‘We Are Not Extras’

A Native American Perspective on Indian Mascots

By Richard MacPhie

For those of us who love baseball, the 1991 World Series was the sweetest Twin Cities event … well, since the 1987 World Series.

The ‘91 series had lots of memorable moments and was hailed as one of the greatest series ever: seven games, five one-run games, three extra-inning games, a Kirby Puckett game-winning homer, and Jack Morris throwing a 10-inning shutout to win it all. Wow!

Unfortunately, one more thing made the series memorable, too. Atlanta fans took a fancy to the “tomahawk chop,” which, if you don’t remember, is done by robotically moving the arm to and fro in a gesture that is supposed to represent the Braves hacking their opponents into submission. Frankly, I thought the gesture looked pretty stupid.

But what made the chop noteworthy was its social ramifications — the inherent mocking of Native American culture, followed by more mocking of the Native Americans who raised their voice in protest.

Yesterday’s news, you say? The protests at the World Series were only part of an on-going drive to have sports teams drop offensive and outdated Indian names. Cleveland still has Indians, Chicago has Blackhawks, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta the Braves.

Native Americans would like to see those names and insulting behavior change. But come opening day, 1992, it’s a fair guess that the Braves will still be cheered by a stadium full of tomahawk-choppers.

For Native Americans, the tomahawk chop became a token for many kinds of behavior that offend. “Stop the chop” means stop chanting and dancing. It means stop wearing traditional dress “just for fun.” It means stop war-painting your kids and breeding a whole new generation of disrespect. And, yes, “Stop the chop” means it’s time to rethink the wisdom of hanging Native American monikers on sports teams.

Some Indians are outright offended by the names alone. Others don’t mind the names so much, but are offended by the derogatory behavior associated with them. Inane war-whoops, fake dancing, the bastardization of traditional dress? Yes, that’s offensive. And once it’s established that such fan behavior is wrong (it is), then the Indian nicknames behind the behavior must be wrong, too.

Franchises, teams, and their fans freely admit that mascot names are chosen for their imagery. Some teams pick indigenous wildlife such as Blue Jays or Cardinals. Others pick names to reflect local industry, such as Packers, Steelers, or Oilers. Some go with ferocious predators like Bengals, Tigers, Lions, and Bears. And then there are the image names of nasty people perceived as ruthless, teams like Raiders, Vikings, Buccaneers, and, of course, Indians.

We Are a People

When Indians are lumped together with animals and bad-doers, is it any wonder we become offended? Indians are not images. We’re not wildlife, nor are we ruthless warriors; and being Indian is not an occupation. We are a people who would like to function without silly imagery cluttering and clouding us in our daily affairs, whether looking for new jobs or new friends.

The widespread indifference towards Native American concerns boils down to this: to many Americans, Indians are not real people. We’re considered novelties and mascots for others. Many defend the names of their teams by instructing us that we are to feel honored because Indian names enshrine the virtues of brave and fearless warriors. Well, we don’t want to be known as brave and fearless warriors. We want jobs so we can feed our kids. Any behavior that furthers murky stereotypes about our heritage hurts us in that pursuit.

Moreover, the “honor” that people imagine they confer is not for the Indian they pass on the street. It’s for some fictitious storybook figure, standing nobly on a hilltop, full of nature’s wisdom, skillful in the ways of paddling canoes without making ripples. As Indians try to march forward with society, stereotypes like these lock us into the past. One day during the World Series, Indians were peacefully protesting outside the Metrodome in Minneapolis. A large gaggle of Braves fans came by, decked out in skins and feathers. Rather than extend their supposed “respect” to the real Indians there, this group of tomahawk-choppers sauntered by with smug faces as they whooped, taunted, and chopped. These are the types who, before a news camera, will say in innocent tones, “Gosh, I don’t know why they’re upset. We do this ‘cause we respect Indians, and this is our way of honoring them.”

Why do these people need to articulate for us what constitutes an honor and what doesn’t? Our protest is not a proposal for debate; it’s a statement, “Don’t tread on our culture.” When others respond by trying to speak for us, they underscore the perception that we’re not real people: non-real people need real people to think on their behalf.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why people would knowingly (and they do know) engage in behavior that offends and insults another group, all in the name of sports. Don’t get me wrong, I love sports. Rather than argue with tomahawk-choppers, I would just as soon write on the merits of National League vs. American League rules. Want to know how to execute a hit-and-run? Or why outfielders play shallow when the winning run is on third with less than two outs? I’ll write about those, too. Native Americans love sports just as much as non-natives, and nobody last fall was trying to rain on the Braves’ parade.

