Many people – including some Aboriginal people – claim that Aboriginal-themed team names, logos, and mascots are intended to “honour” Aboriginal peoples. In truth, they reinforce negative stereotypes that demean Indigenous peoples and cultures.
Aboriginal-themed team names, logos, and mascots make Indigenous people appear subhuman. These images help shape people’s perceptions, and the resulting stereotypes aid in the delegitimization of Aboriginal struggles against colonialism, marginalizing Aboriginal peoples and their concerns.
Schools and professional sports teams have been using Aboriginal-themed team names, logos, and mascots since at least the 1870s. Controversy over these images first erupted in the United States during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Over the last decade or so, some names and logos have been changed and mascots retired. However, professional sports teams such as the Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Blackhawks, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, and Edmonton Eskimos, and university/college teams such as the McGill Redmen, have refused to change their names or logos. According to American Indian Cultural Support, nearly 2,500 schools across the United States still use Aboriginal-themed team names, logos, and/or mascots. There are also many schools in Canada still using Aboriginal names, logos, and/or mascots. Why are these images so enduring? Simple: by using demeaning images and supporting demeaning practices (such as the Atlanta Braves’ “tomahawk chop”), the dominant culture is asserting its authority over a non-dominant culture. By defining a non-dominant group and robbing that group of the right to determine their own identities, the dominant culture is exerting power and control. This is the very definition of racism.
Racism and stereotyping aren’t the only problems with Aboriginal-themed team names, logos, and mascots. Many team logos feature images of eagle feathers, which are sacred objects for Aboriginal nations in Canada and the U.S. When these logos are embedded on stadium and court floors, they become sacrilegious: eagle feathers are never supposed to touch the ground, let alone be walked upon literally or symbolically.
Some sports teams claim they use Aboriginal-themed team names, logos, or mascots to honour local Aboriginal groups or to educate their fans. In reality, they are reducing Indigenous peoples and cultures to cartoons. Some mascots dress in buckskin outfits, paint their faces, and invent “Indian dances” for fans. The outfits are not representative of anything worn by local Aboriginal groups and are often a mishmash of cultural influences, and the dances are based on non-Aboriginal perceptions of Aboriginal dances (the “Chief Illiniwek” dance was invented by a non-Aboriginal student based on “Indian lore” he had studied in the Boy Scouts).
Unfortunately, Aboriginal peoples are not the only people who have to deal with stereotypical logos and mascots. The Minnesota Vikings logo features a blond, horn-helmeted warrior, and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish logo features a leprechaun. The stereotypes contained in those names and logos – thuggish Vikings who rape and pillage, and Irish people as violent (or related to the fairies of Irish folklore) – are demeaning to the Nordic immigrants who populated the Midwest region of the United States and the Irish who attended that Catholic university. However, the Minnesota Vikings and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish weren’t named by their colonizers. Aboriginal-themed logos and mascots have been created by the dominant culture, and as such, they embody the painful legacies associated with the European conquest of North America.
Professional sports teams receive a significant amount of revenue through sales of racist imagery on souvenirs and clothing. Some teams even sell counterfeit Aboriginal paraphernalia such as foam tomahawks, feathers, face paints, and fake drums and pipes. Now that Aboriginal peoples have had their land stolen for profit, they’re having their very images stolen for capitalist gain. In this sense, the use and imitation of Aboriginal imagery is another form of colonialism. When non-Aboriginal peoples play the role of “Indian,” they lay figurative claim to another piece of territory: that of an Aboriginal person’s dignity and self-determination. Research studies carried out by social scientists have proven that stereotypical logos and mascots have a negative effect on contemporary Indigenous peoples, especially youth.
The main intent of stereotyping Aboriginal peoples is to reduce them to a mythological image that feels safe for the public. When an entire race of people is reduced to stereotypes, the members of that race aren’t real. This allows non-Aboriginal peoples to distance themselves from colonialism and its ongoing effects, and prevents non-Indigenous peoples from understanding contemporary Indigenous peoples as fellow citizens.