Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hard to tell just how "disrespectful" is a Native American name for a sports team

I recall a time when Milwaukee, Wisconsin was actually a hotbed of championship basketball, when Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led a dominant Bucks team to the NBA title in just its third year of existence, while the Marquette Warriors, coached by the legendary Al McGuire, won the NCAA Championship in his final year. But those times have long past. Since then, Marquette still makes an occasional run in the NCAA tournament, but not as the “Warriors,” but as the “Golden Eagles.” I recall being somewhat flummoxed by the fact that the university’s president in 1993, Rev. Al Di Ulio, decided without any public discussion that “it was simply the right thing to do, and the decision will not be reversed.” 

What could be so “offensive” about “Warriors”? It could just as well apply to a soldier or  merely a descriptive term. I once encountered a (slightly) inebriated Native American who defiantly informed me that he had “10,000 years of warrior blood” in himself. The university had previously claimed that naming the team “Warriors” was out of “respect” and intended to promote “cultural awareness”—which is the claim that many universities and sports franchises provide for using Native American names, images and (not always “respectful”) mascots. Indeed, the Seminole Indians in Florida licensed out their name and image to Florida State University, ostensibly for that purpose.

Although most former and current students, with the support of former players from the basketball team’s golden age, decried dropping the name “Warriors,” the university refused to budge and chose the rather innocuous name of “Golden Eagles,” which I admit has a more “fighting spirit” aspect than, say, “Horned Frogs” or “Ducks.” 

Meanwhile, there has been the issue of other teams who have Native American monikers like “Blackhawks,” “Indians,” “Braves” and “Aztecs.” But it is “Redskins” that seems to have attracted the most accusations of racial and cultural insensitivity. In 1933, the Boston Braves became the Washington Redskins, allegedly in recognition of the then coach of the team, who claimed to be part Sioux. In the past, the terms “red man” and “redskin” were used a racial identification for Native Americans, with the expected (often negative but always) stereotypical associations. 

Many commentators are suggesting that it is not a matter of if, but when the NFL forces the Redskins franchise to change its name. I recall a comedy skit show that suggested that they ought to change the name of the team to “Rednecks” and have a suitably embarrassing “mascot.” But the truth of the matter is that most people don’t even think about what connotation “Redskins” means to Native Americans, let alone brings out “negative” feelings about Native Americans. It is just a name of a team; any evidence of negative stereotyping is usually implied by fans who employ caricatured behavior associated with Native Americans (like the Atlanta Braves' fans use of the "tomahawk."). 

There is a story in the local newspaper about a Native American high school that chose the name “Redskins,” and students are “upset” about efforts to characterize the name as “demeaning.” They seem to feel that the name is out of “respect” for, and promotes, their heritage. It appears that like the use of the “N” word, a racist connotation is either implied or not by the race of the user. Certainly, any  behaviors that imply a negative stereotype should be subject to serious scrutiny; but the subject of the name, it seems, is something where the “injured party” needs to do a better job of explaining the injury.

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