Imagine the inevitable uproar if a professional sports team was called the New York Jews, the Atlanta Blacks, or the San Francisco Chinamen. Now look at the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians and even our local CFL franchise, the Edmonton Eskimos. These are team names that have existed for more than half a century — names casually used yet only recently loaded with controversy.
For many Aboriginal people, the use of native terminology as logos and mascots for sports teams is a form of ethnic stereotyping that is harmful to their culture. Pat McCormack, a professor with the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, said the use of Aboriginal sports mascots and logos suggests a larger, overarching issue of racism that exists within Canadian and American society.
Stereotyping a culture through sport is one way racism has manifested across North America, she said.
“Sports team names are supposed to indicate ferocity, fierceness, strength and ability to prevail in these kinds of masculine domains of competitive sport,” McCormack said. “A lot of people don’t believe racism really exists in Canada. We like to believe that Canada is racism free, and that’s simply not true.”
The issue was brought to be public limelight earlier in June when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that the name and logo of the Washington Redskins can’t be trademarked under American law because it’s considered disparaging to Aboriginal peoples.
Despite a tremendous amount of pressure, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has stated he has no plans to change the team’s name or logo.
Supporters of the Redskins claim everything surrounding the team name and the logo honours the tradition of Aboriginal people, while opposing arguments suggest the term Redskin is offensive and insults or degrades Aboriginal culture.
“Aboriginal people have been named by non-Aboriginal people and most of the names out there are names that Europeans have come up with for them, and of course, Redskins is one of them,” McCormack said.
“Aboriginal people are claiming the right to name themselves, and if they find the name offensive, then the name probably shouldn’t be used.”
While names like the Redskins and Indians have received a large amount of criticism, names like the Blackhawks and Seminoles have been questioned, but are generally acceptable.
Supporters of the use of native American names and logos argue the Redskins, Braves and Indians are no different from names that depict images of strong, fighting males such as the Spartans, Flying Dutchmen and Fighting Irish.
According to McCormack, it isn’t always the use of the logo or the name that offends people. It’s the activities and events surrounding the logo that create controversy, like the Atlanta Braves’ “Tomahawk Chop,” where fans imitate a traditional native American war chant by making a chopping motion with their arm.
“The reality for lots of sports people is that these things are fun, they’re part of why people go to the games,” McCormack said. “People at games do the tomahawk chop, or the wave for fun, but if you’re a native person and you take these things seriously, you don’t see it as fun, you see it as offensive to your culture and traditions.”
The problem isn’t always the logo, but the ceremonial activities that accompany the team, including cheerleaders and half–time shows, McCormack said.
“If we had people with the Edmonton Eskimos wearing quasi-Inuit garb, doing quasi–Inuit dances and ceremonies at half time, there would be more concern about it,” she said.
Activities centered around a specific culture need to show sensitivity, she added.
McCormack defines the racism that exists in Native American logo controversy as a type of “micro-aggression,” a phenomenon in which people do things that they don’t construe as racist, but are offensive to native people.
Although these instances aren’t meant to be malicious, McCormack says this is something her students have to deal with very often.
“People genuinely don’t want to be racist, we don’t think of ourselves as racist in Canada,” McCormack said. “But these kinds of small, racist moments happen over and over again for native people.”
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