When you think about going to one of your favorite sports team’s games, whether your team’s mascot is racist probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
But should it be? American sports teams have a long history of controversy when it comes to their team mascots, especially when it comes to those mascots who refer to Native American history. And since the indigenous civil rights movement began in the 1960s, a number of Native American tribes and their supporters have been challenging some of America’s most hallowed sports teams’ mascots as racist and insensitive.
Some of the most prominent examples of this are the Cleveland Indians (a baseball team) and the Washington Redskins (a football team). The Indians’ mascot, “Chief Wahoo,” has been particularly problematic. An exaggerated caricature of a mascot, “Chief Wahoo” has bright red skin and a headdress and is on display at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. A Ferris State professor has explained that the mascot is similar to a “red Sambo,” whose exaggerated features serve to highlight the difference between the depicted race and the white race.
Although Indians fans have long maintained that they associate the icon with baseball, the team has announced that the “Chief Wahoo” logo will not appear on uniforms or stadium signs (although it will still be on team merchandise) starting in 2019.
The Washington Redskins have also been embroiled in significant controversy over their name. “Redskin” was a derogatory term for a Native American popular in the Jim Crow era. Despite intensive lobbying efforts from Native American groups and their supporters (including former President Barack Obama) since the 1970s, the name continues to be extremely popular with fans. In 2013, team owner Daniel Snyder said that the team would unequivocally never change the name, and that has remained true to this day.
Finally, the baseball team the Atlanta Braves are a curious case of a team that has adapted without entirely eliding controversy. The team’s unofficial sign of fandom is the tomahawk chop, which has been controversial as it is seen as appropriating Native American culture. But while the chop remains, the team’s logo has changed significantly over the years. While the team logo originally wore a full headdress, subsequent iterations of the logo have featured an Indian with a Mohawk and a single feather, and then the Braves name written in cursive over a tomahawk.