For more than half a century, American Indian tribes and their advocates tried in vain to persuade professional sports teams to drop names offensive to Native peoples.
But the movement finally gained traction in recent years. Washington’s pro football team dropped its Redskins moniker in 2020 after decades of protest, and last month announced it had adopted the name Commanders. In July, the Cleveland Indians, which dropped the club’s Chief Wahoo mascot in 2019, announced it was changing its name to the Guardians. The Major League Baseball club had been the Indians for more than a century, since 1915.
And then there are the holdouts: the Atlanta Braves baseball team, the National Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs, and the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks have no immediate plans to change their names, and Braves fans still proudly simulate the arm-swaying “tomahawk chop” and American Indian chant at home games.
Indian mascoting opponents, however, continue to wage their public relations campaign to change that.
The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in San Bernardino and the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation near Sacramento have joined forces with the film-making nonprofit The Ciesla Foundation to produce the documentary “Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting,” which premiers April 3 at the Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula.
San Manuel, the executive producer, provided a $1 million grant for the documentary.
“What we hope to do with the film is educate,” said Ben West, a Cheyenne Indian who co-directed the film. He said American Indian mascoting has deep, adverse psychological impacts on Native peoples, especially children, and studies support that view.
“Native youth have high levels of depression and suicidal ideology, and there is a direct line that can be drawn between the impact mascoting has and some of the struggles Native communities have,” West said.
“Imagining the Indian” does a deep dive into the genesis of the exploitation of American Indian culture in competitive sports, and how Indian mascoting has not only been detrimental to Native peoples, but to marginalized groups everywhere.
“This issue is not limited to Native American people. This affects how people view others — people of color, in general,” said Aviva Kempner, a Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker and co-director of the film.
New traction after Floyd killing
She said at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, after the killing of George Floyd, there was a heightened sensitivity and awareness about the racism rooted in American Indian mascots.
“The owner of the Washington Football Team was finally pressured by his sponsors to change their racist name,” Kempner said in an email. She said there are still three professional sports teams and hundreds of college and high school teams that need to abandon their monikers and mascots.
Stephanie A. Fryberg, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and a member of the Tulalip Tribes who is featured in the documentary, led a study published in 2020 that revealed that younger and more liberal individuals — people who did not identify as cisgender men — were more opposed to the use of American Indian mascots in general and more harmed by them.
“Far from trivial, mascots are one of the many ways in which society dehumanizes Native people and silences Native voices,” Fryberg’s study states. “These representations not only shape how non-Natives see Native people, but also how Native people understand themselves and what is possible for their communities.”
States push for laws
The push comes as states nationwide are adopting or proposing laws to remove American Indian mascots, symbols, images and logos from public schools at the K-12 level as well as from other public places. More than 1,900 K-12 schools across the nation still have American Indian mascots, according to the National Congress of American Indians.
In 2021, 60 K-12 schools across the country changed their monikers, while 16 have done so far in 2022, according to the NCAI.
Assemblyman James Ramos, D-Highland, on Feb. 14 introduced Assembly Bill 2022, which would prohibit the use of the word “squaw” as a name for geographic features and place names in California. Existing places would have to be renamed by Jan. 1, 2024, under the bill.
Ramos said in a press release that more than 100 places in California contain the “S-word, and that the United States Department of the Interior has ordered the term “erased from the national landscape and forever replaced” on the almost 700 sites using the name on federal lands. Montana, Oregon, Maine and Minnesota already have banned the word’s use.
There are varying schools of thought on the word “squaw,” its origin and its meaning. In his Sept. 13, 2018, article “The S-word: Offensive or Not?” Vincent Schilling presented an etymological examination of the word and its interpretation. While some defended use of the term, saying its historical meaning was that of an American Indian “female” or “young female,” others denounced the word, saying it denoted sexuality and a woman’s vagina.
Word encourages violence
Ramos agrees that the word “squaw” emphasizes sexual desires and female genitalia. He also maintains that the word encourages and sanctions violence against American Indian women.
“The word reflects the demeaning attitude toward Native women that has contributed to the crisis of missing and murdered women and girls in the Native American community,” Ramos said in an email.
As to the subject of American Indian mascoting, Ramos, a San Manuel tribal member and former chairman of the tribe, said: “It belittles people by creating permission and tolerance to ridicule and belittle the Native American culture.
“It also fosters stereotypes that are silly and insulting and allows other to engage in disrespectful treatment of Native Americans and our culture,” he said. “Why does anyone need that?”
Asked why it has taken so long for states and sports teams to finally acknowledge the longstanding grievances of American Indians regarding mascoting and the exploitation of their ancestry, West said the practice has been so steeped in tradition that sports teams, schools and other institutions find a hard time detaching.
“I think it’s just so ingrained in people’s lives and their idea of tradition,” West said. “It’s time to get people to realize that Native people are living and breathing and that we exist today. We are not relics behind glass in a museum.”
“Imagining the Indian” will be circulating on the festival circuit throughout April, with showings planned in Boston and in Washington, D.C. West said the plan is to also package the film with other educational materials and teaching guides to offer at schools and tribal communities.
For more information, visit the websites https://imaginingtheindianfilm.org/ and https://sanmanuel-nsn.gov/.