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Blackhorse: Mascots Are Also Meant to Be Ridiculed

Activist Amanda Blackhorse, Diné, says mascots are subject to ridicule by opposing teams, lending to the continued degradation of Native Americans.

In 1992, Suzan Harjo filed Harjo vs. Pro-Football. Since then there has been some talk about the Washington team changing their name to the ‘Washington Warriors.’ This chatter has been online via bloggers, social media folks, and several articles have been written on it. Much of this discussion came about after Dan Synder applied to register the trademark ‘Washington Warriors’ in 2000, but it eventually died in the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2004. Fast-forward to 2014, further chatter of this name changed surfaced. According to a 2014 Deadspin article, there were several individuals who had monetary interest in the future of the Washington name and registered the terms ‘Washington Warriors’ and the ‘Washington Bravehearts.’ These are still registered to those individuals. The article states that the idea of these individuals is monetary; that they hope Dan Synder will change the name to aforementioned and they will somehow be paid out as they own the registrations.

From what I’ve witnessed from fans and folks on social media, there is popular interest in changing the team name to the ‘Washington Warriors.’ However, aside from the popularity of the name, the chatter about this interest, I would like to address the use of the term ‘warrior.’

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines ‘warrior’ as: a person who fights in battles and is known for having courage and skill. The definition doesn’t have any reference to a Native person or stereotypes of a Native person. There are various groups out there who do not use Native imagery and use the term ‘warrior.’ For example, you have the movie "Warrior" starring Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Joel Edgerton about two brothers who strengthen their relationship through the sport of boxing. I actually liked the movie.

RELATED: Washington Football Team Suffers Heavy Blow as Judge Upholds Trademark Cancellation

Then you have the Wounded Warriors Project whose vision is “to foster the most successful, well-educated generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history.” Then you have the 2015 NBA Championship winners, The Golden State Warriors. I’ve gone back and forth on the GSW. From what I understand, the GSW does not use a Native mascot, they use the ‘Thunder’ as their mascot. A little back-story on the team, they actually started out as the Philadelphia Warriors in 1946 and had a very disparaging logo of a cartoonish Native man. They eventually moved to San Francisco and became the San Francisco Warriors in 1962. In 1971, they made a significant and progressive move when they changed their name to the Golden State Warriors and then changed their logo to the Golden Gate Bridge.

As far as I know, they use no Native imagery in their promotions and in their games. I could be wrong, of course, as I’ve never been to one of their games. So, before we close the case on the GSW, I want to hear the other side from those Natives who’ve experienced otherwise. I would be very interested to speak to the Native community in the Bay Area to get their take on this.

So, the term 'warrior' can be presented with no Native imagery or Native mascot and it can still be portrayed in a positive way that does not disparage Native people. The term 'warrior' can be used to describe a person who fights in battle and for having courage and skill. Great!

But of course I need to give my opinion on this. Personally, I don’t believe society can ever truly separate the term warrior from the Native image. I believe the term ‘warrior’ connotes Native imagery or Native-centric imagery – even Native stereotypes. I believe most people will connect the word with the image of a Native American man, possibly with feathers, war paint, maybe on a horse, and shouting a war cry with spear or something like that. I say that because that has been my experience. In my lifetime as a Native person, the term 'warrior' and the image I just described are usually synonymous.

That being said, in the case of the Washington team, the constant and repeat offenders of Native stereotypes, I would assume the use of the term 'warrior' may not be as carefully crafted as the GSW. This is, of course, assuming they would name their team this. They haven’t said so, but in order to cover all areas, I want to address this now.

If they did, however, it would be a slap in the face. I mean, after the history of the racist name, after the protests, after the legal battles, after the decades long societal battle, to change your name to the 'Washington Warriors,' it would be a grave insult. It would be similar to someone telling a bad joke too soon after a tragic event. Yeah, it’s too soon. Way too soon. In order to fully show respect and in order for a new start, one must move far away from the offensive behavior. I would vote for a new name far from anything to do with Native people. Far from, please.

Warriorism with a Native logo is not something that is honorable. No matter which way you swing it; it will come out offensive in some sort of fashion. Whether that be in promotions, by the players, by the fans, in the stadium, and in social media.

Someone asked me recently, if a Native mascot, logo, or name could ever be something positive if it is crafted carefully and with the support of tribes or tribal people. The answer is no. As Suzan Harjo states, “No stereotype can been a good stereotype.” No matter which way you look at it, a mascot is meant to be ridiculed, tampered with, vandalized even; honored, yes, but moreover, it can be easily manipulated. Native people have been manipulate, vandalized, and tampered with enough. Enough is enough.

Now, in the Native community we do use the term 'warrior' loosely to refer to leaders in our community. It's not a pejorative term, it is how it is represented and the context in which it is presented. Do I believe we should have schools in our communities called the 'warriors'? No. Again, going back to the meaning of a mascot, it is meant to be manipulated. We don’t want to manipulate our identities any further.

This brings me to my next topic of other Native mascots in professional sports and in college sports. I am asked quite frequently: what about other teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks, Atlanta Braves, Florida State Seminoles and the Utah Utes? They are all equally offensive because they all promote stereotypes of Native people. While their names aren’t pejorative terms like R*dskns, savage, squ*w, etc., they open the door for ridicule of the indigenous people. They do nothing to further the growth of our people and culture.

Some people will say, “Well, what about those teams who have the backing or support of tribes like Florida State and the University of Utah who also provide scholarships to Native people?” Once again, no stereotype is a good stereotype. Also, it is wonderful they provide scholarships, but the impact of the use of Native-themed names and mascots are far more harmful than the benefit of a few scholarships. Our dignity and respect as nations should not hinge of a few scholarships, sponsored pow wows, or cultural events. Our dignity as indigenous peoples should not hinge on a few football tickets and box seats. We must think hard about what the money is actually paying for and why there must be money exchanged for the use of our image. Are we for sale?

All Native mascots must go. This is the era of change. This is the era where we rid negative Native imagery across the board. What most people don’t know, much of the stereotypical images are, in fact, from a time period when many of these mascots were created, like in the 1930s. This was the assimilation era for Native people. We had little to no rights. Mascots are a way the assimilation era continues to negatively affect our people.

The 'Washington Warriors' would not be any less offensive. It would mean they (the Washington team) didn’t get the memo. It would mean that there continues to be an incredible amount of money to be made in stereotypical Native imagery. It would mean that despite our call for cultural sensitivity, they will do whatever it is they want despite our voice because, at the end of the day, other teams are doing it, so “why can’t I?” I believe it will take one team to make the honest move to change their name, logo, and to stay away from Native imagery. Once that team goes, the rest will follow. So, who will it be? Who will be the leader in the crumbling of the Gestapo of Native stereotyping in sports?

Amanda Blackhorse. Photo courtesy Malcolm Benally.

Amanda Blackhorse, Diné, is a mother and activist. She and four other plaintiffs won a case against the Washington football team that stripped it of six of its seven trademarks. Follow her on Twitter @blackhorse_a. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.