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Racism, Offensive Names, & Mascots in Sport

How would people feel if a slur or derogatory term toward their own culture or their people were made to be something others would use carelessly? Would people think differently if someone named a team after non-Native people, like Caucasian people or African-American people? The topic about Indigenous mascots has been an ongoing debate for the past 30 years (Locklear, n.d.). Fans of these sports teams believe that keeping these racist and historically inaccurate names and portrayals means they are honoring the culture (Locklear, n.d.), but it is opposite. There are many sports teams and universities in North America with questionable names, all of which have faced some sort of controversy. Some made it out unscathed, while others were forced to change their names. Fans of those sports teams seem to bat eyes at the fact the names are racist or think they are honouring the culture and they are seriously misinformed. However, the culture of Indigenous people should not be flaunted and slandered with these harmful names. People do not realize the real meaning behind these stereotypes or simply are ignorant to the fact that Indigenous people are being affected by these things. Alongside this, cultural appropriation of the made-up traditions created by non-Native people is unacceptable. Indigenous people are being restricted to these stereotypes. However, with proper education, people can realize just how harmful they are being by associating with these mascots and names.

False History of Indigenous People

According to Butler (2018), television has played a huge part in abusing and destroying the image of Indigenous people in North America, no matter who watches what. The misrepresentation of their culture and identity puts a false impression in people’s minds, which always reinforces societies ignorance of the real historical origins (Butler, 2018). Butler (2018) went on to say that a scholar-activist Elizabeth Cook-Lynn said that many Indigenous people have no control in their impression of the Native community, which restricts them from seeing themselves as they were and what they will eventually become. Because of this misconception, it is hard to teach people the correct history of Indigenous people and why the things that are said in the media are, in fact, hurtful and should be put to an end. The representation of Indigenous peoples has almost nothing to do with the people themselves and instead, they are represented by the beliefs held by the white, male population which were created and maintained over the years (Butler, 2018). With these racial stereotypes, it creates social division, which continues to protect the dominant society’s power economically and politically through this so-called popular imagery (Butler, 2018).

Chief Illiniwek and the Fighting Illini

The University of Illinois was a Division 1 school that had affiliation to an Indigenous mascot and team name, which was Chief Illiniwek and the Fighting Illini. Even though this mascot was retired back in 2007, the ghost of the past still lingered within the university because people did not want to let go (Taylor, 2015). A reason for this is the sense of identity people ‘connect’ to with such a mascot (Taylor, 2015). Most of the people who portrayed the infamous Chief Illiniwek were white men who tended to accentuate the ‘dances’, behaviours of Indigenous people (Taylor, 2015). Taylor (2015) mentioned also that the impact of this mascot toward Indigenous people basically overrode their everyday realities because fans use this as a single source of knowledge. This version of so-called ‘Indianness’ was, in fact, based on settler colonial experiences with Indigenous people who were trying to defend their homes, families, and lives (Taylor, 2015). With the white men who formally posed as Chief Illiniwek, stereotyping the way Indigenous people dance and act, what they did had a role in making history, creating change, and engaging in acts of resistance because of the fascination of Indigenous dance to non-Indigenous viewers (Taylor, 2015). These so-called ‘acts’ at games are encounters of the nation’s unresolved themes of marginalization, social injustice, and segregation (Taylor, 2015), which needs to end. With the harmful interpretations done by the men who performed as Chief Illiniwek, the idea of Indigenous people was created, as well as manipulated to conform to the relationships derived from colonialist experiences which defines power relations between white American men and Indigenous people (Taylor, 2015). With this in mind, it is good that the University of Illinois retired the mascot, therefore, others should follow in their footsteps.

Chief Wahoo and the ‘Indians’

The MLB team located in Cleveland, Ohio got their name in 1915 (Bruyneel, 2016) and has had it since. In addition to this, the ‘Indians’ name and the Chief Wahoo mascot have been elements of the city’s ‘tradition’ since then (Jacobs & Taylor, 2011). Chief Wahoo is a character in which he as a large nose, a toothy grin, and redskin (Freng & Willis-Esqueda, 2011), which is hardly an accurate representation of an Indigenous man. In a study done by Freng & Willis-Esqueda (2011), the name ‘Chief Wahoo’ activated negative stereotypes next to other names like ‘Yankee’ and ‘Pirate.’ This study that was done basically contradicted the age-old saying that those mascots honour the Indigenous people (Freng & Willis-Esqueda, 2011). Brown (2016) said that those who are privileged because of the colour of their skin are not required to ponder how their reactions might negatively impact those around them; what is normal for those individuals may have far-reaching and negative consequences for those who do not share their racial privilege. A reason that people may not think that Chief Wahoo is racist, or offensive is because they lack knowledge of the history of Indigenous people or their culture (Brown, 2016).  An example of the representation of fan’s connection to the mascot Chief Wahoo was the 2016 World Series, in which a middle-aged woman approached a group of protesters and professed her love for Wahoo while wearing a head band with a single feather (Young, 2018). In addition to this, during the 2007 post season, a number of fans painted their faces red, with exaggerated painted smiles (Callais, 2010). Callais (2010) stated that in an interview done by Gareis in 1999, a local of Cleveland said, “Whenever I see the Chief, I feel proud and know he symbolizes a very important part of my life. When I am out of town or in a foreign country, I am recognized as by this symbol as a resident of Cleveland.” All the themes of the honour of being a Cleveland Indian supports the racial domination that has been prominent for many years (Callais, 2010). This also imposes the reality that mascots are important to people and may be difficult to change (Callais, 2010).