What we want is a little perspective. The reasonable person weighs the relative values of things in life and prioritizes accordingly. For the modern American Indian, what’s important is gaining a foothold in society. We are in an ongoing struggle to find our place and to be accepted as a people who matter, worthy of respect from those around us, and worthy of self-pride. These priorities are shoved aside by teams which stereotype mascots and by the unthinking behavior of their fans.

To these teams and their fans, Indians are buffoons to be cartooned — non-people who just don’t matter. We object. Our heritage and bloodline are not props for arbitrary and derogatory amusement. We are not extras in everybody else’s play of life. We are persons of humor and intelligence. We want to raise our kids with a healthy sense of pride in their heritage as they smoothly assimilate into the mainstream. Indian nicknames and simplistic characterizations serve only as refreshers of prejudicial thinking that holds us back.

Maybe you have to be Indian to understand some things completely. If you’re Indian, many non-Indians feel no inhibition in calling you “Chief,” “Tonto,” or “Squaw” to your face. If you kick back and enjoy a beer in public, you’re immediately seen as an alcoholic.

Some Atlanta fans whined that Indians have “no right” to tell them they can’t chop. Rights are funny. They don’t mesh neatly like cogs in a smoothly running machine — they often collide and conflict with the rights of others. A person’s right to swing his fist through the air stops where another person’s nose begins. And the right of fans to cheer on their team stops when it hits wrongly at another group of people.

Bad Logic

In Minnesota, the big argument in defense of Indian-name teams comes from Scandinavians, some of whom claim that by Indian logic they are entitled to be offended by the team name “Vikings.” Scandinavians, Indians and everyone else know that these folks aren’t really offended. The real Vikings were a culture so far back in history that their image is almost one of mythology. Nobody carries stereotypes of modern-day Nords wearing horns and plundering villages.

Atlanta Keeps the Chop

Despite protests, the Atlanta Braves will continue with the tomahawk chop, chants and drum beats. “We’re not making any change in our presentation,” Stan Kasten, president of the Braves, announced shortly before opening day in April.

Kasten said the team will maintain the logo and merchandise will still bear the tomahawk. In addition, the stadium organist will continue to spur fan enthusiasm with drum beats and chants.

“We’re not going to do any offensive Indian stereotyping,” Kasten maintained. “No one comes to the ball park thinking about doing the chop as a way of insulting Native Americans. It’s a salute to the team and it doesn’t have anything to do with history.”

Besides, blond-haired, blue-eyed people with names like Peterson and Erickson are thriving just fine in this society. They are more than able to weather jocular references to millenium-old images.

Not so with the modern American Indian. Events such as the Trail of Tears in 1830 and the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890 resonate in the pages of recent history. From a historical standpoint, these wounds are still far too fresh to treat the Native American experience as an abstract tidbit of forgettable history. Most people acknowledge that Indians had almost everything taken from them, but few seem to understand that mockery of our cultures and traditions just continues the taking. Subtly, but for sure, it steals what we value.

Though professional teams are being somewhat stubborn, there has quietly been a wave of high school and college teams dropping their Indian names and adopting, for lack of a better expression, regular names. The general managers and owners of pro teams claim they can’t change because of “decades of tradition.” How ironic. We Indians also speak of tradition. But centuries of American Indian blood, sweat and tears far outweigh decades of Cleveland Indian hits, runs, and errors. The appeals to “sports tradition” are absurd.

When members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) met with Braves officials in Atlanta last November, they were in search of positive signs that the team might consider changing its name. But the Braves reply was that they’re “hot” right now and that any name or image change would be foolish, if for no other reason than the loss of income from souvenirs and sales tied in with the mascot logo.

At least the Braves people were honest about it. But it is truly sad that once again the financial gain and enjoyment of others come at the expense of Native American values and wishes. Ignoring and trampling Indian culture helped “win the west,” but that was last century. Sports teams must realize that as time marches on, some things once considered OK by the majority culture become outdated travesties instead. Separate restrooms and drinking fountains for blacks and whites are an example. Another is the anachronistic idiocy of Indian team names. One day Americans will wonder why, in those progressive 1990s, teams didn’t change their names without hesitation. Until then, Indians will continue the protest, not for the sake of political correctness, but in order to correct a moral wrong.