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There’s Nothing More American Than Native Mascots

Redface and tomahawk chops are a cultural product rivaling the Super Bowl itself.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

On Sunday, tens of millions of Americans will tune in to Super Bowl LIV to watch Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs try to crack the nut that is the San Francisco 49ers defense. After the fourth quarter comes to a close and the clock reads triple zeros, the fans, casual and devoted alike, will turn off their televisions or change the channel. They probably won’t think twice about the Kansas City team name or the “tomahawk chop” and redface that Kansas City fans will almost certainly bring to the stadium in Miami.

The contours of the issue are familiar, playing out on repeat in the decades since the tomahawk chop first emerged out of Florida State and made its way to Kansas City, Atlanta, and countless high schools across the country: Native people have protested the cartoonish racism and appropriation, while the franchises, team owners, and local legislators—with varying degrees of malice—have ignored these protests or deflected criticism. Papers put out polls on whether readers believe something that is very obviously racist is actually a problem. Public relations firms are paid to craft campaigns to preserve team names as tradition or some kind of perverse tribute. And then the teams play. Fans watch. Some people make money. Everyone goes home.

The mascot issue is not about whether Native people have been properly polled. It is not a question of American ignorance. It’s that the people with the most power in this situation—the owners, the franchises—know exactly what they’re doing and don’t care. And in the face of much more pressing material concerns, it’s true that a fair number of Native people might not care much, either, which is a sentiment I’ve heard from members of my own family and tribe.

But Native mascots are a monument to racism, just as the Confederate statues that dot public grounds across the country are monuments to racism. And like the statues, despite their often incoherent and cheap origins, these mascots and team names have begun to represent something different for the American people, something grander. They stand in for a version of America that never existed, one that actually respected its neighboring tribal nations. (It makes sense, then, that Native mascots and team names took off at the turn of the twentieth century, just as America was sprinting into its next phase in colonization: The erasure and assimilation of traditional Native governance and culture.)

They are also, crucially, intellectual property. The Washington football franchise is reportedly worth $3.4 billion, and while the league’s viewership numbers remain in flux, merchandise sales have steadily risen. Ceding that they are racist is not an option for the owners of professional teams like Washington and Kansas City. The simultaneous moral indictment and financial ramifications are feared to be too great. And so they use all the institutions in their control to protect them.

For a slimier owner, like Washington’s Daniel Snyder, this entails hiring pretendians and Native people alike to throw at the press as proof that all Natives are pro-mascot. It also means relying on the media to botch the kick on not just one, but two polls that allowed people who only self-identify as Native to have a say on the matter. For less ostentatiously awful team owners, as in the cases of Kansas City and MLB’s Atlanta Braves, being confronted with the mascot question means putting out statements about being “engaged in meaningful discussions” while not actually doing anything. (And depending on how deep you want to dive down through the levels of violence against Native peoples that exist in this particular medium, the history behind the “49ers” team name is rooted in a much more physical form of violence—that of the 1849 California Gold Rush, in which the colonizers flocked to the West Coast and slaughtered tens of thousands of Natives in search of profit.)

But to look only at the professional teams, with billions at their back, is to ignore the central issue: For many Americans, having these mascots in place is important to their identity and their culture. The Native mascot functions as a seal of approval for the Americans who support it, an ode to their belief that this land is fairly theirs. It is the manifestation of a century of lies told to schoolchildren, about how this country was not built on stolen land and Native blood but slowly ceded through fair trades with The Indians. Any attempts to deviate from this belief system will be met with resistance. So much rests on it.

You can see this at play in the justifications of lawmakers and team owners: Just last week, Utah State Representative Rex Shipp introduced a resolution that “discourages removing names, images, and symbols of Native Americans and other indigenous people from schools or places.” The issue rose to his attention after a high school in his district voted last year to drop its “Redman” nickname. In trying to explain his position—of limiting the free speech of the Native opposition—Shipp tried to convince The St. George Spectrum & Daily News of the same tired lie about honor: “Most people I know in this area and other areas feel it’s an honor to be called by that name and when the high school originally did that, it was to honor the Redmen and their history.”

In speaking with The Salt Lake Tribune following a rally by Native citizens outside the Utah Capitol, Shipp described the law as a “blueprint” for localities to follow as the issue inevitably crops up in the coming years. And Shipp is absolutely correct—the same move is also being attempted in Idaho’s state government by Representative Chad Christensen, who wrote on Facebook that his own bill was an attempt to combat an agenda to destroy local heritage.” This legal approach might be new territory for the mascot issue, but it’s a tried-and-true method for Americans hoping to cling to other ahistorical nonsense. North Carolina Republicans acted similarly in the wake of Charleston’s Emanuel AME massacre, rushing to pass a bill that bottlenecked the removal process for Confederate statues and effectively criminalized their detractors.

Shipp’s resolution and Christensen’s bill are designed to transform what should be a sweeping, statewide correction of all of these racist edifices—the kind requested by tribal nations—into an endless series of individual battles, going high school by high school, county by county. It is a stalling technique. And if the North Carolina case has proved anything, it’s that it will absolutely work.

All of this—the investments by billionaires, the petty state legislation, fans claiming to be honoring the Native people they mock—is inflamed by ignorance of America’s genocide, absolutely. But it is driven by a nationalist, culture-war mind-set. The same one that corrupts American minds so greatly that it convinced otherwise kind people to point to a figure as garish as “Chief Wahoo” and claim it as a vital part of their lives. There’s no sense to be made out of any of it, and there’s certainly no culture or honor to be found. And that—along with Native erasure in the media and popular culture—is why the opposition efforts have taken so long to unfold. Those on the other side are not willing to listen to the counterargument because their argument is so transparently hollow. Instead, they stamp their feet and cry about some imagined history being erased, because doubling down is the only remaining option.

This is the reactionary mentality that turns racist statues made out of junk into sacred objects that must be “relocated” if they’re taken down at all. It’s empty reaction. It’s America. So on the matter of the Chiefs, yes, it’ll be upsetting to tune in on Sunday and witness the fans in redface and some kind of faux “Indian” garb chanting and waving their arms. It’ll also be “tradition.”