Pride Precedes a Great Fall

September 2002

Are you ready for some football? It's that time of year again when helmets are donned, chinstraps are snapped, whistles are blown, and old rivalries are renewed -- and none greater than that between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. On the gridiron battlefield these determined armies of massive men fight yard by yard for victory. Cowboys versus Redskins -- it's one for the ages; but darn it, those Cowboys always seem to win.

Now the Redskins have a new rival. Not only must they contend with Dallas defensive linemen who want to sack their quarterback, they must also contend with Indian activists who want to sack their logo, mascot, and team name. And not only theirs but that of everyone of their kind -- the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida State Seminoles, et al. -- because, it is claimed, the use of Indian imagery in sports is offensive to Indians, is a mockery of their heritage. Cries of "cultural insensitivity" and even "racism" dominate the hue and cry against Indian mascots.

How could the use of Indian imagery be offensive to the people whose fighting spirit it seeks to emulate? Ah, there's the rub. Sports Illustrated (SI) commissioned a poll on the subject, reported on in its March 4 issue. In the poll, 351 Indians were interviewed, and, according to SI, their responses were calibrated based on U.S. Census figures for "age, race and gender, and for distribution of Native Americans on and off reservations." The results indicate that 75 percent of Indians are not offended by the name Redskins. Moreover, while 23 percent of Indians believe that the use of Indian team names contributes to discrimination, a whopping 75 percent believe that it does not contribute to discrimination (two percent were undecided). Eighty-three percent of Indians said that pro sports teams should not stop using Indian nicknames, and 81 percent said the same of high school and college teams. Judging by the numbers, the Indian leaders and activists that claim offense and level charges of racism against sports mascots aren't speaking the mind of the Indian population. Nevertheless, the campaign to eradicate Indian mascots continues at a feverish pace: Sports Illustrated counts since 1969 "more than 600 school teams and minor league professional clubs [that] have dropped nicknames deemed offensive by Native American groups."

The disconnection between activists and their constituency -- not to mention the public at large -- has at times turned into a comedy of errors. In an episode that garnered national media attention, a group of Indian student activists at the University of Northern Colorado re-registered their intramural basketball team as "The Fightin' Whities," in response to a controversy over the Indian mascot of the local Greeley, Colorado, high school, "The Fighting Reds." They printed up jerseys for their players with the image of a white businessman and the caption, "Everthang's gonna be all white." Solomon Little Owl, director of the school's Native American Student Services and member of the intramural team, explained that he and his basketball buddies "disagree with Native American caricatures in sports logos," and decided "to show them [whites] how it feels" to be caricatured. "It's reverse psychology. If they're offended, we just proved our point."


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New Oxford Notes: September 2002

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