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Indian Stereotypes in Sports

During the 1960s, the National Congress of American Indians began a campaign to eliminate negative stereotyping of American Indians in the media. They focused mainly on cartoons and movies; however their protests of sports organizations garnered the most attention. Since 1971, nearly two-thirds of professional and amateur athletic teams bearing Native American iconography have made a change, but there are still quite a few holdouts.

Evolution of the Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo Logo
Evolution of the Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo Logo

The American Indian community has been working to end the appropriation by sports teams of Native American images and names like Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Braves. The Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo offends Indian people the same way that Little Black Sambo offended African Americans and the Frito Bandito offended the Hispanic community. However American Indian images and nicknames remain common in sports, and may be seen in use by teams at all levels from elementary school to professional.

The Cleveland Indians name has been used since 1915 and the team has used various forms of Chief Wahoo as its logo since 1915, the current version since 1952. Every Opening Day in Cleveland, when Native Americans protest outside Progressive Field, Indians fans take comfort in the myth that the name and logo honor Louis "Chief" Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who played with the Cleveland Spiders from 1897 to 1899. 


Evolution of the Washington Redskins Logo
Evolution of the Washington Redskins Logo

Lately, the debate over the Washington Redskins name has been getting a lot more intense, but so far the team's owner and many longtime Redskins fans are adamantly opposed to changing it. During a October 14, 2013, Sunday night football game between the Redskins and the Cowboys, NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas delivered a halftime essay on the subject:

  • With Washington playing Dallas here tonight, it seems like an appropriate time to acknowledge the ongoing controversy about the name, "Redskins."¯ Let's start here. There is no reason to believe that owner Daniel Snyder, or any official or player from his team, harbors animus toward Native Americans or wishes to disrespect them. This is undoubtedly also true of the vast majority of those who don't think twice about the longstanding moniker. And in fact, as best can be determined, even a majority of Native Americans say they are not offended.

    But, having stipulated that, there's still a distinction to be made. Objections to names like 'Braves,' 'Chiefs,' 'Warriors,' and the like strike many of us as political correctness run amok. These nicknames honor, rather than demean. They are pretty much the same as 'Vikings,' 'Patriots,' or even 'Cowboys.' And names like 'Blackhawks,' 'Seminoles,' and 'Chippewas,' while potentially more problematic, can still be OK provided the symbols are appropriately respectful - which is where the Cleveland Indians with the combination of their name and "Chief Wahoo"¯ logo have sometimes run into trouble.

    A number of teams, mostly in the college ranks, have changed their names in response to objections. The Stanford Cardinal and the Dartmouth Big Green were each once the Indians; the St. John's Redmen have become the Red Storm, and the Miami of Ohio Redskins -- that's right, Redskins -- are now the Red Hawks.

    Still, the NFL franchise that represents the nation's capital has maintained its name. But think for a moment about the term "Redskins," and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group.

    When considered that way, 'Redskins' can't possibly honor a heritage, or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It's an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent. It is fair to say that for a long time now, and certainly in 2013, no offense has been intended. But, if you take a step back, isn't it clear to see how offense might legitimately be taken?

  • Defenders of the Redskins name and logo claim that they honor Native Americans, but the team's founder was a notorious racist named George Preston Marshall who thought of the idea strictly as a marketing gimmick. He thought the Redskins name was funny, just as he thought the war paint and feather headdress he made the head coach wear were funny. He even had his players dress up in Indian outfits and perform during halftimes.

    Because of Marshall's virulent racism, he was a driving force in banning blacks from playing in the NFL beginning in 1927. Prior to that time, blacks played in the NFL and no one much cared -- except racists like George Preston Marshall. The ban was lifted in 1946, but the Redskins were the last team in the NFL to integrate (1961) and it was only done then because they moved into a stadium on public property and were forced to stop discriminating against black players.

    When George Preston Marshall died in 1969, he directed that the bulk of his estate be used to set up a foundation in his name. He attached one firm condition: that the foundation, operating out of Washington, D.C., should not direct a single dollar toward "any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form."¯ This is the man who gave the Washington Redskins their name.

    The Washington Redskins' original (1938-1980s) fight song:

    Hail to the Redskins!
    Hail, victory!
    Braves on the warpath!
    Fight for Old D.C.!
    Scalp 'em, swamp 'um
    We will take 'um big score
    Read 'um, Weep 'um, touchdown
    We want heap more
    Fight on, fight on, till you have won
    Sons of Washington
    Rah! Rah! Rah!

    Hail to the Redskins is the second oldest fight song for a professional American football team. During the 1938 season the Redskins played their new fight song for fans in attendance at the games. The Redskin band was dressed in buckskins and headdresses, and featured a chorus line of prancing Indian princesses. 

    According to a recent poll conducted by the Associated Press, 79 percent of Americans think the Washington Redskins should keep their name. This should only be cited as proof that 79 percent of Americans are willfully ignorant and need a history lesson.


    Sign at a Sonic drive-thru in Belton, Missouri
    Sign at a Sonic drive-thru in Belton, Missouri
    December 2013


    June 2014 - US Patent Office Cancels Redskins Trademark 

    The United States Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the Washington Redskins trademark registration, calling the football team's name "disparaging to Native Americans."¯ Federal trademark law does not permit registration of trademarks that "may disparage" individuals or groups or "bring them into contempt or disrepute."¯ The ruling pertains to six different trademarks associated with the team, each containing the word "Redskin."¯


    Update - January 29, 2017: 

    The Cleveland Indians will stop using the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms beginning in 2019, according to Major League Baseball, which said the popular symbol was no longer appropriate for use on the field.


    Update - July 13, 2020:

    The N.F.L. team in Washington announced Monday that it would drop its logo and “Redskins” from its name, yielding to sponsors and Native American activists who have long criticized it as a racist slur.


    Update - July 23, 2021:

    Known as the Indians since 1915, Cleveland's Major League Baseball team will now be called the Guardians. In 2018, the Indians stopped wearing the contentious Chief Wahoo logo on their jerseys and caps. However, the team continues to sell merchandise bearing the smiling, racist caricature.




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    Redface! -- Contents

    Racist Indian Stereotypes

    History of Indian Stereotypes

    Redface in Film and TV

    Indian Myths vs Reality

    Indian Stereotypes in Sports

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    Black Stereotypes

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    Asian Stereotypes

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    Hispanic Stereotypes

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    Indian Stereotypes

    Arabface Icon small
    Arab Stereotypes

    Jewface Icon small
    Jewish Stereotypes


    Racial and Racist Stereotypes in Media


    Copyright © 
    Ken Padgett