Native American Mascots (update below)

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Last week’s ruling by the US Patent and Trademark Office – that the name “Redskins” is disparaging and therefore not subject to trademark protection per the Lanham act – puts further pressure on Washington owner Daniel Snyder to change the team’s name. There are appeals to come and Snyder is clearly dug in. But I think it’s fair to assume that the question now is when, not if, the name will change eventually.

Geoffrey Nunberg, the linguist who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs at the trademark hearing, has a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, in which he explains his reasoning regarding the team’s name. Nunberg says that the question before the three-member panel was not whether the name is considered offensive in 2014, but whether the name was regarded as such when Washington first applied for trademark protection in 1967. The word itself has clearly been imbued with demeaning connotations toward Native Americans, according to Nunberg, since the 19th century. And every modern dictionary, Nunberg says, considers the R-word a slur.

Perhaps the central substantive issue at play is who gets to determine what names are appropriate.

About this question, Nunberg writes:

“The sea change in social attitudes that led to the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 also transformed the way we talked about race and ethnicity. That was when we collectively acknowledged that every group was entitled to control its own linguistic destiny, and decide what it should and shouldn’t be called—that groups had the right to define themselves.”

This principle of self-determination in naming is now nearly universally accepted. And it’s one reason why the NFL and Washington have emphasized the support of Native Americans themselves for the name. That level of support is unclear. The team and the NFL continue to rely on a decade old survey that, I’ve previously noted, is of questionable validity. More recent efforts to gauge the level of support or offense the name generates among Native Americans have been more mixed. Two members of the Trademark panel said that based on data made available to them, thirty percent of Native Americans found the word offensive. This, they contended, was more than enough to adjudge the word disparaging to a significant portion of the group.

In addition to arguing that self-identified members themselves don’t mind the name, the team has long argued that the disputed nickname is a tribute to Native Americans. For a long time, the team claimed that the team adopted its current nickname in 1933 to honor its then coach, Lone Star Dietz, who may or may not have been a Native American. But a recently uncovered Associated Press item from 1933 appears to undermine that claim. In it, the team’s founding owner George Preston Marshall said: “The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins.”

Nunberg disputes the tribute argument on other grounds:

“Team names can be genuine tributes when they refer to a constituency the team can claim to represent—you think of the Steelers or the Ragin’ Cajuns. But names like Redskin aren’t honoring anybody or anything. They’re meant to evoke people and things known for their savagery or inhumanity—wild beasts, destructive forces of nature, brigands and bandits, ancient warriors, and other assorted malignant beings.”

That this was Marshall’s intent when he adopted the name (the then-Boston based team had previously been called the Braves) is clear. Nunberg recounts a litany of offensive practices including minstrelsy-like halftime shows that were long part of the team’s on-field product. Washington’s fight song – correct me if I am wrong, but I can’t think of another team in the league with a recognizable one – was written by Marshall himself. Until the 1980s, it included these lyrics: “Scalp ‘um, swamp ‘um, we will take’um big score….” Nunberg calls out Snyder’s “audacity” for insisting that “we cannot ignore our team’s 81-year history” and for further pleading that such practices “showed reverence toward the proud history of Native Americans.”

Do we even need to think about what kind of reaction there would be if a team owned by non-Jews (Snyder is Jewish), traded in crassly stereoptypical Jewish images and then insisted it was doing so to “honor” Jewish people?

In this light, Nunberg regards Native American mascots more generally as unrepresentative and offensive. A lengthy April MMQB discussion of the mascot issue notes that in at least a couple of cases – the Florida State Seminoles and the Central Michigan Chippewas – the schools continue to use their nicknames with the consent and blessing of the tribes after whom they are named. Does that meet the standard of self-determination Nunberg enunciates? Perhaps. Those examples notwithstanding, what’s bracing about the Native American mascot issue is that most of us have been so inured to stereotypical representations of Native Americans that it’s easy to let slide even those that are obviously and blatantly offensive.

Look again at the icon of the Cleveland Indians:

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How can anyone defend the continued use of that image? How is that less offensive than the other two images that adorn what would be obviously-out-of-bounds team names and logos at the top of the post? Cleveland’s team name itself is *not* in the same category as Washington’s. But if this is Cleveland’s enduring image of what a Native American is, how could the franchise possibly argue that it is honoring them, when its enduring image of them is an obviously offensive caricature? (The origin of Cleveland’s team name is also based on what appears to be a myth – that it was named in honor of an outfielder Louis Sockalexis, a Native American who played for Cleveland when the team adopted its current name in 1915).

There is an argument that groups can reclaim for themselves words, practices and other traditions that, even if they were originally intended to demean and defame, might now reflect pride and self-determination. But it strikes me as disingenuous to aver that Native American mascot iconography is meant to honor and celebrate when there is no other ethnic group in American life that anyone would dare to “celebrate” in such a manner.

Update (July 25): two Emory University marketing professors wrote an op-ed in the Times yesterday evaluating the business dimensions of the decision to retain or drop the name. They make two arguments: 1) (college) teams that dropped Native American mascots experienced no short-term drop-off in revenues and fan support and revenues actually increased in those cases; 2) both Washington and the Kansas City Chiefs have been underperforming, revenue-wise, in the past decade, relative to other factors that affect a team’s economic success. It’s one study and the methodology is not laid out in detail, so take that for what it’s worth.

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4 comments

  1. The question is why are there still Native American mascots. People who owned the teams cite tradition but racism and slavery are(latter) or was(former) tradition. So come up with another excuse now i’m not offended when someone calls me a nigger but i’m in the minority. Words are just words to me. They go through peaks and valleys like everything else in this world but i’m not Native American. While it doesn’t bother me, this situation would be a whole lot different if a team was called the LA coons or Miami gangsters while portraying blacks as its mascots. Don’t forget about Notre Dame and the leprechaun.

  2. Without putting too fine a point upon this, the suggested names “Jews” and “Chinamen” would seem to be more in keeping with the Cleveland name, “Indians”, if certainly not the Cleveland iconography. The names suggested above, in keeping with the “Redskins” slur might be more appropriately the “Ki*%s” and the “Chin*s”.

    “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” might meet the fight song test.

    1. No question the “R-word” is worse than Indians. It’s one reason why I think it’s appropriate that there is a focus, right now, first and foremost, on Washington. I just don’t think the others are ultimately defensible, either.

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