My brother, Daniel, and I in Rome.
Humans are quite distinct from animals. The former write poetry and memorize things like the Pythagorean Theorem and the U.S. presidents. The latter eat poop. Whether we deserve to be inside or outside of bars, we generally know where to draw the line. So why is it that we still can’t get it right for some of the most oppressed people—Native Americans? As time has passed, Americans have eliminated many forms of native-themed paraphernalia, and Northwestern University has established a committee redressing John Evans’s role in the Sand Creek Massacre. But the fight for basic human rights remains paramount. And who’s a better mascot for this cause than the Cleveland Indians, located, ironically, in Progressive Field?
Sure, Willie Wampum isn’t dancing down the fifty-yard line anymore, but the names and logos still in commission highlight our nation’s shameful exploitation of an important race and culture.
To be clear, I don’t allege any Native American heritage, and my experiences can attest to that. A white friend and central Illinois native once shared his family’s rite of passage: accompanying dad to watch Chief Illiniwek parade across the field. Notwithstanding this time-honored tradition, children witnessing such events will blind themselves to the historical and contemporary struggles native people face unless they actively challenge them—an approach the NFL and MLB could uphold by retiring racist mascots.
Most influential to my beliefs on this matter are those of my own aunt and uncle, who defend constantly the Chicago Blackhawks’ right to shape an underrepresented people’s history the way they see fit.
My brother told me of an argument he had with our aunt while he was living in Chicago: “Well, what about Satanists? Aren’t they offended by devil mascots?,” she remarked one day, playing devil’s advocate. “Perhaps,” my brother said, “But Satan isn't a human being deserving of human rights, namely the right not to be portrayed as a violent savage." I later added in my own accounts that Satanists might admire Satan precisely because of his ruthlessness, whereas Native Americans probably wish every day that the rest of the world could see them as they are: people with hearts and souls and complex identities. The devil is not here to disprove his popular portrayal, but Native Americans are, and we need to listen.
Arguments revolving around animal rights and certain human roles or nationalities—such as the Cowboys or the Fighting Irish—are less extreme but nonetheless question our use of any mascots. The fact of the matter, however, is that animals are animals, cowpokery is an outdated job, and the Irish have not experienced the American oppression that native peoples are all too familiar with. There’s no escaping that reality. While perhaps none of these groups deserve to be defamed on a football field, our most pressing issue is that of the people our forbearers persecuted.
I don’t blame my aunt or my friend for the relentless pride they take in their local teams. That’s the way they were raised, and it’s hard to change long-imbued mindsets. But it’s far from impossible. Over time, sane Americans have released their hold on the institution of slavery, on the Confederate States of America, and on barring women from higher education. We can find something other than native-themed mascots to cling to—something that all humans can agree on. It’s a challenge, but a worthy one.
The ubiquity, popularity, and sway of the sports-media complex greatly desensitize us to larger inequalities. Most days we hear some version of: “The Redskins whipped the Dolphins today, and look at those Raiders go! Yeah, demolish those Cardinals!” And most days we don’t even notice it. Implicating the media for many of our problems isn’t a new technique, but our apathy toward the bubble in which we live is getting old. Football will still be the majestically violent sport it always has been when we drop the associations with savagery and primordial instincts.
All of this is not to say the plights of other ethnic groups are invalid. Implicit and explicit racism continues to line the doors to justice in this country, especially as we consider consistent evidence of police brutality, a lack of comprehensive immigration reform, and the stigma that interracial couples still face. But all of this seems to start and end with the media’s plain endorsement of inaccurate and antiquated imagery, which reminds Native Americans everyday how twisted their past has become. If we can nip this in the bud before it spreads any further, we can prevent a lot of damage.
By virtue of enduring colonialism, Americans think they can lay claim to everyone and everything that came before us. Despite all the wrongs we have committed against people of African descent, however, we have enough common sense not to name a team the Tallahassee Tutsis. Even when we have stooped so low, national and even local recognition of such mascots as the “Chinks” has stopped altogether.
So what’s our obsession with Native American culture? It’s powerful, it’s mighty, it’s just the way it is? Since when is “the way it is” always the way it should be? However sexy the “noble savage” is to us virgin white men, there is no reason other than fetishism, a quest for domination, and/or conformity to bigotry to explain our insistence on Native American mascots. And if these are our only reasons, we really have no reason at all. Once we realize this particular defect in our ancestor’s ambitions, society will raze the bumps history has created and give way to a level playing field. All humans will have the opportunity to voice their concerns, address evils, and portray the image they want to portray. Immutable human rights will be won for all.
The last counterargument comes from my dad, who for the heck of it, threw out the idea of “the Sante Fe Ethnic Cleansers.”
“Isn’t that a non-human ‘role’ just like a cowboy or a Viking?,” he prodded, facetiously. “Well, I guess it is,” I said, “but isn’t the whole point about being sensitive to the mistreatment and misrepresentation of other cultures?” After everything we’ve been through and everything we have at stake, let’s just see if that name takes off.
I write this in the hope that I can convince a few of you that no one has anything to gain from Native American mascots. More than anything, however, I share this with you to further my brother's petition on change.org, calling for the NHL and the Chicago Blackhawks to retire their racist mascot. Please take a moment and sign this petition here. Thank you so much for reading.