a kind of social capital,” said Robin James, associate professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
“In the ‘90s, people were like, ‘You don’t have to have a race on the Internet because no one knows who you are.’ But now the internet is not anonymous,” she said.
“Online, there’s this valuation of difference... and it’s growing.”
Which means language monitoring, confrontation of cultural appropriation, and fighting to define the ways in which groups are depicted will increase.
What can be done?
While she was taking an Indian studies class at University of North Dakota, Danielle Miller, 24, learned to use the phrase “it depends” to help people figure out the “right” words.
Miller is in the process of enrolling in the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota tribe but and didn’t grow up around Native people in Waldorf, Md. Miller had always used the words Indian and Native interchangeably. Until she went to college.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer,” said Miller. “Some people identify as Indian and say, ‘That’s how we talked on the Rez.’ Some people said ‘I’m Indigenous, not Native.’ Or ‘I’m not an Indian, I only identify as a member of my tribe.’
Keene, the blogger, said she understands being sensitive can be overwhelming.
“People retreat and shut you out and say ‘I don’t need to know this.’ But if you see it as an incremental thing, and something you can learn about for your whole life, it becomes less overwhelming.
“The voice of my blog is that I’m not an expert. I’m learning along with everyone.”