Harmful “Indian” Sports Mascots

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Last Updated: 3 years

As the nation’s oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native advocacy organization, NCAI has long held a clear position against derogatory and harmful stereotypes of Native people—including sports mascots—in media and popular culture.

In 1968 NCAI launched a campaign to address stereotypes of Native people in popular culture and media, as well as in sports. Since this effort began, there has been a great deal of progress made and support to end the era of harmful “Indian” mascots in sports.

NCAI’s position is clear, longstanding, and deeply rooted in our seventy years as a leading voice for Indian Country – we advocate for and protect the civil rights, social justice, and racial equity of all Native people in all parts of American society.

Indian Sports Mascots & Harm

Born in an era when racism and bigotry were accepted by the dominant culture, “Indian” sports brands have grown to become multi-million dollar franchises.

The intolerance and harm promoted by these “Indian” sports mascots, logos, or symbols, have very real consequences for Native people. 

Specifically, rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful, perpetuate negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples, and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples.

As documented in a comprehensive review of decades of social science research, derogatory “Indian” sports mascots have serious psychological, social and cultural consequences for Native Americans, especially Native youth.

Of today’s American Indian and Alaska Native population, those under the age of 18 make up 32 percent, and Native youth under the age of 24 represent nearly half, or 42 percent, of the entire Native population.

Most concerning in considering negative stereotypes of Native people, are the alarmingly high rates of hate crimes against Native people.  According to Department of Justice analysis, “American Indians are more likely than people of other races to experience violence at the hands of someone of a different race.”

These factors together indicate a very real need to take immediate action in a number of areas, including the removal of harmful images as well as the education of the general public, to diffuse additional hateful activity against Native peoples.

Widespread Support in Indian Country & Beyond

Over the last fifty years, a ground swell of support has mounted to end the era of racist and harmful “Indian” mascots in sports and popular culture. Today, that support is stronger than ever.

Hundreds of tribal nations, national and regional tribal organizations, civil rights organizations, school boards, sports teams, sports and media personalities, and individuals have called for the end to harmful “Indian” mascots. 

Rooted in the civil rights movement, the quest for racial equality among American Indian and Alaska Native people began well before NCAI established a campaign in 1968 to bring an end to negative and harmful stereotypes in the media and popular culture, including in sports.

As a result there has been significant progress at the professional, collegiate, and highschool levels to change once accepted race based marketing practices.  

Since 1963, no professional teams have established new mascots that use racial stereotypes in their names and imagery.  In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) established an extensive policy to remove harmful “Indian” mascots. 

As a result of ongoing education and advocacy, in total, two-thirds or over 2,000 “Indian” references in sports have been eliminated during the past 35 years. Nearly 1,000 still remain today.

The Origins of the NFL’s Washington Football Team Name
& Culture is a legacy of racism

The NFL’s Washington football team name “Redsk*ns” is a dictionary defined racial slur. The slur’s origin is rooted in government bounty announcements calling for the bloody scalps of Native Americans in the 1800’s.

From the early 1900’s up until today, the term has been carried on as a racial slur in popular culture. For much of the 20th century the term was used interchangeably in movies and books with the word “savage” to portray a misleading and denigrating image of the Native American.

This derogatory term was selected by team owner George Preston Marshall for use by the team in 1932 at a time when Native people were continuing to experience government and social policies to terminate tribes, assimilate Native people, and erase Native human and civil rights.  

In 1932, the federal “Civilization Regulations” were still in place, confining Native people to reservations, banning all Native dances and ceremonies, confiscating Native cultural property and outlawing much of what was traditional in Native life.

Marshall’s reputation as a segregationist and racist was only just beginning to make a mark on society and sports.

In 1933, Marshall was the self appointed leader amongst NFL owners to institute what would become a 13-year league-wide ban on African-American players from the NFL. The Washington football team did not integrate until 30 years later, when Marshall was forced to do so. 

While the team has moved on from Marshall’s segregationist policies, it has refused to close the chapter on Marshall’s ugly use of race-based marketing at the expense of Native people and communities.

At the local community level, 28 high schools in 18 states that have dropped the “R” word as their mascot’s name in the last 25 years.

Contrary to calls for name changes by tribal nations, Native peoples, former players, civil rights organizations, media outlets, and a sea change at the youth, amateur, collegiate, and professional sports levels, the Washington football team has opted to retain its harmful “Indian” brand.

Rather than truly honoring Native peoples, the organization has carried on its legacy of racism and stubbornly holds on to its ugly past.