For more than half a century, Native American tribes and their advocates have tried unsuccessfully to persuade professional sports teams to drop names offensive to Native peoples.
But the movement has finally gained momentum in recent years. The Washington professional football team dropped its Redskins moniker in 2020 after decades of protests and announced last month that it had adopted the Commanders name. In July, the Cleveland Indians, who dropped the club’s mascot Chief Wahoo in 2019, announced they were changing their name to Guardians. The Major League Baseball club was the Indians for over a century, since 1915.
And then there are the holdouts: The Atlanta Braves baseball team, Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League and Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League have no plans to change. in name for the time being, and Braves fans still proudly perform the “tomahawk chop” and Native American chanting at home games.
However, opponents of Indian mascots continue to wage their public relations campaign to change that.
The San Manuel Mission Indian Band in San Bernardino and the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation near Sacramento have joined forces with non-profit film organization The Ciesla Foundation to produce the documentary “Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascotting,” which premieres April 3 at the Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula.
San Manuel, the executive producer, provided a $1 million grant for the documentary.
“What we hope to do with the film is educate,” said Ben West, a Cheyenne Indian who co-directed the film. He said the Native American mascot had profound and adverse psychological effects on Indigenous people, especially children, and studies support this view.
“Indigenous youth have high levels of depression and suicidal ideology, and there is a direct line that can be drawn between the impact of the mascot and some of the struggles of Indigenous communities,” West said.
“Imagining the Indian” delves deep into the genesis of the exploitation of Native American culture in competitive sports, and how the Indian mascot not only harmed Indigenous peoples, but marginalized groups around the world.
“This problem is not limited to Native Americans. It affects how people perceive other people — people of color, in general,” said Aviva Kempner, Washington, DC-based filmmaker and co-director of the film.
New traction after Floyd’s murder
She said that at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the murder of George Floyd, there was heightened sensitivity and awareness of the racism rooted in Native American mascots.
“The Washington Football Team owner was finally pressured by his sponsors to change his racist name,” Kempner said in an email. She said there were still three professional sports teams and hundreds of college and high school teams that had to drop their nicknames and mascots.
Stephanie A. Fryberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a member of the Tulalip tribes who is featured in the documentary, led a study published in 2020 that found that younger, more liberal individuals — people who don’t are not identified as cisgender men – were more opposed to, and more harmed by, the use of Native American mascots in general.
“Far from being trivial, mascots are one of the many ways society dehumanizes Indigenous peoples and silences Indigenous voices,” Fryberg’s study says. “These representations not only shape how non-indigenous people see indigenous people, but also how indigenous people understand themselves and what is possible for their communities.”
States push for laws
The push comes as states across the country pass or propose laws to remove Native American mascots, symbols, images and logos from K-12 public schools and other public places. According to the National Congress of American Indians, more than 1,900 K-12 schools across the country still have Native American mascots.
In 2021, 60 K-12 schools across the country changed their nicknames, while 16 have done so so far in 2022, according to the NCAI.
Assemblyman James Ramos, D-Highland, introduced Assembly Bill 2022 on February 14, which would ban the use of the word “squaw” as a name for geographical features and place names in California. Existing locations are expected to be renamed by January 1, 2024, under the bill.
Ramos said in a press release that more than 100 places in California contain the “S-word,” and that the United States Department of the Interior has ordered the term “erased from the national landscape and replaced forever” on nearly 700 sites using the name on federal lands. Montana, Oregon, Maine and Minnesota have already banned the use of the word.
There are different schools of thought on the word “squaw”, its origin and meaning. In his September 13, 2018 article “The S-word: Offensive or Not? Vincent Schilling presented an etymological examination of the word and its interpretation. While some defended the use of the term, saying its historical meaning was that of a Native American “woman” or “young woman”, others denounced the word, saying it referred to sexuality and a woman’s vagina.
Speech incites violence
Ramos agrees that the word “squaw” emphasizes sexual desires and female genitalia. He also argues that the word encourages and sanctions violence against Native American women.
“The word reflects the demeaning attitude towards Native women that has contributed to the crisis of missing and murdered women and girls in the Native American community,” Ramos said in an email.
Regarding the subject of the Native American mascot, Ramos, a member of the San Manuel tribe and former tribal president, said, “It demeans people by creating permission and tolerance to ridicule and belittle Native American culture.
“It also promotes stupid and insulting stereotypes and allows others to engage in disrespectful treatment of Native Americans and our culture,” he said. “Why does anyone need this?”
When asked why it took so long for states and sports teams to finally acknowledge American Indians’ longstanding grievances over the mascot and exploitation of their ancestors, West said the practice was so steeped in tradition that sports teams, schools and other institutions find a hard to break away from.
“I think it’s so ingrained in people’s lives and their idea of tradition,” West said. “It’s time to make people understand that Indigenous people live and breathe and that we exist today. We are not relics behind glass in a museum.
“Imagining the Indian” will travel the festival circuit throughout April, with screenings scheduled in Boston and Washington, D.C. West said the plan is to also package the film with other educational materials. and teaching guides to be offered in schools and tribal communities.
For more information, visit the websites https://imaginingtheindianfilm.org/ and https://sanmanuel-nsn.gov/.