In December 1890, members of the Lakota Sioux tribe gathered on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota to take part in a ceremonial dance that its practitioners believed or at least hoped would restore their past stature, independence and territory, all of which had been eroded by the ever encroaching white man. The U.S. government, alarmed by what it perceived as a growing threat posed by the Ghost Dance movement, dispatched the Army 7th Cavalry.
What happened at Wounded Knee Creek on December 28, 1890 would initially be called a battle. It was not. It was a massacre. The exact toll will never be known but at least is 300 men, women and children were killed, mowed down. Twenty-five soldiers died. For their actions that day, 20 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. In 1930, 40 years after Wounded Knee, the University of North Dakota was trying to decide what to name its sports teams. They chose the Fighting SIoux and, as their mascot, a profile of a fierce looking Native in feathered headdress. That same year, Stanford University dubbed its team the Indians. Stanford would drop the Indians in 1972. The Fighting Sioux was finally removed as North Dakota's team name and mascot in 2012 I thought of Wounded Knee, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux and the Stanford Indians when I heard the news last week that the Cleveland Indians baseball team would become the Cleveland Guardians. Chief Wahoo, the team’s grotesque, grinning caricature, was discarded in 2019 although merchandise bearing the image continues to be sold (A recent buyer of a Chief Wahoo cap on Amazon gave it 5 stars while lamenting: “too bad cancel culture got rid of this. It’s a great hat. Glad I got mine before it’s too late.”) Now, the Indians name itself was being jettisoning as of next season.
There are more than 2,100 school, semi-pro or pro sports teams in the U.S. bearing names such as Indians, Braves, Chiefs and others. The overwhelming majority — 92% — are high school teams.
Supporters argue they are inoffensive and even honor Native Americans. They decry the criticism of teams such as the (former) Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians. Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas Chiefs and Atlanta Braves as evidence of political correctness gone amok and, like the purchaser on Amazon, denounce what they label cancel culture.
I believe that nicknaming a sports team after Native Americans is inherently derogatory and demeaning. There’s no gray here for me. I find it inappropriate and indefensible. What I did not realize until I started researching the issue further following the Cleveland decision was just how pernicious the actual effect of these mascots is, or can be for both Native people and non-Native people.
Google search led me to Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots, a 2008 study by a team of researchers led by Stephanie Fryberg, a psychology professor now at the University of Michigan.
I also read a 2020 review by Springfield College Professor Laurel Davis-Delano (and two co-researchers, including Fryberg) of the College studies of the psychosocial effects of Native American mascots.
This week, I spoke to Professor Davis-Delano by phone. She told me, “Overall, the studies show that mascots create a hostile climate for Native people.”
In her analysis, she concluded, “All of the academic studies undertaken … demonstrate either direct negative effects on Native Americans or that these mascots activate, reflect and/or reinforce stereotyping and prejudice among non-Native people.”
One of the 2008 experiments conducted by Fryberg’s research team involved showing Native America high school students images that included Chief Wahoo and Pocahontas, then posing questions designed to measure self-esteem.
“Exposure (to the images) was not only associated with depressed self-esteem; it was also associated with decreased feelings of community worth,” the study reported. “The studies suggest that American Indian mascots have harmful psychological consequences for the group that is caricatured by the mascots.”
The Fryberg study was performed by academics but, for me, their findings were not academic. As an African American who grew up in the 60s and 70s, I’m familiar with ugly racial stereotypes in popular American media. I know personally the pain, humiliation and anger these depictions can cause.
Many of the images of African Americans that I saw in films as a child were horrifying. The first time I saw Gone With The Wind, I was appalled (though I later came to appreciate the integrity and wisdom of Hattie McDaniels’s character). My father was a doctor. But, as I kid, I didn’t see any black doctors portrayed in movies or on TV.
Toward the end of the 60s and into the 70s, strong black male characters began to appear on screen (not surprisingly, female counterparts lagged). Sidney Poitier was classy and heroic. When he slapped that arrogant white racist in In The Heat Of The Night, that was powerful stuff. Even the cartoonish Blaxploitation films of the 70s served the purpose of redressing decades of demeaning stereotypes. Shaft may have been one dimensional but he was tough.
Native Americans don’t have the pop culture images or iconic heroes to counterbalance the stereotypes of sports mascots or even depictions of frontier warriors intended to be now noble but which are frozen in a kind of permanent past.
The Fryberg researchers found that images young Native Americans regarded as positive still lowered their self-esteem scores.
“American Indians are relatively invisible in mainstream media,” they wrote. “American Indian mascots remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them (and) can also limit the ways in which American Indians see themselves.”
Not even imagery they themselves thought positive could inspire. Instead, they seemed to be reminders of their own challenges in fulfilling their dreams and goals.
One of the other studies Professor Davis-Delano summarized found that when non-Native Americans looked at unfamiliar sports logos featuring Native American images, it provoked descriptions of them as being “warlike.”
She traces these stereotype to the late 19th and early 20th centuries (around the time of Wounded Knee).
“The reason why they were picked was because they were thought to be fighters,” she told me. “You basically have non-Native people selecting the very stereotypes of Native people that were used to justify violence against them.” There’s irony for you.
But change is coming and it has accelerated in the year since George Floyd was murdered. That’s not a coincidence. In July 2020, the Washington Redskins, under intense public pressure, dropped their team name. Last week, it was the Cleveland Indians. On Monday (July 26), the Kansas City Chiefs retired Warpaint, the horse that a cheerleader would race around Arrowhead Stadium to celebrate touchdowns.
It may be happening slowly. It may be happening late. But it’s happening.