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Monday, October 08, 2007

The Indigenous People's Team

In honor of Indigenous People's Day I'm taking a look at my favorite baseball team's mascot and the surrounding issues because I'm nothing if not a killjoy at times.  Please note that I'm not really making an argument for or against the use of Native American imagery in sports, but rather simply musing because I've been thinking about this for a couple of decades thanks to my own miniscule amount of Cherokee blood which, BTW, clearly does not give me any special claim on correctness.  This also isn't meant to imply that my feelings about this issue are important, 'cept to me.

First of all, the logo itself.  It's a caricature, of course, as are most logos.  Is that bad?  Dunno.  I played with Chief Wahoo (which is the stupidest fucking name ever) and made him Simpsons Yellow with a cowboy hat (trust me, that's a cowboy hat), and added Pat Patriot's tri-corner hat as well with a fleshtone (old-style Crayola, of course).  Is it now less offensive when it's not an "Indian"?  Still dunno.

Oh, I forgot to make one with Yankee Doodle's feather in his hat.  Oddly enough, that was an insult to American colonists back in the day, but we latched onto it and made it our own proud moniker.  Taking it back, you might say, like Randal in Clerks II:

Randal Graves: You know, come to think of it, my grandmother was kind of a racist.
Dante Hicks: You *think*?
Randal Graves: [indignant] Well, I still don't think "porch monkey" should be considered a racial term. I mean, I've always used it to describe lazy people, not lazy black people! I think if we really tried, we could reclaim "porch monkey" and save it.
Dante Hicks: It can't be saved, Randal! The sole purpose for its creation - the only reason it exists in the first place - is to disparage an entire race. And even if it could be saved, *you* can't save it, because you're not black!
Randal Graves: [smug] Well, listen to you, telling me I can't do something because of the color of my skin. You're the racist!
[Dante storms off in a huff]
Randal Graves: I'm taking it back, you watch!

Okay, maybe that's not the best example.  And I forget my point.  Moving on...

There are many compelling arguments for changing mascots.  I've admittedly been okay with most representations in logos, but I have not been happy with what have struck me as derogatory nicknames like 'redskins' and the perversion of solemn ceremonial rites for entertainment at halftime and during timeouts.  An irrational, arbitrary distinction to be sure, but there it is.

Probably the best reason to get rid of all the use of Native American imagery is this set of distinctions:

There are only three categories that almost all mascots fall into.
1. Animals  2. Objects  3. 'Professions'

Some examples:

Eagles, Bears, Falcons, Lions, Tigers, Ravens, Bulls, Wolverines, Cardinals, Dolphins, Ducks, Jaguars etc.

Pistons, Bullets, Rockets, Suns, Jets, Red Sox, White Sox, Stars, Rockies etc.

Packers, Kings, Steelers, Spartans, Buccaneers, Vikings, 49ers, Cowboys, Rangers, Lakers etc.

I take issue with some specifics like Spartans or Vikings being "professions" as opposed to national (not racial) designations, and cowboys actually carry a bit of racial baggage given that 15% were black and 15% were Hispanic in the American West, but the point is well-taken.  I recall an ad from...uh, maybe the 80s that observed most people wouldn't be cool with the Kansas City Jews, and that certainly had an impact on me, though I think it's a bit different than Kansas City Hebes.

Oddly, religion never seems to be an issue, since Quakers are mascots in a variety of places:

In a sports family you find yourself constantly stepping over bright balls of various colors, sizes and shapes in every room of the house. And you also learn to call teams by their mascot or team names.

Usually these mascots are modified by an adjective, such as Ragin' or Fighting or Mighty. Now that seems to make sense for most teams, but when the mascot is the "Quakers" — that's right — it might be hard to get behind a lineman of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the Raging Quakers team. (Better than being in front of him.) Although, I'm not sure the Whittier College Poets football team has it any easier. Is the pen really mightier than a left tackle? What if the left tackle and the poet are the same? Hmmmmm.

I've seen sports columnists refer to them as the "Fighting Quakers."

The American Friends Service Committee, when asked, did make a statement about Pennsylvania University's Quaker mascot, back when the NCAA ruling on team names/mascots came out in 2004. Jonathan Tannenwald of The Daily Pennsylvanian, an independent newspaper of the university, reported: "We haven't had any objection to the use of the Quaker," said Janis Shields, the AFSC's director of media and public relations. "Kind of like Quaker oatmeal." Shields added that the Quakers in general "haven't as a group been discriminated against or targeted against" in the way that some Native American tribes have been in terms of mascot use."

Well, that seems reasonable to me. Their new mascot has a large smile and is wearing sunglasses. Those both seem OK.

Guilford College's Quaker mascot seemed a bit more, well, cranky in its photograph. But he looked intimidating to me. I'd think twice if I were the other team.

Quakers have, in fact, been persecuted quite a bit in American history, but certainly not to the same extent as the indigenous peoples here, so I guess it's a different context than with Indian mascots.  And nobody performs any bastardized versions of Silent Meeting in front of 50,000 people in between plays.

