The humidity of late summer washes over the dainty, checkered baseball diamond of Suntrust Stadium. Sweat covers the faces of Red Sox and Braves fans alike, and the pungent smell of beer wafts through sticky afternoon heat. The Braves strike out a lineup of Red Sox batters, and all of sudden the stadium erupts into an anthem reminiscent of old Western movies. Drunk fans stand as the megascreen depicts a tomahawk crushing some invisible enemy. Half of the stadium rhythmically swings their hands in what is known as the “tomahawk chop,” tapping into a deep nuance of American culture that is obsessed with Native American stereotypes. Baseball players stand still during “the chop,” their prim, easily recognizable uniforms stark against an anthem that fabricates a sense of the primitive and unknown.
This particular game between the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox is not an isolated example of questionable traditions in the vast world of American sports. For many years, activists and sports fans have debated the role of team emblems that adopt limited and stereotypical Native American imagery. Sports emblems that depict antiquated Native American stereotypes dehumanize an entire category of people in order to advance a particular type of American egocentrism. Perhaps the most famous controversy is centered around the Washington Redskins, an NFL football team that identifies itself with a racial slur and uses a Native American man as a mascot. The Kansas City Chiefs recently gained prominence as a potential contender for the 2019 Super Bowl and contributed to yet another cycle of prejudice by virtue of their team name. The Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs are just two examples of numerous sports teams that provide a mechanism for racial stereotypes to infiltrate American culture.
Sports are such an inherent part of American culture that it seems counterintuitive for national teams to avoid mascots and symbols that are part of the North American narrative. For example, the “fighting Irish” leprechaun, synonymous with Notre Dame University, reflects historical dynamics of Irish-American identity. Eagles are a popular team mascot throughout the United States and are symbolic of the patriotic values associated with the USA’s national bird. Some argue that Native American imagery has come to represent positive sentiments of American ideology, such as an ability to remain untamed by the civilized world. However, arguments such as these undermine historical suffering that continues to affect many Native Americans to this day.
The continued use of Native American imagery in sports culture is representative of systematic inequalities that many Native American communities face. According to the Economic Policy Institute of the United States, about one-third of the Native-American population lives in poverty. Additionally, Native Americans are the least represented racial demographic in urban settings. Statistics from Indian Health Services reveal alarming rates of alcohol-induced deaths and suicides across Native American populations. The Washington Redskins’ mascot does not reflect the modern-day narrative of many Native American people. In fact, stereotypical imagery makes the oppressive living conditions of indigenous groups invisible to the rest of America.
The assumption that Native American symbols and emblems should be a part of general American culture is one that trespasses upon centuries of oppression. It is easy to get lost in the myriad of interactions and identities that unite most of America as regional sports teams compete with one another. It is even easier to forget that mascots that seem to celebrate the American narrative are also reminders of a tragic past. One part of America watches a celebration of current American identity; another watches the current divisions of the past reanimate through the power of a mascot.