Washington Football Team

Washington’s NFL football team is most likely one of the most heavily debated and controversial team name in this day in age. Many people, including political actors and observers tend to deem the ‘R’ word as not wrong, but rather as analytically partial (Bruyneel, 2016). Bruyneel (2016) continued in saying that this reason is the why people seem to accept these names as not wrong. The reason why the term is so bad is because of the genocidal and settler-colonial undertones in the word (Bruyneel, 2016). When the Washington football team started being bashed on their team name, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people demanded Dan Snyder, the team owner as of 2016, change the name (Bruyneel, 2016). A senator, Harry Reid, mocked those who stood by the ‘R’ word and claimed it was a tradition by saying, “What tradition? A tradition of racism” (Bruyneel, 2016). In June of 2013, the NFL Commissioner released a letter, in which he stated that the team name of Washington’s football team was never meant to degrade or offend Indigenous people, but in fact, the name was supposed to represent a positive meaning and stand for strength, courage, pride, and respect (Bruyneel, 2016). Many fans wanted the name to say, however, even though people claim that there is positive association with the name, it has been known that Indigenous youth have had a negative impact on their self-esteem because it diminishes and confines the truth in which they understand about their identity (Bruyneel, 2016). Bruyneel (2016) offered people a different way of thinking: if people would not call a team the ‘N’ word, then why should a team use the ‘R’ word? Bruyneel (2016) went on to say that the free pass that has been given (and still is continued to be given today) to the Washington football team goes to show that the settler-colonialism mindset still remains, and that people should consider the implications that come with a situation like this.

Why Do People Think This is Acceptable?

In the crowds of sports stadiums, you see many people wearing the team merchandise with a sense of pride. However, there is line in which we should not be crossing. Blatantly throwing around the ‘team name’ without knowing the real meaning of the world or the history behind the name is an ignorant and dangerous thing to do. Taylor (2015) said that a reason behind these beliefs could be the fact that control of the mascot brings temporary ease to the colonial settler mind to avoid the guilt of their ancestors. Furthermore, people who do support Indian mascots say that the Native people who do protest these mascots do not represent the Indigenous population as a whole, therefore, emphasizing their point that Indian mascots are not harmful (Jacobs, 2014). However, in context of all the sports teams mentioned and talked about before-hand, many fans still use inappropriate ways of showing this pride by wearing things that are connected to the First Nations culture. A single example of these instances would be headdresses. Headdresses were worn by the most brave and powerful warriors by earning the feathers that are integrated in the piece (“Indian Headdress”, n.d.). The people who are non-native and wear these things and claim they are wearing it to honour the culture are misinformed. Wearing this is a slap to the face for those who went through much to earn them. In fact, at a Cleveland Indian baseball games, protesters did stand outside of the field, arguing their sides saying their symbols are not to be made like toys, and then, the pro-mascot side retaliated by giving them the middle-finger and yelling disgusting and insulting things (Jacobs, 2014). For example, the pro-mascot fans targeted the Native protesters, by doing war chants and yelling at them to go back to where they came from (Jacobs, 2014). A danger of this impersonation is that Native people who are sort of involuntarily brought up with the idea of Native people being aggressive and stoic nature, portrayed by mascots, are more likely to have different identities and ideas than those who protest the mascots (Jacobs, 2014). With this divide, Indigenous people are having difficulty communicating their message, that they are, in fact, people, not mascots (Jacobs, 2014).

