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For Native Americans, the fight against mascots is much bigger than sports

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Phil Ellsworth / ESPN ImagesBy DEENA ZARU, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — More than a decade ago, Sundance, a member of the Muscogee tribe, led a successful effort to change the mascot of a high school from the Oberlin Indians to the Oberlin Phoenix. So when the Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians announced that they will change their name, it was a “big win” for him and members of the Native community. But is it only the “tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Sundance is the director of the Cleveland branch of the American Indian Movement, one of the organizations that has been urging national and local teams with indigenous names and mascots to change their names for more than 50 years.

“There are so, so many issues that we need to address as indigenous people that are certainly more important than the mascot issue, but it is the mascot issue, among others, that prohibits people from seeing indigenous people as people,” he told ABC News, adding that the Native American ethnicity is the only one that is widely used as a mascot across the country.

According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, hundreds of schools across the country still use Native Americans as their team mascots — monikers widely seen as racist and dehumanizing to the Native American community.

“There are people who will downplay the importance of the issue and say, ‘Gosh, don’t you people have better things to worry about?’ Well, dehumanization is, I think, the very root of all the other issues that we face,” said Heather Whiteman Runs Him, a law professor and director of the Tribal Justice Clinic at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

For decades, advocates for Native American rights had been working relentlessly to convince the teams to change their names — from filing lawsuits to protests to applying pressure on teams and their sponsors.

But it was not until an immense movement swept the nation in the summer of 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd — an unarmed Black man from Minneapolis — that some of the most high profile teams relented.

After insisting in 2013 that a name change will “never” happen, Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, announced in July that the team would change its name to the Washington Football Team, after FedEx, which has naming rights to the stadium, requested a change.

“Advocates within tribal nations in our communities started working strategically to target the financial backing of the sports — the Nikes of the world, the FedExes,” Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, told ABC News. “That was part of our strategic thinking, knowing that you’re trying to get something that is based on pure morality and a sense of justice is simply not enough — that the power of the almighty dollar and money in this country, whether you’re in sports, or a member of Congress, is such a powerful influence.”

Before deciding to change their name — a change that is expected to take place in 2021 — the Cleveland Indians stopped using the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms in 2019.

According to Sharp, who leads the country’s oldest and largest American Indian and Alaska Native tribal government organization, the widespread Black Lives Matter protests ushered in a national debate about race and racism in America — one that finally included the rights of Native Americans.

“We’ve known that a day of reckoning would come … the momentum has just been an incredible sacred moment,” Sharp said, adding that the organization has brought Indian Country together to advocate for the rights of indigenous people and “to be an ally and partner with others that are disenfranchised.”

The shift in energy comes amid some wins in representation for the Native American community that advocates are hoping will lead to policy changes.

Six Native Americans were elected to serve in the next Congress, a record in U.S. history. Meanwhile, Rep. Deb Haaland, who was nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to lead the Department of the Interior, could become the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet. If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland would be the first Native person to oversee an agency that played a major role historically in the forced relocation and oppression of indigenous people.

For Whiteman Runs Him, “there’s a tremendous capacity for hope in this moment,” but she remains “cautiously optimistic.”

“Knowing history, we also have to be vigilant that there’s enough done,” she said, adding that the success of leaders such as Haaland will also depend on the support they get from other branches of government, especially Congress.

Sundance echoed the sentiment, saying, “What we need are people who will maintain their Native identity in the face of rules and regulations that have been enacted to keep us oppressed.”

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