Of course, everybody brings up the Fighting Irish as though that's a trump on the myriad NatAm examples because, you know, there's one white (well, they used to be "black," but you know) counter-example.  Dog knows if we change these age-old mascots then the Islamofascists will have already won.  Or something.  Me, I'm just pissed there are no Fighting Jewkrainians in NCAA Div I.

Speaking of which, now is the time on Sprockets where we do the Stupid White Man Argument Dance:

I have three reasons for disagreeing. First, traditions are not easily broken, particularly those of team names. Loyalties are tightly bound to the names, and no team will part lightly with the loyalty of its fans (unless, of course, it plays in the surreal dream world of today's campus). Hence the campaign will drain energies that could be much better spent.

Second, success is not meant to be easy. Americans are far too prone today to demand the removal of obstacles instead of simply climbing over them. To insist that the mascots will hinder Native Americans seems to belittle Native American ability. A better message to send the next generation is that through character virtues like persistence, faith, and courage, they can overcome the racists in society (who, by the way, will never disappear).

Very well, you may say. But it is still wrong in and of itself for Americans to use names like the Redskins. An insult may not do serious harm, but it is still an insult and therefore must go.

This leads up to the third point: that the Indian team names are not meant to be insults at all. Quite the opposite is true. Like all team names, they are meant to connote winning qualities for sports � speed, strength, stamina, courage, toughness. Pick any example. The Dolphins (swiftness, grace, intelligence). The Cowboys (hardiness, strength, bravery). The Bengals (power, ferocity, beauty). Moreover, no one ever notices any potentially negative connotations (as in the Pirates or the Raiders). The rare exceptions, like the Fighting Banana Slugs from somewhere in California, are humorous precisely because of their contrast with the usual names. Thus, the "Kansas City Jews" would be a poor name for a team, but the "Stuyvesant Sabras," for a women's team, might work well. (A sabra, if my memory serves, was a woman fighter for Israeli independence.)

And don't get me started on the whine about reverse discrimination.  Or the Dutch.

Anyhoo, the first point is the absolute worst, and it only gets slightly better from there.  We can't change traditions?  Slavery was a tradition too, IIRC.  And what would be the real impact of dropping Chief Wahoo?  C'mon, the Washington Bullets changed their name to the Wizards and have been able to rebrand just fine (they still suck).  The other points I think have been addressed ably elsewhere (click the links, you lazy Welsh gypsies!).

So what about the Cleveland Twisters?  It plays on The Twist as homage to the Rock'n'Roll HoF as well as the tornadoes that presumably haven't disappeared since I left Ohio.  Maybe the Cleveland Hobbits in honor of my preznitial candidate, Dennis Kucinich?  Or the Cleveland Flaming Lakers?  No, wait...that was the river, and would be Teh Gay.

No matter what, I find a bit of irony about the argument over tribal mascots.  What is modern, professional sport if not artificial tribalism, particularly in the age of free-agency?  But I digress...


October 8, 2007 | Permalink


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Fucking Porch Broadbrims ...

Posted by: Douglas Watts | Oct 8, 2007 5:36:49 PM

(A sabra, if my memory serves, was a woman fighter for Israeli independence.)

A sabra, if memory serves, is someone born in Israel.

Posted by: The Kenosha Kid | Oct 8, 2007 5:40:31 PM

I grew up with First Nations people and some of them were my friends. From what some of them have told me, this is just another example of white people not seeing them as people, but as some sort of object.

Posted by: Mimi | Oct 9, 2007 2:59:08 AM

Because I'm a pedantic prick, and I'm banned again at the bad place...

"Viking" was indeed a profession, not an ethnic group/genetic cline.

Posted by: JR | Oct 9, 2007 6:29:14 AM

Out here in flyover country we have the Pittsburg State (Kansas) Gorillas and the Upper Iowa University Peacocks. Then there are the University of Evansville Aces, whose mascot is a gambler. At a Methodist university. And let's not forget the Assemblies of God-operated Evangel University Crusaders.

Posted by: DocLarry | Oct 9, 2007 9:11:00 AM

JR - yeah, I guess so. Certainly 'viking' has been expanded to mean the overall populations, not just the "professionals", but probably most people think of the raiders themselves when choosing the nick. Of course, the same goes for 'warriors' and 'braves' and whatnot...

Posted by: NTodd | Oct 9, 2007 9:45:58 AM

Certainly 'viking' has been expanded to mean the overall populations, not just the "professionals"

I think the confusion stems from refering to "Viking culture" to cover that time period. The raiders and traders certainly made the culture what it was. But the other part of the issue is that a lot of Europeans gleefully claim Viking heritage. "Warriors" and "braves" are still "savages" - other than we. I think Vine DeLoria refered to the "Indian Princess Syndrome", where many Americans claimed native heritage, but only from the "civilized" (feminine) side.

