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).
Even in the best cases, however, taking on a mascot involves a certain amount of objectification and condescension. Animals (Dolphins, Seahawks) don’t have much say in the matter. Other mascots are abstractions or from out of the past (Cowboys, Trojans, 49ers).
But Indian mascots are different from all others in a significant way. They’re the only ones that are based strictly on race or ethnicity. Well, there are the San Diego Padres and Minnesota Vikings, but only the Indians are still real people, currently living among us, the only ones with the capacity to feel the condescension.
In general, the trend has been in the right direction. Wikipedia reports that around 1,000 high schools, universities and professional teams have mascots with Indian origins, down from 3,000 a few decades ago. Nevertheless, at least 11 teams are still known as the Savages.
One team gave up Savages to become the Outlaws. But why should the rest of the schools be moved to change their mascot when the team of our national capital is still the Redskins?
Maybe team owner Snyder will reconsider. I’m certain that the average fan singing “Hail to the Redskins” on a fall Sunday afternoon isn’t committing a conscious act of racial bigotry. Nevertheless, depending on distorted stereotypes of real people for our own amusement is only a dangerously short step away from blackface minstrelsy.
Political correctness is only a slightly exaggerated version of a healthy motivation. Snyder and the Redskins have an opportunity to set an excellent example for schools that are still calling themselves Redskins and Savages by declaring that, while it’s been a cool — albeit racist — mascot for 80 years, we’re just not going to call ourselves Redskins anymore.
What about the supposed “honorifics” like the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves? Perhaps they’re not quite as offensive as Redskin.
But when was the last time you saw a war movie that didn’t include an enlisted Indian in the platoon? The other soldiers always call him “Chief.” And they don’t mean it as a compliment.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email email@example.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service