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Mary Annette PemberIndian Country Today

Pop culture first created the mythical image of a universal Native American about 100 years ago. Now outdated and outed as a creation of white privilege, the myth is at last being abandoned.

Typically, athletic teams using Native American-inspired mascots insist the practice is a means to honor Native peoples. Although the sentiment may be accurate, the history behind these names discloses a truth far removed from genuine honor.

Stories about how the Washington football team acquired the R-word as its name and mascot vary. According to team history, the 1933 owner George Preston Marshall changed the team’s name from the Braves to the R-word to honor its Native American coach William “Lone Star” Dietz and to avoid confusion with the Boston Braves baseball team. Washington Post writer Richard Leiby later challenged this story in 2013, finding it was unlikely that Dietz was in fact Native American.

Similarly, according to Cleveland baseball history, the Indians name was chosen in 1915 to honor Louis Sockalexis of the Penobscot tribe who played for the then-Cleveland Spiders in 1897. Joe Posnanski of NBC Sports, however, found in 2014 that the name was actually the creation of a group of sportswriters in 1915. Looking to renew fan interest in the poorly performing Cleveland Naps, sportswriters at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and other newspapers created a “nomenclature committee” and sponsored a contest in which fans could choose a new name for the team.

John Britain, a fan of the Cleveland Indians, dons a headdress during opening day. Britain says he is one quarter Apache and that he purchased the headdress on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. File photo by Mary Annette Pember

Posnanski wrote: “The Sockalexis story was entirely untrue, a bit of state funded propaganda to conceal the obvious fact the Cleveland team was named the Indians only to capitalize on the many racist clichés that could be used to promote the team; it was a glorious opportunity for HI-larious Native American jokes and race-specific clichés and insults that fit well in headlines.”

At the high school level, the number of Native-themed sports names and mascots has declined from 93 in 1990 to 49 in 2017, according to the Wall Street Journal. Until recently, Anderson High School in Cincinnati used the R-word as its mascot. Supporters claimed the name was part of history and honored Native people. The school’s track and field coach Andy Wolf characterized calls to change the name as examples of “politically correct bullying.”

The use of Native peoples as sports mascots, however, has its origins in the myth created by White Americans near the end of the 19th century as a means to define the notion of American exceptionalism and its roots in conquering the country’s Indigenous inhabitants.

(Related: Reactions to the Washington team name retirement)

As Philip Deloria writes in his book “Playing Indian,” Americans wanted to feel a natural affinity with the continent, and it was Indians who could teach them such aboriginal closeness. Yet, in order to control the landscape they had to destroy the original inhabitants.”

In his 2008 doctoral dissertation, "Geographies of Indigenous-based team name and mascot use in American secondary schools,” at the University of Nebraska, Ezra Zeitler, eloquently traces the history of White America’s fetishization of Native Americans which has its roots in frontier violence.

A portrait of Louis Sockalexis, purported to be the inspiration for the Cleveland Indians name, hangs on the backside of Progressive Field near the concession stands. File photo by Mary Annette Pember
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Frontier violence celebrated killing Indigenous peoples, elevating “Indian fighting” as a worthy endeavor for European Americans’ conquest of the continent. Indian fighting or killing Indigenous people was celebrated as part of Manifest Destiny, a cultural meme coined by popular media in 1845. This widely embraced mindset fueled the inevitability of White settler dominance of America and the demise of its Indigenous peoples.

As the Native population declined and its lands and rights grew more restricted by federal policies, White America developed nostalgia for a noble savage myth generated by popular culture in the form of cheap novels and Wild West shows such as those presented by William Cody.

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody traveled the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries entertaining crowds with his Wild West shows that included Native actors in his circus-like outdoor pageants celebrating an outlandish version of western life and history. Wild West shows helped create a sort of universal, tribe-less Indian, loosely based on clothing and cultures of the Plains tribes.

Thus, according to Zeitler, imperialist nostalgia was born. By celebrating their opponents' strength, White settlers justified their violent destruction of Native peoples and theft of their lands and were free to re-create and mythicize Native Americans and their imagery. As Cecile Ganteaume, who co-curated the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit “Indians Everywhere," wrote: “American Indian imagery has been used by the federal government to distinguish the United States from other nations and to define the nation for its citizens, by U.S. armed forces to express military might, by American corporations to signify integrity and by designers, such as those created by the 1948 Indian motorcycle, to add luster and cachet to commercial products.”

And to distinguish the fighting, conquering power of sports teams.

Repeated over the past 100 years, the meme forwarding the notion that the created history behind sports mascots honors Native Americans took on what comedian Stephen Colbert would describe as “truthiness.”

The New York Times describes the satirical term “truthy” as unburdened by the factual. Repeated over and over, such propaganda tools lose the need for associations with the truth; they take on lives of their own, morphing eventually into the canon of history and even growing into the lofty realm of tradition, a perfect example of cultural memetics.

The force of the Black Lives Matter movement has helped punch holes in the seemingly indestructible Native American sports mascot meme. These racist names are tumbling like dominoes before the Movement’s undeniable truth.

Progressive Field in Cleveland on opening day. File photo by Mary Annette Pember

Other teams are sure to follow; the Cleveland baseball team announced its plans to review its name in a July 3 tweet.

Cleveland television station WKYC is making a case for returning to the Cleveland Spiders. Fan Michael McFarland has even designed a new logo with the spider image. “It does, indeed, look sweet on hats,” he tweeted.

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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.