November 16: opinion piece/thunk piece

The topic of cultural appropriation and inappropriate use/misuse of traditional indigenous cultural symbols, especially in sports, has been more widely discussed over the last several years.

Football fans know that the Washington (DC) Redskins dropped the offensive “Redskins” from their name. Bizarrely, the team has decided to play as the generic Washington Football Team until such time as a new name is chosen.

But the “cringeworthiness” of sports’ misappropriation goes beyond names: the Cleveland Indians caricature logo “Chief Wahoo” (which is being phased out), and the “notorious” tomahawk chop:

“For many fans, the chop and its accompanying chant — a pantomimed tomahawk motion and made-up war cry, also employed by fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Florida State Seminoles and England’s Exeter Chiefs rugby team — are a way to show solidarity with their team and to intimidate the opposition. But to many Native Americans — locally and afar — and others, the act is a disrespectful gesture that perpetuates negative stereotypes of the nation’s first people and embarrasses a city that fancies itself a hub of culture and innovation in the Midwest.” John Eligon, “Celebrating the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chop Divides, New York Times, January 29, 2020

As part of the New York Times Learning Network: Student Opinion series, “Is It Offensive for Sports Teams and Their Fans to Use Native American Names, Imagery and Gestures?” (January 31, 2020) focuses on the Kansas City Chiefs as the team would be in the national spotlight during the Super Bowl.

The Eligon article is a touchstone, a starting point for discussion. It continues:

The organization has worked with Native Americans over the past six years to reconsider and reform some of its traditions. That dialogue resulted in the team’s discouraging fans from dressing in Indian regalia and asking broadcasters to refrain from panning to those who disregard the request. The team makes informative announcements about Native American history and tradition during some games, and a group of Natives hands out literature at the stadium. The team sometimes invites Native people to bless the drums that are ceremonially beaten before games. Eligon, “Celebrating”

Counter to this, are the reactions of Native leaders and community organizers such as Gaylene Crouser, Executive Director of the Kansas City Indian Center and member of the Standing Rock Sioux: “As an organization, part of our mission is to empower Indian people. . . And things like the tomahawk chop don’t empower Indian people. It’s still very stereotypical and mocking of an entire race of people.” Eligon, “Celebrating”

A survey conducted (by the Universities of Michigan and California, Berkeley) to gauge Native American’s response to sports fans doing things like the tomahawk chop or made-up war chants found that the more an individual engaged in Native traditions, the more the respondent was bothered by such actions. Fifty percent of those less engaged still found issue with these practices.

Stephanie Fryberg, a University of Michigan professor, who is a member of the Tulalip tribe, worked on the survey. She commented: “There’s no way that the use of Natives as mascots is honoring [native americans] . . . That’s an illusion.” Eligon, “Celebrating”

The “Is it Offensive” highlights further thoughts and comments contained in the Eligon “Celebrating” article, then asks that students consider:

  • Is it offensive for sports teams and their fans to use Native American names, imagery and gestures? Do you think Chiefs’ fans should end their use of the tomahawk chop?
  • According to the article, many Chiefs fans say that they use the chop “to celebrate their team, not to demean Indians.” However, Gaylene Crouser, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux, argues that it is “mocking of an entire race of people.” Which viewpoint is more persuasive? Does it matter what an individual fan intends with their use of the gesture? Or is it the impact of the chant on others that is important?
  • Have you ever witnessed or participated in a tomahawk chop at a sporting event? If yes, how did you experience the cheer? Do you enjoy it? Were you embarrassed or offended by it? Does reading the article make you reconsider the meaning of that gesture? Do you think you would ever engage in the tomahawk chop at a sporting event in the future?
  • Should teams, like the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Chiefs, change their names? Explain. Does your opinion change if the team in question serves a large Native American population, like Haskell Indian Nations University, or if a specific tribe gives its approval for a name, like the Seminole tribe did for the Florida State Seminoles? Why?
  • Will you watch Super Bowl LIV? Will the tomahawk chop affect how you will experience or enjoy the game?

Students were then invited to send in their comments to the Times. Rather than parse out  the 146 comments for you, I suggest you sample them for yourself. I found the responses enlightening as to how the current high school generation “thinks” and to what extent they have been “exposed” to native American studies, native American issues and culture.

I have never liked team names like the “Redskins” or the “Black Hawks;” cringed when fans did tomahawk chops and chants (I often hoped teams with such fan-based activities would not make the playoffs) while wildly inappropriate team mascots cavorted about, and people, in general, were dismissive of native American attempts to draw attention to the demeaning and offensive nature of these actions and team names, symbols, logos and mascots.

Given the derisive nature of these times, the broader discussions of cultural misappropriation, systemic racism and race assumptions, the efforts of Native Americans to have their concerns, and issues heard and legitimized, I think it’s important for adults, not just students, to ask themselves these sorts of questions.

feature image: Hartford Courant