Time to Stop Playing Cowboys and Indians

DaShanne Stokes

No issue better illustrates the lengths to which racist Americans will go to hold tight to the reins of power and ignorance than a statement recently issued by the Washington Red*kins.

In response to a call for the team to change its controversial name, made by Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Tom Cole, the team issued a scathing response on February 10th this year citing the continued problems many Native Americans face with high unemployment, inadequate education, and health problems as a reason to, in fact, ignore the issue and keep the name.

The team wrote, “Senator Cantwell should be aware that there are many challenges facing Native Americans, including an extremely cold winter with high energy bills, high unemployment, life threatening health problems, inadequate education and many other issues more pressing than the name of a football team which has received strong support from Native Americans… Surely, with all the issues Congress is supposed to work on such as the economy, jobs, war and health care, the Senator must have more important things to do…”


It is ironic that the team would attempt to deflect attention from their own contribution to the oppression of indigenous peoples by posturing as an organization concerned with the issues confronting Indian country.

The real world is a very different place than the Red*kins would have us believe. A recent (2011) study by Chaney, Burke, and Burkley, for example, shows that many people, in fact, do not distinguish between their feelings between stereotypical Native mascots and actual, living, breathing, Native American people. Such mascots engender a racially hostile environment.

Like many Native Americans, my experience supports these studies. When I worked for the Boy Scouts of America, for example, other scouts, knowing that I was Native American, would sometimes put their hands to their mouths and chant “woo woo woo” upon seeing me at the summer camp where I taught. And every weekend, just before our Native American dance team would put on an exhibition as a treat for campers in an effort to promote cross-cultural awareness and understanding, campers would often greet us with tomahawk chops used at sports games--laughing and pointing at us while they chanted.

What the Red*kins seem not to realize is that ethnic mascots are integrally intertwined with their offensive team names and together they have the effect of perpetuating institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism contributes to high rates of unemployment, poverty, health problems, and inadequate education for many Native Americans. In short, Native team names and mascots contribute to the very problems on which the Red*kins say we should be focused on solving.

I have a hard time buying what so many people say about Native team names and mascots—that they are meant to honor Native people, that they are no different from team names and mascots like the Fighting Irish, the Vikings, and even the Cowboys. Nonsense.

To be sure, we do need a national dialogue about the appropriateness of using any ethnic group as a team name or mascot. But in having that dialogue, let’s not buy into the lies or get to overlooking the very differences between Native and non-Native team names and mascots.

The Vikings, Fighting Irish, Cowboys, and others indeed portray caricatures and stereotypes, which some people do find offensive. In that sense, they share a basic commonality with Native mascots and team names.

That’s where the similarity ends. The Fighting Irish, Vikings, Cowboys, and others, despite being stereotypes, do not function to suppress entire peoples in the same ways that they function to suppress Native Americas. Those with primarily Viking or Irish descent, after all, can still benefit from the privilege of having light skin. And there are no masses of Irish Americans living on reservations, no hordes of people with Viking descent fighting to retain their languages and ways of life.

Furthermore, even though team names and mascots like the Fighting Irish, Vikings, Cowboys, and others may indeed be hurtful and offensive, a very real problem that needs to be taken seriously, their use does not activate or maintain the same historical legacy of genocide and institutionalized racism that helps to create high rates of unemployment, poverty, health problems, and inadequate education plaguing so many indigenous people today.

The Red*kins are right about one thing. There truly are many challenges facing Native Americans. But it’s high time they acknowledge, despite their best hopes and intentions, that they are helping to create the very problems they say we should be fighting to solve.

DaShanne Stokes is a Lakota doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and author of The Unfinished Dream: A Discussion on Rights, Equality, and Inclusivity. Connect with him online at DaShanneStokes.com.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Hmmm, where have I heard this before? " Surely, with all the issues Congress is supposed to work on such as the economy, jobs, war and health care, the Senator must have more important things to do…" Oh yeah, I remember now,l I heard a couple of self-proclaimed NDNs state that they weren't concerned with this controversy because there were more "pressing matters." What most people who use this line of rhetoric to support (yes support because it inevitably supports those who would like the name changed) Snyder's team don't admit is that how can we, as a people, gain respect if we openly allow the use of this slur? African-Americans expressed their discontent at the racial slurs directed at them and it's currently unthinkable to use one in public or on the airwaves. Winning this "battle" means a lot more to us than simply changing a name. It's how we identify ourselves in future generations and how we regain the reins that steer our destiny.
Michael Madrid