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How do Native people feel about Chief Wahoo and the tomahawk chop? A conversation with activist and author Rebecca Nagle

“I would think that in 2020, the idea of not perpetuating racism against a marginalized group would be a good enough reason,” Nagle said. She’s right, of course.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

In a few short days, the National Football League’s marquee event—the Super Bowl—will take place in Miami, Florida, between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs. For baseball fans, the end of the Super Bowl is the unofficial beginning of baseball season. but this year, the Chiefs’ presence in the Super Bowl has raised another issue, one which plagues baseball and football alike: the continued presence of racist and appropriative mascots and chants in professional sports.

The Chiefs and Atlanta Braves use the tomahawk chop, whose racist origins I wrote about late last year. The Braves and Cleveland Indians continue to use names ostensibly based on Native people. Thousands of people have signed a petition to bring back the repugnant “Chief Wahoo” mascot after it was finally retired last year, and the team refuses to rule out its return — perhaps because it remains the team’s best-selling merchandise. In many ways, baseball can’t be severed from its associated with racist imagery of Native and Indigenous people.

It’s time that baseball reckoned with this issue. To that end, I spoke with award-winning Native author, speaker, and activist Rebecca Nagle, who has spent years working on the issue. Nagle was forthright and open about her own experience seeing Native mascots and team names. “It’s really hard to see a racist caricature of your people literally every day,” she said. “It’s a hard experience to explain.”

“Very rarely are we portrayed as contemporary people, as alive in American society,” Nagle went on. “What you see along with Native mascots in sports is caricatures of Native people -red body paint or headdresses that they bought at the dollar store or doing the tomahawk chop. None of those things are representative of Native culture.”

And those stereotypes, Nagle said, can do real harm. “Stereotypes that honor Native Americans are harmful – just like any other group, holding on to stereotypes undermines our rights,” she explained. “It almost always portrays Native people as existing only in the past: savage, warlike, primitive.”

Nagle’s personal experience is reflected in studies I cited back in October.

In 2008, this study found that stereotyping of Native Americans at sports arenas - such as the tomahawk chop, which was specifically cited in the study - “was not only associated with depressed self-esteem (Study 2); it was also associated with decreased feelings of community worth (Study 3).

* * *

Similar results were found in a more recent study in 2014, and noted in this law review article in 2011, and this paper in 1992 warning of harms to Indigenous student learning, and this other paper in 1992 warning harms to Indigenous students’ identity, and in this book entitled How to Be An Indian in the 21st Century, and this book in 1998 called Communicating Prejudice. This article from 2003 detailed that people who participated in group sports cheers like the tomahawk chop were more likely to view Indigenous people as “lazy, weak, undependable, unpatriotic.” Communicating Prejudice found measurable physical symptoms amongst Native people as a result of witnessing the tomahawk chop. This book drew connections between the tomahawk chop and the staggering 85 percent unemployment rate on some reservations, noting that employers are unlikely to hire people about whom they believe the chop is an accurate or semi-accurate stereotype.

It should be noted this is a very, very small sampling. There are literally hundreds of books and studies and articles in all manner of media retreading this ground, all of which make largely the same findings. The tomahawk chop is harmful to Native and Indigenous people, full-stop. The science, as they say, is settled. We know this. It is a fact.

Yet as Nagle told me, the research goes well beyond even what I cited in October.

Sociologist Stephanie Fryberg has conducted multiple studies examining the harm these racist mascots have on Native and Indigenous youth, decreasing self-esteem and self-worth. Psychologist Deborah Rivas-Drake offered this useful summary of Fryberg’s work for Psychology Today:

In work examining the impacts of Native Mascots on Native individuals, Stephanie Fryberg and her colleagues conducted a series of studies that investigated the relationship between Native mascot imagery. These studies included high school and university samples of American Indian students and found that, when primed with Native mascots, imagery, or stereotypical negative outcomes (e.g., high dropout rates, suicide rates, or alcoholism rates), youth were more likely to report lower self-esteem and fewer achievement-related goals compared to youth who were not primed and part of a control condition.

But as Nagle told me, the work of Fryberg and others also found another detrimental effect: white people exposed to Native and Indigenous sports mascots and team names were more likely to display racist attitudes towards Native and Indigenous people. I found multiple instances of this in my own research.

One example is Kaden Tiger, a Native youth barred by his school of wearing an eagle feather on his graduation cap - because his school’s mascot was a headdress-wearing chieftan. And then there’s this horrifying anecdote:

Our cheerleaders dressed up one of our own [students] in a Halloween ‘Pokeahottie’ costume and tied her to a stake after dragging her out on the field in shackles against her will. They proceeded to dance around her, acting as if they were beating her and treating her like a slave. This is the most sickening halftime show I’ve ever witnessed. — Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, Miwok student and football player, describing the environment at his California high school

This research led to the American Psychological Association recommending in 2005 that all Native and Indigenous mascots be immediately retired.

In short, these mascots have real, measurably deleterious psychological effects on Native and Indigenous people, whilst increasing the racism of non-Native people. There’s a word for that: erasure, and it’s something that Nagle is all too familiar with from her own personal experience.

“As a contemporary Native woman, I encounter a lot around non-Native people their shock and surprise that I even exist,” Nagle told me. “I had one white woman say ‘I thought we killed all of you.’ There’s a part of the public consciousness that doesn’t think Native people are real, or don’t exist. Racist mascots absolutely play into that, because what the public is used to is seeing cartoons of Native people, but not seeing contemporary Native people.” That’s the underlying problem, exacerbated by these mascots: “When we’re struggling for our rights,” Nagle said, “we constantly hit this wall as not being seen as real people.”

Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo isn’t exempt — it causes the same harm. “I think that the Cleveland Indians with all of the other racist mascots, they all have the same type of cartoon imagery. Decapitated Native people, floating heads. It’s from a really specific period of U.S. history,” Nagle told me. “[They’re] Racial stereotypes of moment this racial imagery comes from.”

Notably, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) enacted a policy in 2005 to phase out these racist names and mascots, but professional teams, especially in MLB, just haven’t followed suit. “I would think that in 2020, the idea of not perpetuating racism against a marginalized group would be a good enough reason,” Nagle said. She’s right, of course.

In any event, if you want to honor Native or Indigenous people this summer, there’s a better way than doing a racist chant or wearing a racist mascot. Learn about the Native and Indigenous people who are alive and thriving right now.

“We’re still here,” Nagle said. “We’re now 574 federally recognized tribes. We now have our own unique culture, our own unique history. We’re an important part not only of the building of this country, but also contemporary Native life.”