Current Debates

Are Indian Sports Team Mascots Offensive?



Like other colonized minority groups of color, American Indians face many challenges. Some of their issues, however, are more symbolic and perceptual and reflect their long history of marginalization. How are American Indians seen by the larger society? What stereotypes linger in American popular culture? How might these stereotypes affect the ability of American Indians to argue their cause?

The controversies over using Indian mascots for athletic teams illustrate these symbolic battles. Is there any real harm in using team names such as “Indians,” “Seminoles,” or “Braves”? Are people who object to these names carrying political correctness and sensitivity too far? Or, does this practice reflect the way Indians are seen in the larger society? If they are seen primarily as exaggerated, stereotypical caricatures, can they expect to generate much interest, support, or sympathy in the larger society? Given the small size of the group, such support is crucial for efforts to deal with the issues of jobs and education, health care and discrimination.

 Some universities and colleges, including Stanford and St. Johns, have dropped their “Indian” sports mascots in recent years (Stanford from “Indians” to “Cardinal” and St. John’s from “Redmen” to “Red Tide”) and others have secured permission to use an Indian name (for example, Florida State University has an agreement with the Seminole tribe to use the tribal name). In other cases, especially for professional teams, the use of what some consider offensive names and mascots continue.

Nowhere, of course, is this controversy more intense than in our nation’s capital. The Washington Redskins are one of the most beloved sports franchises in the nation and their roots go deep in the local community. The team argues that “Redskin” is a symbol of honor, bravery, and fortitude and the majority of fans seem to agree. Others point out that “redskin” is a racial slur, equivalent to “nigger,” “spic,” “chink,” and “honky,” completely inappropriate in everyday conversation, let alone as the nickname for such a highly visible sports franchise.

A variety of readings are presented for this debate. We begin with an article that provides some background and perspective on the issues. Next, we consider a letter written by Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington NFL franchise, defending the name and a rebuttal from Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post sports columnist. The final selections are a Sports Illustrated magazine article that argues that Indian-themed mascots are not offensive and a rebuttal article written by a group of academics and Indian activists.




History and Perspectives

Owner Dan Snyder’s letter explaining his commitment to the team nickname.

A Column Sally Jenkins, a Sports Writer for the Washington Post, Responding to Snyder’s Letter.



The Sports Illustrated Article (edited)

Indian Symbols are Not Offensive

S.L. Price and Andrea Woo 

[The thorniest word problem in sports today is] the use of Native American names and mascots by high school, college, and professional teams. For more than 30 years the debate has been raging over whether names such as Redskins, Braves, Chiefs and Indians honor or defile Native Americans, whether clownish figures like the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo have any place in today’s racially sensitive climate, and whether the sight of thousands of non-Native Americans doing the tomahawk chop at Atlanta’s Turner Field is mindless fun or mass bigotry. It’s an argument that, because it mixes mere sports with the sensitivities of a people who were nearly exterminated, seems both trivial and profound. . . .

[The case of Betty Ann Gross, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribe] illustrates how slippery the issue can be. She grew up on a reservation in South Dakota and went to Sisseton High, a public school on the reservation whose teams are called the Redmen. Gross, 49, can’t recall a time when people on the reservation weren’t arguing about the team name, evenly divided between those who were proud of it and those who were ashamed. Gross recently completed a study that led the South Dakota state government to change the names of 38 places and landmarks around the state, yet she has mixed feelings on the sports issue. She wants Indian mascots and the tomahawk chop discarded, but she has no problem with team names like the Fighting Sioux (University of North Dakota) or even the Redskins. “There’s a lot of division,” Gross says. . . .

