Aboriginal References in Team Names in Professional Sports
None can avoid it. The history of the First Nations still plays a considerable role nowadays. I should also add that Natives have inspired more than one. Thomas King, who has spent almost his entire life working on the First Nations cultures argues that one “can only watch and marvel at the way in which the Dead Indian has been turned into products” (King, p.56). The proof is there, for example in companies labeling their products and sports teams with North American indigenous names. Here are a few examples of different merchandises linked with Indians: Dodge, one of the biggest car builders, has named some of their four-wheel drives Grand Cherokee and Dakota; the painkiller for joints and muscle Lakota; and tobacco producers branded in the early 1900’s their chewing tobacco Redman. Besides these products, many are the sports team with a name corresponding to one of the North American’s First Nations. The question is: why use Aboriginal names and where does the idea of using such names for sports teams come from? There are numerous sports team exploiting the First Nations designations. However, this paper is focused on the professional teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks from the National Hockey League, the Major League Baseball clubs Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, and the Washington Redskins from the National Football League.
As you know now, we live on a continent that has been influenced for centuries by the North American Aboriginals. King confirms that we live in a place where our culture is believed to be a “popular culture littered with savage” (King, p.53). The Chicago Blackhawks from Illinois State is one the famous teams from the Original Six NHL clubs founded in the early 1900’s. The Hawks’ name was retrieved as an act of remembrance of the Native soldiers who defended the Illinois State during the World War One. The Blackhawks were the tribes living in that states at this time. Using such a Native name for a professional team was a show of respect towards the First Nations. The club founder Frederic McLaughlin said it was used as an icon (The McLaughlin Years). Many critics have been challenging both the logo and the name of the professional club. What has been said is that having names representing the ancestors of those who have Indian blood is such a shame and it is disrespectful as well as racist. In other words, those people think that opponents still think in the old way when Whites thought they were superior to Africans, Chinese, or Muslims (Cox, 2010).
While Chicago Blackhawks is the only professional hockey team using a Native name in the NHL, the MLB has to two teams with names referring to tribes. First of all, in the South East of the United States, there are the Atlanta Braves. The first of the two Georgian club logos was a male Indian face wearing a Mohawk hairstyle with a feather stuck in his hair. The second is the team name written in red and navy blue accompanied by a tomahawk chop. The chop on the logo, which has been kept throughout the logo changes, is the official object qualifying the Atlanta Braves. In fact, in order to root for their home team, spectators wave their right forearm up and down like a chopping action and sing a sort of “Indian-sounding” song. It represents the tomahawk chop retrieved from the team logo. According to Steve Wulf from Sports Illustrated, the Atlanta Braves got their name from an Indian warrior in 1912, which signifies that the Atlanta baseball club players are “fighters” too (Wulf, 1982).
The second MLB team using an Aboriginal name are the Cleveland Indians. The club was first named Cleveland Nap in honor of their manager Nap Lajoie. When he quit the team, the club owner renamed the Ohio club “Indians” as a thankful mark of respect of the Native American Louis Sockalexis, who played for this team (Indians History Overview).
The club’s logo is a redskin smiling cartoon Indian with a feather in the back of the head. It has been criticized by more than one for maintaining Native Americans stereotypes. However, after numerous meetings discussing the possibility of changing both the logo and name, the owner Paul Dolan maintained the actual design once again in remembrance of the First Nations (McGraw, 2015).
Then, the last but not the least, the team who has created the most reaction about their name and logo are the Washington Redskins from the NFL. The team logo is an old-looking dark redskin Indian seen on his left side profile, wearing two feathers. In 1933, the co-owner George Preston Marshall changed the name to Redskins when the team moved from Boston to Washington. The change was made in order to avoid any confusion with the Boston Braves, which had Indians as the team name (Banzhaf, 2014). Conversely, after a survey, fans responded positively regarding the impact of the Native name on the team. In other words, fans do not want any change concerning the team’s name. On the flip side, many have characterized the professional club’s design as being offensive. During a Tribal Nations Conference, the President of the United States of America strongly reacted regarding the controversy. Barack Obama said that “If [he] were the owner of the team and [he] knew that the name of [his] team, even if they’ve had a storied history, was offending a sizeable group of people, [he]’d think about changing it” (Smith).
According to the web site Five Thirty-Eight, there are more than forty-two thousand sports team in North America using Native American references for mascot names and/or team names. The top-three most used names are Warriors, Indians, and Raiders. A lot of people think these names and logos are offensive towards North American First Nations people. However, the common point between these teams regarding their names and logos was for the purpose of respectful remembrance. Even though Thomas King argues on the fact that Indian Tribes’ names have been turned into products, there is something more than just the product in itself, especially for sports teams. The First Nations were considered as warriors; just like the players, they have fought for something. The question remains whether or not it is appropriate to equate fighting for land and people or cultural survival with fighting to win a game.
Wulf, Steve (1982-08-09), America’s Team II, Sports Illustrated
Daniel McGraw (April 11, 2015). “Native Americans protest Chief Wahoo logo at Cleveland Indians home opener”. The Guardian.
“Defense of “Redskins” Name Shattered – Pressure to Now Change “Racist” Name Grows”. May 29, 2014.