Did you ever learn nursery rhymes about being teased or having slurs thrown at you? “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” or, “I am rubber and you are glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you?” Except, words can encourage people to take up sticks and stones against the person they’re belittling, and they can only bounce off so many times before impaling their victim. What should stick to those who taunt, tease, and use hateful terminology should be the stigma of being racist, but that isn’t always the case.
One of the most common topics that mainstream America talks about in regards to Native Americans, when they bother to think about Native Americans, is the issue of Native-themed mascots. I’m sure you can picture the toothy grin of Chief Wahoo, and everyone knows about the Redskins controversy. But most people just shrug and say it’s just a name and that Natives should be honored.
Names have power. It’s why we don’t use terms like “Dago,” “Wop,” or “Wetback.” There’s a certain N-word as well but it’s not one I wish to utter in any way. I grew up with a man who called himself a “Dago.” In my hometown it’s not seen as a slur but more a self-deprecating joke. But the moment I left home and learned how it offended others I stopped using it. It’s just that simple.
So imagine you’re a Native American, who knows that as far back as 1863, the term “redskin” was being used to identify the bounty on Natives scalps for every indigenous man, woman, or child “sent to purgatory.” Imagine watching your kids step off a ball field after playing with white athletes who call them “savages,” “prairie n*****s”, or a “bunch of drunks,” while also sporting more bruises than the average player. And yes, the two instances are connected. How do I know? Because it’s been studied.
Tests have proven that people showed stereotypical images of Native Americans and then asked to associate words or ideas with them associate them with being warlike. So if you teach your 12-14 year olds these stereotypes, it makes sense they’d go harder against Native opponents on the field. Names, mascots, and stereotypes dehumanize Natives and make them something other, beings from a bygone area that can be mocked with caricatures like Wahoo and whose opinions can be discarded.
And don’t refer to one study by the Redskins themselves that didn’t even vet if those it talked to were actually indigenous. Listen to the many who constantly tell you how it harms them and their communities.
What’s staggering is how strongly mainstream Americans are fighting to hold on to these stereotypes. The refusal to acknowledge racism doesn’t make the imagery any less racist or you less guilty of it. When even a large brand name like Adidas is paying for teams to change their names, and Natives have been protesting them for decades, what is your justification?
Why is your sports team’s name more important that treating others with dignity? How can you possibly be honoring Natives when you refuse to acknowledge that they want you to stop and that you’re doing them harm?
The funny thing is, when called out and put into a room with Natives, Redskins fans felt uncomfortable with themselves and their memorabilia. So obviously, they realize something about it is wrong. They even said they’d still be fans of their team even if the name changed, so why don’t we give up the racist ghost? Let the wahoos, redskins, warriors, braves, and all the other Native-inspired mascots die. Maybe then you can truly let Natives live like fellow Americans and not some relic of your childhood cowboys and indians games.
And if you don’t know what to change the name to, why not consider the Crackers or Honkies a la George Jefferson and see how long it takes for people to protest.
*Less than 24 hours after first drafting this blog, I ran across a days old video of Cleveland Indian fans flipping Native American protests, mocking them with fake war whoops, and shouting derogatory comments at them.