Enduring Native American activism is leading to a shift and a gradual removal of Indigenous mascots across the United States.
Back in February 1972, 55 Native American Stanford students and staff fought to change their Indian mascot by presenting a petition to the University Ombudsperson who, in turn, presented it to President Lyman. Later that year, the Indian mascot was formally removed.
In Utah, Bountiful High School changed its nickname from Braves, a fictitious Native mascot, to Redhawks in April 2021 after the advocating efforts from Native American activists, including James Singer, a Salt Lake Community College assistant professor, and Carl Moore of Peaceful Advocates for Native Dialogue and Organizing Support.
“Researchers have repeatedly shown mascot use disproportionately affects Native students in negative ways. It reinforces the racist ideas that White Americans have towards Native Americans,” explained Singer, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters. “If you get rid of a Native mascot it doesn’t harm anyone, but if you maintain a Native mascot, people will be harmed and there will be persecution and contention.”
Tribal activists and scholars on the frontlines have been advocating for schools and sports organizations to change their Native mascots that stereotype and negatively impact Indigenous people. Recent social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter have given people of color a highlighted platform for awareness and support.
“There has been a long-standing solidarity between Black and Indigenous communities and our stories are so intertwined with the formation of this country [U.S.] and resistances to injustices,” said Dr. Luhui Whitebear, a member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation.
Whitebear, a scholar, mother and Indigenous activist, was born into a high pedigree of social activism. Elected to the Corvallis, Oregon, school board in 2021, she was taught as a young girl that her voice mattered. Her mother marched with Cesar Chavez and her father was an active member in the historical American Indian Movement.
Whitebear explained how she believes the murder of George Floyd during the pandemic, when everyone was isolated, has catalyzed a greater social awareness that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The world slowed down enough to finally listen to what social justice groups have been voicing for decades.
This shift motivated groups globally to put pressure on businesses and sports organizations to change the mascot.
Major league decisions
When his franchise was known as the Washington Redskins, NFL team owner Daniel Snyder infamously responded to the controversial name in May 2013 during an interview with USA Today.
“We’ll never change the name … It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps,” Synder said at the time.
But years later, increasing pressure caused several sports teams, including Snyder’s, to change their approach.
Washington dropped the Redskins name before the 2020 season, adopting the name Washington Football Team. The club plans to announce a new name and logo in early 2022.
The Cleveland Indians baseball team also joined the shift, changing their mascot to the Cleveland Guardians in 2022 and discontinuing the use of their derogatory caricature “Chief Wahoo.”
Whitebear is still disappointed about the leading motivating factor behind the changes.
“Unfortunately, it was because of the financial impact, instead of doing the right thing,” Whitebear explained.
Some schools, universities and sport organizations continue to utilize mascots and imagery from Native American tribes. For example, the University of Utah has a standing agreement with the Ute Indian Tribe to provide education and support to their tribe in exchange for use of the “Ute” name.
“We’re honored to continue using the Ute name, and we acknowledge the special responsibility our athletes and fans bear to the Ute Indian Tribe,” U. athletic director Mark Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2020.
Likewise, the Ute Tribe continues to support their agreement with the U.
Misconceptions of Native mascots
Whitebear made it clear she does not speak for sovereign nations that she is not a part of, and it is within the sovereign rights of their governing bodies to act accordingly. She does, however, remind people and organizations to consider the impacts of rival schools and their use of mascots.
“There is no responsibility to the opposing teams and how they mock sports teams with Native mascots,” Whitebear said.
According to Whitebear, U.S. sports teams commonly trash talk their opponents during their games, sometimes with disturbingly derogatory imagery, including signage with the words “Trail of Tears Part 2,” a bullseye placed on Native mascots, and a dead Indian hanging out of a wagon.
“[Mascots] are not a remembrance or honoring of Native peoples, but the creation of what the ‘Indian’ is in terms of the white settler colonizer,” explained Singer, who is also the coordinator of ethnic studies at SLCC. “It is a way to assuage their fears and a way to comfort themselves from the past, which was a physical and cultural genocide that continues today.”
Native people have often been told by defendants of Native American mascots that they should be honored by the noble and brave sports team mascots that represent Indigenous heritage in a positive light.
“These types of depictions of Native imagery wouldn’t be necessary if Indigenous nations were seen as equals in a democratic society,” Singer said. “Public schools are required under law to be as equitable as possible to all of our students.”
Singer has felt firsthand the inequity among Indigenous populations. He would often travel down the Navajo Nation as a child to visit his grandmother and noticed she had no running water, yet nearby at Lake Powell, visitors would have access to all amenities, including running water.
This inspired Singer to run for the U.S. representative of the 3rd Congressional District of Utah. Singer believes in true democracy and equity of living wages in America, and is working on his Ph.D. at Utah State University in sociology, researching labor markets and social policy.
The removal of Native American mascots and Indigenous activism has rested on the shoulders of Native scholars, who are active community members and involved parents raising the next generation of leaders.
“We are so much better than what we have been told and we have so much to offer … and I am optimistic,” Singer said. “Our teachings, our Indigenous knowledge can actually help heal ourselves, each other and our planet.”