Native American mascots – an essay

Since nothing is really happening in Birdland I feel like I have to take a moment to discuss something else. Recently, MLB unveiled updated batting practice alternate caps for each team and to the surprise to many the Atlanta Braves went retro and brought back their cartoon native mascot affectionately(?) called “the screaming savage.”

This, of course, has resurrected the controversy over MLB teams using Native American names, cartoons, and paraphernalia.  Is it offensive? Should these names be retired? Are ALL offensive, or only some? Do some of these organizations get a pass on their extensive histories in the league?

To me these are all very complicated questions with equally complicated answers and the debate speaks to this nation’s continuing struggle with its own social history.

Myself, I am not necessarily offended by any of this stuff simply because it is not my place to BE offended by these various caricatures. I am a suburban-born white-guy, end of story. There is no way that I will ever truly feel the sting of discrimination as if I was someone from one of the multitudes of demographic minorities. Yes, even though I live in Baltimore where I am a demographic minority I am still part of the cultural hegemony of white-ethnic-Europeans that run most of the developed world. Some of you may roll your eyes at that last line, trust me I am not espousing some sort of self-loathing white-guilt when I write that – it is just simply the facts of the matter; 500 years ago Europeans took to boats, sailed around the world and subjugated the native peoples of those lands in the name of gold, glory and God. It is the reason we speak English, it is the reason most of us are some sort of Christian and it is the reason we believe in capitalism.

So no I am not offended, but as a person that has spent the lion’s share of his life studying American history I look at these things and wonder, “Why?”  Ethnic-stereotypes and ethnic-caricatures are not anything new in America, one does not need to go far back into American cultural history to see what I am talking about. (TRY THIS AT HOME(!): Do a quick search of “old racist ad” and… enjoy? )But what is interesting to me is that virtually all other types of those mascots and advertising strategies have been relegated to the dustbin of history along with the minstrel show. Today they are largely a bygone curiosity, except for Native American imagery.

Now, before someone rushes to the comment section and types out some anti-PC screed just understand this; it has nothing to do with PC. Cultures change and we decided that “Picaninny freeze” wasn’t just a summertime treat – it was pretty dang offensive. We also decided that using cheap ethnic caricatures to sell everything from baking soda to laundry detergent was pretty ignorant and wrong.

So why are the “Redskins” still around? How has “Chief Wahoo” survived the test of time? How, in 2013, does the “Screaming Savage” make a comeback? What is it about the Native American caricature that allows it to still be culturally acceptable when some much other similar caricature has been left behind?

I have a theory: Most Americans don’t have day-to-day contact with many Native Americans. Sure, over time the different ethnicities that make up the demographic mosaic of this country have largely intermingled and integrated – but Native Americans have always had a much more difficult time with that. So as the civil rights movement did away with many of the other ethnic stereotypes seen in media the Native Peoples of the country never really captured the cultural movement the way others did. Put another way if there truly is an “invisible minority” in America today it seems to be the Native American. And that is a direct result of American/Native relationship since the 18th century.  And it is that relationship that is really at the crux of the argument here.

Yes, “Fighting Irish” is just as offensive and plays off the stereotype of Irish violence, but it is vastly different. The Irish weren’t conquered by Americans, forced to assimilate, moved off their land or outright exterminated. Even when some of the Native tribes attempted to assimilate, sue to keep their lands and WIN the United States still moved them onto small, barely arable lands only to be moved again and again. There is no other way to say it: it was genocide plain and simple. It was ethnic cleansing born from Manifest Destiny and completed by her great-granddaughter Social Darwinism. And today multi-billion dollar industries cherry-pick the ruins of those cultures to sell tickets, hats and jerseys.

When put in that context it is easy to understand why people would find it offensive and makes many people squeamish.

If asked to make a decision “Chief Wahoo” needs to go. It is just a straight-up caricature and is wrong on so many levels. The “Screaming savage” (AKA Chief Noc-a-homa) sure it is an attempt to be a less-offensive photo-realistic depiction of a native person. The only thing is, it is a depiction of a Native American of the Great Lakes region (the original home of the franchise), the “Braves” in what is now Atlanta would not look like Noc-a-Homa.

Redskins should most likely be changed as well. It is a racial slur. It was a word that was originally intended to degrade an entire group of people. It is bad.

Will any of these things change? Likely not. Should fans of these teams feel any differently than they have in the past – absolutely not. It is okay to be a ‘skins fan, same with the Braves and Indians. But let us all just understand this: we are exploiting a culture that our national ancestors attempted to systematically destroy, we might not be able to do anything about that history; but what we can do is understand that history and learn from the sins of our collective past. Organizations like the Florida State and the Chicago Blackhawks genuinely work well with their local nations to make sure that what they do is somewhat accurate, legitimate and above all respectful.