Although most Native American activists and tribal leaders consider Indian team names and mascots offensive, neither Native Americans in general nor a cross-section of U.S. sports fans agree. That is one of the findings of a poll conducted for SI. . . . The pollsters interviewed 351 Native Americans (217 living on reservations and 134 living off) and 743 fans. Their responses were weighted according to U.S. Census figures for age, race, and gender and for distribution of Native Americans on and off reservations. With a margin of error of ±4%, 83% of the Indians said that professional teams should not stop using Indian nicknames, mascots, or symbols, and 79% of the fans agreed with them. . . . When pollsters asked about the Washington Redskins, they found no great resentment toward the name. Instead, they again found agreement between Native Americans and fans (69% of the former and 74% of the latter do not object to the name). . . .

While those who support names such as Seminoles (Florida State) and [Atlanta] Braves can argue that the words celebrate Native American traditions, applying that claim to the Redskins is absurd. Nevertheless, Redskins vice president Karl Swanson says the name “symbolizes courage, dignity, and leadership and has always been employed in that manner”—conveniently ignoring the fact that in popular usage dating back four centuries, the word has been a slur based on skin color. . . . Many experts on Native American history point out that . . . the word redskin was first used by whites who paid and received bounties for dead Indians. . . .

However, what’s most important, Swanson counters, is intent: Because the Redskins and their fans mean nothing racist by using the nickname, it isn’t racist or offensive. Not so, says Suzan Harjo (a Native American activist): “There’s no more derogatory word that’s used against us . . . in the English language. . . Everyone knows that it has never been an honorific. It’s a terrible insult.” . . .

SOURCE: Price and Woo (2002, pp. 66–73).


The Article Responding to Price and Woo (edited)

Mascots Are Offensive

C. R. King, E.J. Staurowsky, L. Baca, L. Davis, and C. Pewewardy 

To fully understand both the SI article and ongoing controversy about mascots, one must grasp the history of Indian symbols in sports. . . . Native American mascots emerged (mainly) in the early 1900s, after [the end of military hostilities]. . . . These mascots were part of a larger phenomenon of increased prevalence of Native American images in U.S. popular culture, including Western movies, symbols for beer and butter, and art in homes. One of the reasons why most Americans find the mascots unremarkable . . . is because of the prevalence of similar images throughout U.S. popular culture. . . .

Historically, the most popular sport mascots have been animals associated with aggression (e.g., Tigers) and Native Americans (e.g., Indians, Chiefs, Braves, and so forth). Although other ethnic groups have been occasionally used as mascots, these mascots differ from Native American mascots in several ways: [these mascots] are often (a) a people that do not exist today (e.g., Spartans); (b) less associated with aggression (e.g., Scots); (c) selected by people from the same ethnicity (e.g., Irish Americans at Notre Dame); and (d) not mimicked to nearly the same degree.

Native American mascots emerged in a context in which many non-Native Americans were “playing Indian.” Still today, children don “Indian” costumes at Halloween, “act like Indians” during “Cowboy and Indian” games, “become Indian Princesses” at the YMCA, and perform “Indian rituals” at summer camps. Adults belong to organizations that involve learning “Indian ways” and performing “Indian rituals.” Non-Native Americans have created an imaginary version of Indianness that they sometimes enact, and they expect real Native Americans to either ignore, affirm, or validate such myths and practices. Similar practices applied to other races/ethnicities, such as “playing black” or “playing Jewish,” would not be accepted in our society today.

 Activism against Native American mascots has been evident for more than 30 years. Since the early 1990s, this activism has become more widespread [and] emerged from Native American individuals, groups, and communities that work on a variety of other issues, such as treaty, economic, cultural, environmental, health, and educational issues. … Many Native American organizations see the elimination of such mascots as part of a larger agenda of reducing societal stereotyping about Native Americans (in the media, school curriculums, and so forth) and informing the public about the realities of Native American lives. An increase in accurate information about Native Americans is viewed as necessary for the achievement of other goals such as poverty reduction, educational advancements, and securing treaty rights.