Personal Experience

Being a young Indigenous woman in Canada, I have learned to become a strong person in the early stages of my life. As a child, you would never expect to be faced with racism. You should never have to prepared, especially at a young age. However, this was the case with me. Nowadays, I do not experience much racism, probably because I choose not to pay attention to it, but before university I had a few experiences with it. When I was a child, I played soccer and I loved it a lot. I made many friends through this sport, friends that I still have to this day. However, one particular game was one that made me stop playing the sport. I was playing defense and I went to take the ball away from an opposing player, however, this player seemed to not like the fact that I did this, so he spat, “Why don’t you go back to the reserve, you dirty Indian?” Surprised, I told one of my coaches, who tried to get the referee to do something, but nothing was done in the end. In that moment, I felt many things: sadness, anger, confusion, I could go on. I did not understand why a kid my age would say something so spiteful and horrible, I was angry because this kid thought he could say this an get away with it, and I felt hurt because I was not a dirty Indian, nor am I today, so why did he call me this? When I asked my parents why people say such things toward our people, they replied that it is because that was how people were taught to think about us: dirty, lazy, no-good people who did not deserve to be equal to others. As a kid, I was intimidated; did I have to be scared to face other white people? In that moment, I realized that I have to be prepared to face things like this in the future, but I secretly hoped I would never have to again, but this was not the case. In high school, I was faced with a situation in which I had to let go some good friends of mine. An event had happened at school where we would be learning about Hoop Dancing as well as the History of the Drum Native culture, which I was very excited for. However, the classmates who were formally my friends, said they did not want to participate because they did not want “someone’s culture shoved down their throats” and if they wanted this, they would have gone to a cultural fair. Hearing this, I was instantly hurt because I thought they were my friends and I did not like the way they said this. I tried to tell them that hearing this did hurt me greatly and that it did not need to be said that way. When they did not understand why I was so hurt, I explained that my culture has been suppressed for hundreds of years and has only started to resurface a couple years ago and if they respected me as a friend, they would at least try to understand that things like this are important, not only to me, but to the whole Indigenous community. However, they said, “Why do we always have to learn about Native culture? Why can’t we learn about European culture?” I was baffled at this, and then explained that the European culture has be dominant for so long and that Canada was born upon European ideologies. To humour them, I asked them what language we were speaking, in which they replied “English,” and then I asked them to ponder it. However, they would not give up. Actually, one girl in particular kept shooting hurtful things at me saying that what me, my family, and my people went through did not matter because it was in the past and in addition, we should “get over it.” When I asked her why she thinks she can say things like that to me, she kept avoiding the question and tried to justify the things she said with things like “I go through things too, it is not just you,” and “we face the same things as you, too.” This made me angry because no matter how hard I tried to make them understand, they would completely turn it around and try to play victim just because I was scolding them for saying such things to me. In the end, they said they were not regretful for the things they said to me, which made me lose respect for them. In the end, I came out of high school with a little friend group, but I would rather have no friends instead of friends who think of me in a bad way. I am always proud of who I am and where my people come from, and no one can change that.


Using words like the ‘R’ word, or ‘Indians’, or any other type of politically incorrect term to describe Indigenous people is wrong. Even though some people of the Indigenous community do not mind the names, it is still considered very disrespectful to many others and a large amount of people actually do take offense to names like these. Like Chief Illiniwek, many teams should follow in their footsteps by retiring their mascots, or even their names completely. With all these names, they do affect the younger population, even if people do not think it does. However, with the evidence of some Indigenous people who do not mind these mascot names, it is hard to move forward with changing mascots and names. People do need to realize that these names are harmful to everyone, not just the Indigenous community. In the end, if people would not use any other derogatory term towards another ethnic group, then why is it acceptable for people to use wrongful terms that degrade the Indigenous community?


  • Brown, T. L. (2016). The student who wore the Indian head baseball cap to class: Teaching “race” in “post racial” America. Making Connections, 16(2), 1-17. Retrieved from // 6341072?accountid=13480
  • Bruyneel, K. (2016). Race, colonialism, and the politics of Indian sport names and mascots: The Washington football team case. Native American and Indigenous Studies, 3(2), 1-24. Retrieved from //
  • Butler, M. L. (2018). “Guardians of the Indian image”: Controlling representations of indigenous cultures in Television. The American Indian Quarterly, 42(1), 1-42. Retrieved from //
  • Callais, T. M. (2010). Controversial mascots: Authority and racial hegemony in the maintenance of deviant symbols. Sociological Focus, 43(1), 61-81. doi: 10.1080/00380237.2010.10571369
  • Freng, S. & Willis-Esqueda, C. (2011). A question of honor: Chief Wahoo and American Indian stereotype activation among a university based sample. The Journal of Social Psychology, 151(5), 577-591. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2010.507265
  • Indian headdress. (n.d.) Retrieved from //
  • Jacobs, M. R. (2014). Race, place, and biography at play: Contextualizing American Indian viewpoints on Indian mascots. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 38(4), 322-345. doi: 10.1177/0193723514530568
  • Jacobs, M. R. & Taylor, T. (2011). Challenges of multiracial antiracist activism: Racial consciousness and chief wahoo. Critical Sociology, 38(5), 687-706. doi: 10.1177/089692051140735
  • Locklear, E. A. (n.d.). Native American mascot controversy and mass media involvement: How the media play a role in promoting racism through Native American athletic imagery. Retrieved from //
  • Taylor, M. (2015). Indian-styled mascots, masculinity, and the manipulated Indian body: Chief Illiniwek and the embodiment of tradition. Ethnohistory, 62(1), 120-143. doi: 10.1215/00141801-2681750


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