On February 21, 2007, Chief Illiniwek danced for the last time. The man had been through a lot of turmoil in recent years, and his last dance was met with both sadness and a sort of weary relief. His friends considered him a dignified symbol of years gone by. His opponents, however, had watched his revelry in disgust and anguish. Illiniwek was the mascot of the University of Illinois, a so-called Illini tribesman dressed in Lakota Sioux garb. His final appearance at a basketball game ended a controversy that was not unique to the team, or even to the sport. The retirement of the Chief Illiniwek figure was just the latest example of the clash between sports fans and some indigenous American groups regarding the usage of native people as mascots—a clash that bespeaks tribal feelings both old and new.
Just imagine if you were to go to a sporting event against a team called, for example, the "Fighting Chinamen," whose fans wore conical sun hats, painted their faces a garish yellow, and chanted a fight song set to the musical phrase known as the "Oriental riff." You would likely be quite shocked. Yet even in the present day, many similarly questionable stereotypes are used by both collegiate and professional sports teams attempting to invoke the spirit of indigenous American people. Whether general —the Redskins, the Indians, the Braves, the Chiefs— or specific to a tribe—the Seminoles, the Chippewas, or the Fighting Sioux—these names cause controversy. Yet the fans of these teams cling to their traditional mascots, in spite of the quarrels. Why?
If you talk to fans of "Indian" teams, they'll insist that they aren't racist, and even offer the defense that that their team names and mascots are attempting to honor indigenous people. You might hear them say that opponents are just being "politically correct" (if they remember the 90s) as they point to surveys showing that a sizable percentage of native people aren't offended by these team names. But at the heart of it, it's that these team names, mascots, war paint, headdresses, chants, and all the other accoutrements of fandom are part of a beloved tradition. A tradition that is, perhaps ironically, quite tribal.
The culture surrounding sports is fundamentally a conservative and clannish one (and I say this as a big fan of both Carolina basketball and the Atlanta Braves). In such a culture, tradition and pride reign supreme; to be a fan is to fervently hope that this group you call your own will vanquish its foes, and perhaps even establish a dynasty. When you are decked out in the colors of your team, singing fight songs, shouting the names of your team’s leaders, it's not hard to see a certain breed of tribalism at work. And so an attack on having a mascot like Chief Wahoo is perceived as an attack on Cleveland itself. No wonder people take it so personally.
Being social animals, we evolved to cleave to our group and to defend it against assailants, because it in turn kept us safe, fed, and happy. However natural these impulses to defend a beloved team may be, that doesn't make them right. These deeply ingrained tendencies can cause us to act against our better judgment—almost all of us recognize that racism is unenlightened—and to perhaps ignore what would be obvious otherwise: that it's not OK to perpetuate stereotypes against people who have historically had a pretty rough time of it. Folks, you might not be racist, but you're participating in a racist thing.
This may sound a bit bleak, but I think it's actually quite hopeful. We as a society are changing, albeit slowly. Over the past few years, many college teams have changed their branding, either voluntarily or thanks to pressure from the NCAA. The state of Oregon has banned the use of sports mascots recalling indigenous Americans. And, showing that sometimes these gestures to honor a people can actually work, some tribes have given their blessing to individual teams to use their particular tribal name, as the Seminole nation gave to Florida State University.
We are all tribal, in a way. We want to protect our own. But when these tribal impulses create as much hurt as they do harmony, we must begin to move beyond them.
Note: I attempted to use tribal names whenever possible in this article but use the term "indigenous American" when necessary to refer to people of Native American/American Indian descent seen as a whole.
Have you ever unintentionally used a slur—such as "gyp" or "Indian giver"—and been called out on it? How did you respond?
photo by Keith Allison