Anti-mascot activists articulate many different arguments against the mascots. First, they assert that the mascots stereotype Native Americans as only existing in the past, having a single culture, and being aggressive fighters. Second, they hold that these stereotypes influence the way people perceive and treat Native Americans. Such imagery is seen as affecting Native American images of themselves, creating a hostile climate for many Native Americans, and preventing people from understanding current Native American realities, which affects public policy relative to Native Americans. Third, the activists state that no racial/cultural group should be mimicked (especially in regard to sacred items/practices), even if such mimicking is “culturally accurate.” And fourth, they argue that Native Americans should have control over how they are represented. . . .

Native American mascots are rooted in the bloodthirsty savage stereotype, as it is this stereotype that is linked to desirable athletic qualities such as having a fighting spirit and being aggressive, brave, stoic, proud, and persevering. . . .

Of course, even [this] so-called positive stereotype [is] ultimately negative. [All] stereotypes fail to recognize diversity among the people who are being stereotyped. . . . Most people deny that they believe any racial stereotypes. . . . When we do notice our own stereotyping, it is often because our beliefs are very negative (e.g., believing that African Americans are criminal or Puerto Ricans are lazy). When our stereotypes are “positive” (e.g., Jews as good at business or Asians as smart), we tend to think that these beliefs are not stereotypical and thus not racist.

Sport mascots are based on what is today perceived as “positive” ideas about Native Americans: that they are brave, principled, persevering, good fighters. This “positive cast” to the mascot stereotype leads most to conclude that the mascots are not racist. In fact, it is this “positive cast” to the mascot stereotype that leads many mascot supporters to think that the mascots actually counter racism by “honoring” Native Americans. . . .

It is not surprising that some Native Americans embrace “positive” stereotypes of Native Americans, and thus that some are not critical of Native American mascots. There are several factors that encourage Native Americans to accept, internalize, celebrate, and even capitalize on, “positive” stereotypes of Native Americans. First, many people do not define so-called positive stereotypes as stereotypes or racist. In fact, a group that experiences a great deal of inequality may be especially attracted to any imagery that is positive, as such imagery might be a relief from the negative. Second, throughout much of U.S. history, Native people have faced intense pressures to acculturate and have been exposed to many of the same stereotypical images of Native Americans as non-Natives have. These pressures have certainly resulted in some Natives adopting “dominant/white/outsider views” of Native Americans. Third, given the destruction of Native economies and the resulting economic destitution, some Native people have turned to the marketing of their ethnicity, or an acceptable Hollywood version of their ethnicity, to survive, including teaching “Native spirituality” to non-Native Americans; selling Native jewelry and art; and managing Native tourist establishments.

In conclusion, to understand the Native American mascot issue … one needs to understand the social context surrounding the mascots. Most important, one must understand the historically rooted, but contemporarily alive, stereotypes of Native Americans. Native American mascots emerged from these stereotypes, and these mascots continue to reinforce these stereotypes. The continued prevalence of these stereotypes inhibits social changes that would better contemporary Native American lives.

SOURCE: King, Staurowsky, Baca, Davis, and Pewewardy (2002, pp. 381–403). 



  • Several articles point to surveys that show that most people (even Native Americans) do not object to the use of Indian team mascots. How relevant is this point to the debate? Should questions such as these be decided by “popular vote,” or are there deeper principles? If so, what are those principles, and how should they be applied?


  • The management of the Washington football team argues that the team uses “redskin” to honor American Indians for their courage and dignity. Should “intent” matter in deciding whether a term is insulting or offensive? Who should settle questions like these? The team? The tribes? Someone else?


  • What arguments are made regarding the harm done by using Indian team mascots? Are these arguments convincing? Why or why not? What are “positive stereotypes,” and how do they differ (if at all) from negative stereotypes? Are positive stereotypes less harmful than negative stereotypes?


  • What is the gender dimension to these arguments? Are team names sexist? What is the nickname of the sports teams on your campus? Are the women’s teams distinguished by adding the modifier “Lady” or “Women”? What issues arise from this pattern? Do these issues matter? How?


  • Ultimately, is anything important really at stake here? Isn’t it all just a matter of exaggerated political correctness? Why does it matter (if it does)?