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“Playing Indian” with Sports Mascots Never Honors Native Americans

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Washington Redsk*ns helmets
Photo credit: C Watts

A silver lining in the cloud of racial injustice and pandemics. The NFL announced that the Washington Redsk*ns will change their offensive name and logo. This is years after owner Dan Snyder crossed his arms and said it would never happen. We never thought this day would come as soon as it did. It was about time. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker reveal in this adapted selection from “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, the history of Indigenous anti-mascot initiatives goes further back than you think.


Sociologist James O. Young writes that cultural appropriation happens when people from outside a particular culture take elements of another culture in a way that is objectionable to that group. According to Young’s definition, it is the objection that constitutes appropriation, as distinguished from cultural borrowing or exchange where there is no “moral baggage” attached. Native American cultural appropriation can be thought of as a broad range of behaviors, carried out by non-Natives, that mimic Indian cultures. Typically, they are based on deeply held stereotypes, with no basis at all in knowledge of real Native cultures. This acting out of stereotypes is commonly referred to as “playing Indian,” and, as Philip Deloria’s research so eloquently revealed, it has a long history, going at least as far back as the Boston Tea Party. Some forms of appropriation have been outlawed, as is the case with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (IACA). Responding to the proliferation of faux Indian art (which undermines economic opportunities for actual Native American artists), the IACA is a truth-in-advertising law that regulates what can legitimately be sold as Indian art. No such possibility exists, however, for the vast majority of appropriations American Indians endure daily.

Non-Native people play Indian whenever they don any garb that attempts to replicate Native culture (however serious or trivial their intent) or otherwise mimic what they imagine to be Indian behavior, such as the tomahawk chop, a fake Indian dance, or bogus war whoop. Native American appropriation is so ubiquitous in US society that it is completely normalized, not only rendering it invisible when it occurs, but also adding insult to injury. Native people are also shamed for being “hypersensitive” when they protest. Halloween costumes, popular fashion, and children’s clubs and activities (such as the YMCA’s Indian Guides and Princesses programs and other summer camps) are some of the more obvious ways cultural appropriation occurs through Indian play in mainstream society, but perhaps its most visible form is in school and sports team mascots. Campaigns to put an end to the turning of American Indians into mascots began in the early 1960s when the National Indian Youth Council began organizing on college campuses to remove Indian sports stereotypes. Then, in 1968, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest pan-Native representational and advocacy organization in the United States, established its own anti-mascot initiative. Once obscure, the movement to eradicate Indian mascots has snowballed into mainstream awareness.

In 2013, the NCAI issued a report outlining their position on Indian mascots. It mentions numerous resolutions that have been passed by the organization over the years, including one in 1993 imploring the Washington professional football team referred to as the “Redsk*ns” to drop its name, and another in 2005 supporting the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ban on native mascots, nicknames, and imagery.

The report summarizes the negative impacts that Indian mascots have been shown to have on Native youths, citing, for example, a study by cultural and social psychology scholar Stephanie Fryberg. Her 2004 study revealed that when exposed to stereotypical “Indian” images, the self-esteem of Native youths is harmed, eroding their self-confidence and damaging their sense of identity. This is crucial given that the suicide rate among young American Indians is epidemic at 18 percent, more than twice the rate of non-Hispanic white youth, and contextualized by the fact that Native Americans experience the highest rates of violent crimes at the hands of people from another race. Since the early 1970s, thousands of public and postsecondary schools have dropped their Indian mascots, and hundreds more professional and governmental institutions have adopted resolutions and policies opposing the use of Native imagery and names, including the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the US Commission on Civil Rights. In 2015 California became the first state to ban “Redsk*ns” as a mascot name in public schools.

As the NCAI report indicates, the “Redsk*ns” name is particularly offensive to Native peoples. According to the report,

The term originates from a time when Native people were actively hunted and killed for bounties, and their skins were used as proof of Indian kill. Bounties were issued by European companies, colonies, and some states, most notably California. By the turn of the 20th century it had evolved to become a term meant to disparage and denote inferiority and savagery in American culture. By 1932, the word had been a term of commodification and the commentary on the color of a body part. It was not then and is not now an honorific. . . . The term has since evolved to take on further derogatory meanings. Specifically, in the 20th century [it] became a widely used derogatory term to negatively characterize Native characters in the media and popular culture, such as films and on television.

Over the last twenty-five years, at least twenty-eight high schools have abandoned the name, but the Washington football team’s owner, Dan Snyder, has stalwartly insisted that he will never change the name, despite mounting legal challenges to its trademark and public outspokenness by President Barack Obama and other political leaders about its offensiveness. A growing number of media outlets and prominent sports reporters have vowed to stop using the name, and even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has acknowledged its insensitivity.

Although arguments to justify the usage of Native images in the world of professional sports are weak at best, there are some instances where the use of Native mascots has been deemed acceptable at the college level, according to the NCAI report. The NCAA ban, for instance, includes a “namesake exception” that allows universities to keep their Native American nicknames and logos when they are based on a specific tribe and they have been granted the permission by that tribe. Such permission was granted for Florida State University (“Seminoles”), Central Michigan University (“Chippewas”), and the University of Utah (“Utes”). The University of North Dakota, on the other hand, due to opposition of the name “Fighting Sioux” from local tribes, was not granted an exemption. At the high school level, at least one high school in New York State has successfully fought to retain its Native mascot despite a request from the state’s education commissioner to boards of education and school superintendents to end their use of American Indian mascots and team names. Salamanca Central High School (SCHS) is located within the boundaries of the Seneca Nation, 26 percent of its student body is American Indian, and the team name “Warriors” is represented by an accurate depiction of a Seneca sachem rather than the cartoonish Plains-style Indian so typical of Native mascots. A name change was opposed by the Seneca Nation of Indians Tribal Council, the SCHS administration and student body, the Salamanca school board, and the Salamanca city council in a show of cross-cultural solidarity.

Be that as it may, there is a subtle claim to ownership in the realm of mascot names and images that scholars of cultural appropriation have keenly unmasked. With university and college examples like the Florida State Seminoles, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, and many others, non-Native mascot defenders claim such representations honor particular tribal nations and peoples. But what they really do is assert an imagined indigeneity whereby white dominant society assumes control of the meaning of Nativeness. Professor of professional sport management at Drexel University Ellen Staurowsky characterizes these kinds of fraudulent claims to Indianness as a system of sustainable racism within a “sociopolitical power structure that renders Indianness tolerable to Whites as long as it is represented on terms acceptable to them.” She also points out the inconsistency of tolerating objectionable university Indian mascots with the central mission of higher education.

The myth that Indian mascots honor Native Americans, then, appears to be little more than a carefully constructed rationale to justify the maintenance of a system of domination and control—whether intentionally or unintentionally—where white supremacy is safeguarded, what Robert F. Berkhofer Jr. famously called the “White Man’s Indian.” And particularly at the level of professional sports, the branding of Native American team names and images also serves more as a rationale to maintain financial empires (explaining the stubborn adherence to racist portrayals of Native peoples in organizations like the Washington Redsk*ns), than dubious claims to be honoring them. But the justifications for American Indian cultural appropriation don’t end with sports team mascot battles and fashion debacles. Appropriating Native cultures by playing Indian permeates US society so broadly it strikes at the very heart of Native American cultures, their spiritually based systems of belonging and identity, which we turn to next.


About the Authors 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of seven other books, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @rdunbaro. 

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning. Her research interests focus on Indigenous nationalism, self-determination, environmental justice, and education. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of indigeneity and the sport of surfing. She is co-author with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of Beacon Press’s “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, and author of As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website.