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Indigenous Imagery in Sports

An award-winning documentary about the movement to remove First Nations mascots from teams across North America is now available on streaming platforms, including iTunes in Canada. Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting has won a multitude of awards at film festivals since it first debuted in 2022. 

The release to sale and streaming was done prior to the Super Bowl, which was won by the Kansas City Chiefs. Kansas City is specifically named in the documentary as one of the many franchises guilty of using Indigenous imagery and fictionalized “Native American chants” created by descendants of Europeans in Hollywood decades ago. 

“The documentary surveys the legal history of the movement, including multiple lawsuits filed… over decades of activism, most notably a case involving the [Washinton] ‘Redskins’ that has made headlines the last 30 years,” says a section of their website. 

The documentary starts by telling the history of First Nations communities after European contact in North America. When Europeans made first contact in North America, as much as 90 per cent of First Nations died from diseases their immune systems were not prepared to defend against. Over the few hundred years which followed, First Nations people lived a life of assimilation or erasure and were othered by settler communities. This brief look at history sets up the rest of the film, which explores First Nations people being used to name and represent teams. 

Many Indigenous professionals and historians tell the story throughout the documentary, including Gaylene Crouser, an activist from Oklahoma who protested outside the Super Bowl against the name of the Chiefs. 

“Racism is racism,” she says in the documentary. “It’s like being a little bit pregnant. You’re either pregnant, or you’re not. It’s either racist, or it’s not.” 

Interviewees throughout discuss the Not Your Mascot movement, which targets team sports that use First Nations imagery and names as their logos, team names, and mascots. These mascots are based on stereotypes, and team names cover a range of stereotypes, names of Indigenous Nations and racial slurs. 

One common trope among teams selecting such offensive names is the idea they were “honouring the Indians” by using First Nations imagery. In reality, there has never been an honour bestowed by these racist creations. Instead, using the “tomahawk chop,” -which exists among fans for teams in multiple leagues- the chants sung by crowds of nearly 80,000 at games for the Florida Seminoles -among many others- or the beating of a drum at Arrowhead Stadium, these teams have culturally appropriated First Nations practices while adding harmful and inaccurate stereotypes to the perception of First Nations people. 

“The film investigates the impact that caricatures like Chief Wahoo – the cartoonish former logo of the Cleveland Baseball Team – gestures like the Atlanta Baseball Team’s ‘tomahawk chop’ and epithets like the Washington Football Team’s former moniker, ‘Redskins,’ have on the native community, the sports community and society in general,” their website states. 

Many sports fans fail to recognize the problem with naming sports teams after First Nations people and how doing so is a perpetuation of racist tropes. When a team like the Washington Redskins took its name, it was in an era of rampant, unchecked racism. For decades, First Nations groups protested the name, telling of how the logo was meant to provoke thoughts of an aggressive person, a harmful stereotype perpetuated by media of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

In 2016, the Toronto Blue Jays faced off against the then-named Cleveland Indians. Protests and petitions quickly circulated, stating the Cleveland team could not wear that name or their logo while playing in Canada. Major League Baseball gave little attention to the requests, and the games carried on as normal. The team has since changed their name and has discontinued the sale of foam tomahawks at games. 

Manitoba has seen similar situations of community members voicing their displeasure about an insensitive team name and logo. A hockey team in Morden, Manitoba, was, until 2020, called the Morden Redskins. Their logo was similar to the Chicago Blackhawks, a side portrait of an Indigenous male with colourful feathers in their hair. The team is now called the Morden Bombers, and their logo has been changed to a B encircled by the name Morden Bombers. The team is based southwest of Winnipeg, approximately 40 km from the US border. 

“We wish to represent every citizen of Morden and made the decision to make changes moving forward,” a statement published by the team. 

The decision to change the name of the Morden hockey team came within months of the Washington football team of the same name removing their name and logo from the franchise. 2020 was the same year a name change took place for the Edmonton football team.  

Previously known as the Edmonton Eskimos, the team abandoned the name after publicly stating they had communicated with Inuit communities who said they took no issue with the name Eskimos for their football team. The team presented data they collected suggesting 78 per cent of Western Arctic Inuit opposed changing the name. However, the details of their self-collected data were never released, and the team was challenged immediately by advocates across the country, questioning the validity of their data. Soon after, they decided to drop the former name. In 2021, they revealed the new name, the Elks. 

The same year, another Manitoba hockey club changed their name, the Natives, and removed their Indigenous mascot. A baseball team in Morden also changed its name from the Mohawks to the Morden Mudhens. 

Morden is not the only town in Manitoba to have had such a name, nor are they the only town in Canada. From coast-to-coast-to-coast, teams have heard the criticism against their team’s use of Indigenous imagery and iconography. Logos of Indigenous men wearing headdresses remain on some jerseys, but as the years go by, more and more Canadians are voicing their displeasure, realizing the harm of this portrayal of fellow Canadians. For many Canadians, the last few years have been a revelation of offensive imagery they did not realize was harmful, likely as a result of how commonplace it has been for generations.  

The appearance of First Nations people in early 18th-century paintings created the first European perspective of Indigenous people captured in media. These first paintings bare no resemblance to the actuality of what life is, or was like, among First Nations people. Misrepresentations persisted through further paintings, dime store novels and movies over the decades. 

Through the 1930s into the ’60s, westerns dominated the box office. In these sorts of films, First Nations people were the bad guys, attacking “the innocent pioneers.” Early American Westerns continually reenacted the Hollywood interpretation of European encounters with First Nations, which were factually baseless and prejudiced.  

As of writing, three professional sports teams in the United States which have First Nations mascots remain: the Kansas City Chiefs (NFL), the Atlanta Braves (MLB), and the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL). Each team has made slight adjustments -such as disallowing headdresses at games- but the mascots and logos remain. Across the United States, nearly 2000 high schools have First Nations mascots. Similar data pertaining to Canada could not be found, but schools and community teams across Canada have been changing their names in recent years. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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