Naming sports teams after Native Americans: Offensive or honorable?

Rick Egan / The Salt Lake Tribune

Fact Box

  • In February 2022, the NFL Franchise, the Washington Redskins, officially changed their name to the Washington Commanders, which NPR reports was a move made “after years of pressure to do away with [the name] because of its racist connotations against Native Americans, a name it had for 87 years.” 
  • Tony Henson, a member of the Native American Guardian’s Association, which is “an advocacy group that supports teams keeping Native American-themed names,” remarked about the controversy surrounding the Cleveland Indians, “We see positive Native American imagery and sports as a powerful way to remain visible and relevant in mainstream America.”
  • US Census data from 2021 states that the “American Indian and Alaska Native alone population is 4.4M.” 
  • reports that Native American names and symbols have been “commonplace” in sports for a long time, with “Warriors and Indians rank[ing] 6 and 8 respectively on the most commonly used nicknames list.”

Gina (Honorable)

A name is so much more than an identifier; it influences our character development. A theory known as nominative determinism, which suggests that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that fit their names, begs one to examine the connection between a team's name and how its players relate to it.  

When you name your child after a friend or family member, it honors them. The name is a gift to the child, as well as a nod to the namesake. The same goes for a team. Naming it after a particular group is used as a show of respect, adoration, and esteem with the intention of fueling their spirits. A team's moniker motivates and leads its players to victory. As the Native American Guardian’s Association points out, in naming teams after Native Americans, 'we honor our First Americans, as it is in remembrance of a glorious past and positive values for the future.'

An in-depth European Review of Native American Studies points out the word 'Redskin” was 'terminology developed by Native Americans to label categories of the new ethnic and political reality they confronted with the coming of the Europeans.' It was not a term created for derogatory or demeaning purposes but to identify two cultures that had never co-existed before. Recent generations tend to 'accept beliefs and ideas superficially and utilize them as fuel for revolutionary action.'

Native Americans are a minority community with limited visibility. Having millions of viewers tuning in to watch sporting events offers an opportunity to gain awareness of a community that may not have recognition otherwise. 

Andrew (Offensive)

Naming sports teams after native people reduces these people to one-dimensional caricatures when the reality is that these societies, many of which formerly inhabited large swaths of the nation, are anything but homogenous. Native societies are estimated to have existed in North America for some fifteen thousand years, during which time they built elaborate cultures replete with traditions, artwork, spiritual beliefs, and language. To make matters worse, many of these names are based on outdated stereotypes that cast native peoples as “savages” or “warriors.” These cultures are complex and deserve more nuanced and fair treatment.

The exploitative nature of using native team names becomes abundantly clear when we consider the gross disparities between what are often billion-dollar franchises and the poverty rates many native and indigenous people face in America. At the very least, these franchises could enter into some sort of dialogue with tribal nations and share some of their profits in exchange for using native iconography in such disparaging ways.

Naming sports teams after a people is frankly just absurd. We wouldn’t allow a team to be called the fighting Chinese or the fierce French. Why do we allow it with Native people? A poster produced by the National Congress of American Indians illustrates the absurdity of this double standard by showing hats for two fictitious teams, the San Francisco Chinamen and the New York Jews. In fact, teams such as the Duluth Eskimos and the Zulu Cannibal Giants, amongst many others, have changed their team names to inoffensive options. More should follow suit.

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