Native American mascots in sports

November 19, 2023
In honor of November being Native American Heritage Month in the U.S. and with American Thanksgiving later this week, we’re focusing on Native American mascots in sports and the work being done to eliminate these harmful stereotypes.
Sports NewsGeneral

📖 History and context

The beginning of the movement to remove harmful “Indian” mascots can be traced back to the 1968 National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) campaign to address stereotypes found in pop culture and media, including sports mascots.

  • There’s been significant progress since, with hundreds of names and mascots being removed in the last few decades thanks to Indigenous-led activism. But the work is not yet complete.

And while many opposed to removing Indigenous mascots say that they “honor Native Americans” or aren’t inherently harmful, countless studies have shown the real psychological damage these stereotypes cause for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.

  • The widespread use of “Indian” mascots caused Native American participants in one study to report lower self-worth. It also encouraged the use of racial slurs by non-Indigenous people.
  • What’s more, a separate study found that the images led Indigenous youth to believe what they could achieve was limited by their race.

It’s not just a game, or just a chant, or just a character — these mascots cause real-life, lasting damage, and it’s well past time for change.

⌛ The fight continues


A recent high-profile example of these harmful stereotypes was on stark display at the 2021 World Series. When Atlanta’s MLB team (whose stadium is on Cherokee land) plays at home, it’s impossible to watch a game without hearing and seeing fans doing a racist gesture called “The Chop.”

  • “The Chop” mimics the use of a tomahawk and has been widely criticized, with Indigenous people such as St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley (who is a member of the Cherokee Nation) calling for it to be eliminated.

And while you’d think Atlanta competing on the national stage would be an opportunity to enact change, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred instead brushed aside the conversation, claiming that “the Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop.” Umm, what?

  • The NCAI (along with other Indigenous leaders) released a statement explaining how far off-base (no pun intended) Manfred’s comments were, but “The Chop” continues to be broadcast throughout the stadium and on national TV.

As for Atlanta’s racist nickname, which the team adopted in 1912 (and again in 1941), plenty of non-offensive changes have been floated. The “Hammers” in honor of late Atlanta baseball legend Hammerin’ Hank Aaron sounds much better.

  • And Atlanta’s MLB team isn’t the only pro team for which change is long overdue. Indigenous leaders have called for the NFL’s Kansas City squad and the NHL’s Chicago team to change their names, but so far, to no avail.

🌱 Signs of progress


While the work continues, we can also celebrate successful moments of progress. The most notable team name change came from the aforementioned Washington Commanders, but this welcomed removal didn’t come without significant conflict.

  • With investigations and lawsuits swirling and increased public pressure to change the name, the team’s former owner Dan Snyder issued an infamous statement in 2013 saying, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
  • But Snyder must have listened to Justin Bieber, because the team finally removed the racist moniker in 2020, going by the Washington Football Team until announcing their rebrand as the Commanders.

Other recent notable changes in the pros include the MLB’s Cleveland Guardians, who just wrapped up their second season under their new name, and the CFL’s Edmonton Elks, who dropped their old nickname in 2020 and adopted the Elks the following summer.

🚫 Beyond the pros


The pro teams we discussed earlier have received most of the attention and scrutiny, but harmful and stereotypical mascots are pervasive throughout the sports world, including in the minor leagues and even at the K-12 level.

  • It’s estimated that over 1,000 K-12 U.S. schools still have racist mascots. In 2020, the NCAI launched a database tracking where progress has been made at this level and where work still needs to be done.

The good news? Bills to ban Indigenous mascots in public schools have been introduced in a handful of states, and the issue is gaining traction.

  • Last year, the New York State Department of Education ordered all public schools still using a Native American mascot or logo to commit to a name change by the end of 2022 or risk losing state funding.
  • This work (and supporting and listening to Indigenous communities) must continue beyond Native American Heritage Month. It’s truly the bare minimum.