The owner of the Washington Redskins, Daniel Snyder, has been clear and emphatic: He has no intention of changing the name of his team, even though many Indians and palefaces recognize the term is clearly a racial slur.
But maybe there’s an opportunity here. Consider how we choose our teams’ mascots. Often we choose animals, totems that usually are powerful, swift and ferocious. Thus, the Detroit Lions and Tigers, the Chicago Bears and the Cincinnati Bengals. I suppose we hope that our teams will aspire to and display the characteristics that we attribute to these beasts.
This explains why my seventh-grade football team’s mascot — the Termites! — was changed by some benevolent administrator over the summer to the Panthers.
We also sometimes name our teams after groups of people: the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco 49ers, the Seattle Mariners, the Houston Texans.
And in an extraordinary number of cases, we name our teams after Native Americans. Many U.S. high schools and colleges have named their teams after Indian tribes (Mohawks, Cherokees, Apaches) or some supposed Indian characteristic or attribute (Warriors, Redmen, Renegades, Braves).
Surprisingly long lists of Indian-themed mascots are easily found online. More than 300 high schools simply call themselves Indians, and at least 80 teams use the term Redskins (including Goshen Community Schools). In fact, more teams have adopted mascots related to Native American culture than use any other category, except for animals.
Some argue that this use of Indian names for mascots serves to honor Native Americans. That’s not unreasonable, especially when Indian tribal names are used.
But a mascot is inevitably a caricature, an oversimplification of something that’s complicated and a simplistic exaggeration of characteristics that we want to appropriate for our teams. In some cases, we imagine that these characteristics are noble (Chiefs, Braves, Warriors); in others, less so (Renegades, Red Raiders, Redskins).