Well, the political correctness police have really done it now, haven’t they? In their never-ending zeal to crush the spirit of America, this amorphous, white-guilt-bleeding, lawsuit-wielding band of killjoy hippie liberals have shown their tyrannical iron fist by attacking that most paramount of freedom-displaying American institutions, the NFL. Yes, using the
United States Patent and Trademark Office jackbooted Nazi stormtroopers, the PC tyrants have cancelled six of the Washington Redskins’ trademark registrations under the dubious justification that the team’s various logos depicting a stereotypical feather-headed Indian brave “were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.” My god, you can just smell the tyranny from here!
After the Patent Office’s decision, American conservatives took time away from being apoplectic about everything else to be apoplectic over this most recent blow to freedom. As Talking Points Memo notes, the wingnuts took to the Twitterz to voice their (perpetual) anger in their typically reserved fashion and (natch) blame Obama, who supported the Redskins name-change. Right-Wing blogger Matt Barber whined that because federal trademark law prohibited the display of culturally and racially disparaging imagery from a sports team, “the American free market and private enterprise are no longer free nor private. Liberty is under threat as never before.” Echoing Barber’s sentiment, RedState.com Grand Pooba Erick Erickson — the self-proclaimed “alpha male” and defacto spokesman for paunchy, white, privileged jerks everywhere — blamed the Redskins decision on “guilty feeling white liberals” who are a “threat to freedom.”
You honestly have to wonder how these people can function mentally when they believe that changing an NFL team’s logo represents the death knell of capitalist society. But let’s ignore the conservative temper-tantrums and ask ourselves, as a culture: should the Washington Redskins change their name and logo? The answer is “hell yeah.” Now, before you label me just another guilt-compensating white guy (I admit to being that anyway) consider, for a moment, why it’s historically offensive for sports teams like the Redskins to use Native American mascots and logos.
It’s no secret to anyone who’s even remotely aware of the history of the United States that the country’s native peoples have, to put it in academic terms, gotten royally screwed. The history of Native-White relations in America is characterized by colonialism, prejudice, violence, racism, genocide, and finally, cultural appropriation. The latter term refers to the process through which a dominant culture (which usually became dominant through violent means) adopts particular cultural aspects or practices of another group and employs those cultural aspects or practices for its own purposes. Cultural appropriation is generally (and rightfully) considered a bad thing because it almost always involves a cultural majority’s flagrant demonstration of its power to a conquered minority culture.
Among Indians themselves, the issue of cultural appropriation is decidedly complicated. Last Real Indians notes that, “It’s not me they [whites] are honoring [with mascots]; they are honoring themselves for doing such a good job on killing all the Indians.” Indeed, some tribal representatives view Indian mascots as the legacy of institutionalized racism, while others feel that mascots distract from more important issues facing Native communities. At the very least, as Jenny Vrentas of MMQB writes, “Native Americans want to have a say in how words and imagery that refer to them are used, in the same way that African-Americans establish when and how the n-word can be used.”
History, however, suggests that a name change is worth making. Over at Talking Points Memo, fellow academic-turned-blogger Josh Marshall has a great take on how the use of the term “Redskins” is a classic example of cultural appropriation via “mascotization.” “If you look back over the course of four centuries of American history there’s a clear pattern. When Indians represented a threat to the dominant immigrant settler culture (whether militarily or culturally or economically), they were the focus of an intense demonization, one rooted in fears, perceived alienness and competition for preeminence,” Marshall writes. But when Indians ceased to be a threat to white culture, he adds, “a totally different image of the Indian emerged – some mix of noble savage or a people representing something quintessentially American.”
What Marshall is saying is that once the white power structure succeeded in conquering Native peoples on America’s battlefields, it then proceeded to conquer them culturally by turning the Indians into little more than symbolic servants of the colonial culture that vanquished them. Thus, we have the Indian sports team mascot: a figure invented by the colonizing culture for the purpose of promoting that culture’s own rituals. Indian mascots like the one on the Redskins’ logo are supposed to represent “noble” aspects of Indian cultures such as bravery and prowess in battle, but this only works because the real Indians who were brave in battle have already been defeated and relegated, both literally and figuratively, to reservations on the outposts of American life.
Historically, real Indians were scary, barbarous, and a problem to be wiped out via the barrel of a gun and brutal territorial usurption. But now that they’re no longer a threat, we can use Indians for our sports teams because, gosh-darnnit, they were just so brave and noble as we slaughtered them mercilessly! It’s this nasty history that is invoked every time a sports teams uses Indian mascots and imagery, and it’s why team names like “Redskins” need to go.
In his book Contesting Constructed Indian-ness, historian Michael Taylor explains that “[Indian] mascots are the results of conquest and control,” and are thus created “to fit tropes of colonialism, history, and myth-making in order to control the physical body of the Indian.” Sports teams that use Indian imagery, Taylor writes, “profit from the idea of the Indian to produce a cultural and commercial context to the conquering of the West and its peoples by ‘owning’ the lands and the people living upon said lands.”* In other words, after American colonial society decimated Indian societies through genocide and land expropriation, it then decided to further rub its clout into Indians’ eyes by employing native customs and imagery to cheer on a bunch of guys chasing a ball across a field.
This is how white America has dealt with what historian Thomas King calls the “Inconvenient Indian,” the annoyingly persistent presence of nativeness in a country that would rather just forget about native peoples except on terms dictated by the colonizing culture itself. “When we look at Native–non-Native relations,” King writes, “there is no great difference between the past and the present. While we have dispensed with guns and bugles, and while North America’s sense of its own superiority is better hidden, its disdain muted, twenty-first-century attitudes towards Native people are remarkably similar to those of the previous centuries.”* Thus, Indians can still be stereotyped at will and used to encourage all aspects of the colonial culture that conquered them.
So if you ever find yourself feeling aggravated over the alleged “political correctness” that accompanies instances like the Redskins trademark decision, take a step back and consider that maybe, just maybe, something as purportedly simple as supporting an Indian mascot actually invokes a sad, violent, genocidal history of American conquest that non-Native people can easily brush off but which Indians themselves rightfully feel a bit more strongly about. And I say this as a die-hard Cleveland Indians fan. That team’s logo, “Chief Wahoo,” is offensive as hell and should be dropped. Who knows, maybe changing their name and logo might actually result in the Indians becoming a good team. But I won’t hold my breath on either of those two things happening.
* See Michael Taylor, Contesting Constructed Indian-ness: The Intersection of the Frontier, Masculinity, and Whiteness in Native American Mascot Representations (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 13.
* See Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2013), 5.