Posted by: JR | Oct 9, 2007 2:13:14 PM

Yes, good points, you savage.

Posted by: NTodd | Oct 9, 2007 2:19:53 PM

Sabra does mean native-born Israeli - but it's a metaphorical name, as "sabra" is an Israeli name for a type of plant (cactus? I'm not sure, too lazy to google or wiki) native to the area that is tough and prickly on the outside but soft and sweet-tasting on the inside.

So it would be a national-origin name *and* an object name. A big dancing cactus would make an amusing mascot, I suppose.

Posted by: Li'l Innocent | Oct 9, 2007 2:56:43 PM

Sabra does mean native-born Israeli - but it's a metaphorical name, as "sabra" is an Israeli name for a type of plant (cactus? I'm not sure, too lazy to google or wiki) native to the area that is tough and prickly on the outside but soft and sweet-tasting on the inside.

"Sabra" is also the name of a Marvel Comics super-heroine from Israel, so perhaps that's what Kenosha Kid is thinking of.

Posted by: DJ | Oct 10, 2007 9:16:40 AM

"Warriors" and "braves" are still "savages" - other than we.

One problem with this kind of analysis (aside from arbitrarily assigning connotations) is that, in the real world, most people quickly stop associating the mascot with the referent and just apply it to the team. When baseball fans say "Braves," they're not thinking of *actual* Native Americans (or even movie NAs), but rather the abstracted "Brave" as presented (or not) by the team's marketing department. That presentation may or may not be racist, but the last thing the team wants is for you to think of the team as an "other." "Warriors" is a great example. I'm not an NBA fan and until now it never occurred to me that the warriors in question might be Native American, or, for that matter, actual warriors of any kind. They're just Warriors in the same way that the Phillies are phillies, Giants are giants, and Hokies are hokies.

So I don't follow the logic that the name "Indians" itself is denigratory ("Redskins" is different) merely because it refers to an ethnic group. The Indians' logo, on the other hand, makes me cringe, and if I were owner I would definitely have it changed.

Posted by: Halfdan | Oct 10, 2007 10:21:43 AM

Halfdan, that's pretty much been my more philosophical position on the logos. They are symbols divorced from what they used to symbolize. But then again, I feel that way about naughty words, too.

Regardless, many people DO see them as symbolizing something else, and the arguments to retain the logos are weak.

Posted by: NTodd | Oct 10, 2007 10:44:17 AM

From a distance it always looks to me like somebody is giving us the finger, which I find amusing to no end!

Posted by: Duckman GR | Oct 10, 2007 11:48:52 PM

I wish viking was a profession. I'd be taking viking classes at my community college and making something of myself. And that something would be a kick-ass viking.

There is a semi-famous intramural basketball team called the Fightin' Whites at University of Northern Colorado and the sale of their merchandise enabled the team to make a $100,000 contribution to various American Indian and minority programs at UNC.



Posted by: joejoejoe | Oct 18, 2007 3:22:00 AM

My parents graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, whose mascot is the Battling Bishops. Kind of like Fighting Quakers, I suppose.

Posted by: Sinfonian | Oct 22, 2007 8:37:43 AM

Indians as a nic, quite factually inaccurate. It would basically highlight how dumb the fans were. Can't even get the Continent, Hemisphere, arguably couldn't get the subspecies right(though Native Americans were considered to be closest in ancestry to Asians).

Everyone knows the real Cleveland mascot is a polack. They could try to be politically correct.

Or name the team after Drew Carey. "The Cleveland not funny, droll, box headed, republican loving shitwhistles."

I'd throw the fact they're overweight, but that wouldn't be PC. *waves at mimi*

Posted by: Mr.Murder | Feb 17, 2008 6:43:43 PM

I attended a public high school whose mascot name was "Redskins." The name always offended me far less than the caricature papier-mâché Indian, about 12' tall, face a lot like Chief Wahoo, grinning and wielding a tomahawk and sporting... you got it... red skin, about the color of very dark red brick. We had a few classmates descended from First Nations tribes who were not too keen on the name, and one crystallized the problem with a single question to anyone who asked: "Would you be OK with a team called, say, the Cleveland N****rs? would that be socially acceptable? After all, it refers to skin color..." Ouch. Point taken. "Redskins" was enough a derogatory term for a century or more that many Native Americans found it offensive. So I never use that name for my alma mater.

Posted by: Steve Bates | Oct 8, 2013 3:24:43 PM

So Spics, Kikes, or Wops is right out?

How about Beaners or Wetbacks? Dagos? Chinks?

I'm running out of racial slurs....

Could we call 'em the Washington Governors?

Posted by: Rmj | Oct 8, 2013 4:31:37 PM

I think we can still pick on Gypsies, if the PC police doesn't stomp their jackboots on our white, god-fearing throats.

Posted by: NTodd Pritsky | Oct 9, 2013 5:51:12 PM

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