Native American mascot controversy

Since the 1960s, the issue of use of Native American and First Nations names for sports teams or mascots has been the subject of increasing public controversy in the United States and Canada. This has been a period of rising indigenous civil rights movements, and Native Americans and their supporters object to the use of images and names they consider derogatory. They have conducted numerous protests and tried to educate the public on this issue.

The Atlanta Braves encouraged fans to gesture with the "Tomahawk Chop," distributing foam tomahawks at games and other events.[1]

In response since the 1970s, an increasing number of secondary schools have retired such Native American names and mascots. Changes accelerated in 2020, following public actions related to issues of institutional racism and nationally covered cases of police misconduct. National attention has been focused on the prominent use of names and images by professional franchises including the Washington Football Team (Redskins until July 2020)[2] and the Cleveland Indians (which decided to change their name after the 2021 season). In Canada, the Edmonton Eskimos have become the Edmonton Elks. Each such change at the professional level has been followed by changes of school teams; for instance, 29 changed their names between August and December 2020. But the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) says some 1,900 schools in 1,025 school districts still have caricature tribal mascots.[3]

The issue has often been reported in the media only in terms of Native American individuals being affected by the offensiveness of certain terms, images, and performances. This reduces the problem to one of feelings and personal opinions. It prevents a more comprehensive understanding of the history and context of the use of Native American names and images, and the reasons why sports teams should eliminate such practices.[4] Social science research has shown that sports mascots and images are important symbols with deeper psychological and social effects in society.[5] A 2020 analysis of this research indicates only negative effects; those psychologically detrimental to Native American students and to non-Native persons by promoting negative stereotypes and prejudicial ideas of Native Americans and undermining inter-group relations.[6] Based on such research showing negative effects, more than 115 professional organizations representing civil rights, educational, athletic, and scientific experts, have adopted resolutions stating that such use of Native American names and/or symbols by non-native sports teams is a form of ethnic stereotyping; it promotes misunderstanding and prejudice that contributes to other problems faced by Native Americans.[7][8]

Defenders of mascots often state their intention to honor Native Americans by referring to positive traits, such as fighting spirit and being strong, brave, stoic, dedicated, and proud; while opponents see these traits as being based upon stereotypes of Native Americans as savages.[9] In general, the social sciences recognize that all stereotypes, whether positive or negative, are harmful because they promote false or misleading associations between a group and an attribute, fostering a disrespectful relationship. The injustice of such stereotypes is recognized with regard to other racial or ethnic groups, thus mascots are morally questionable regardless of offense being taken by individuals.[10] Defenders of the status quo also state that the issue is not important, being only about sports, and that the opposition is nothing more than "political correctness", which change advocates argue ignores the extensive evidence of harmful effects of stereotypes and bias.[11]

The NCAI and over 1,500 national Native organizations and advocates have called for a ban on all Native imagery, names, and other appropriation of Native culture in sports. The joint letter included over 100 Native-led organizations, as well as tribal leaders and members of over 150 federally recognized tribes, reflecting their consensus that Native mascots are harmful.[12][13] Use of such imagery and terms has declined, but at all levels of American and Canadian sports it remains fairly common. Former Representative Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), approved in March 2021 as the first Indigenous Secretary of the Interior, has long advocated for teams to change such mascots.[14]