The controversy continues

Debates on using Native American mascots prevail


Protestors gather in Santa Clara, Calif., on Nov. 23, 2014 protesting the use of “Redskins” as the mascot of the Washington, D.C., football team. Karl Mondon | Bay Area News Group

Dirce Toca, Contributing Writer

Multiple professional sports teams, colleges and even high schools have taken heat in recent years for their use of Native American imagery. The controversy and protests center around the use of caricatures, nicknames and logos that people perceive as offensive.

As the Cleveland Indians announced that they will stop using the Chief Wahoo logo on the team’s uniform beginning with the 2019 season, other professional teams resurfaced in the debate, including the MLB’s Atlanta Braves, the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins, and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. As Illinois school institutions go, the Lane Tech Indians (Lane Tech College Prep High School) and the fighting Illini (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) use a Native American warrior as their mascot.

Few of these sports teams and institutions began using their logos since the early 1900s. The Cleveland Indians began using their cartoonish caricature logo in 1947, the Kansas City Chiefs’ name originated in 1973, Chief Illiniwek had been U of I’s mascot since 1926 and the Lane Indian has been a defining symbol throughout Lane’s 100 plus years. It’s hard to say what the context was behind the naming of many of these: good intention, bad result? Or are people now much more hypersensitive in a more politically correct environment?

The outcry by the public that the use of Native American imagery is insensitive and racist has led to several official removals of logos and mascots, but can you really get rid of something that has been part of a team’s history and legacy? Chief Wahoo was considered a cherished symbol to many fans. And while the logo is being removed from players’ uniforms, the team will retain the trademark for Chief Wahoo, and consumers will still be able to purchase merchandise with the logo. The team name will also not be changed.

Despite the rising pressure to eliminate them, many establishments continue to cling to their team names, logos and school mascots.

From 1966 to 1986, the Atlanta Braves team mascot was Chief Noc-a-Homa, a character clad in a chief’s war bonnet who performed a spirit dance before games. Chief Noc-a-Homa’s name was a variation on the phrase “Knock a Homer,” and was then replaced by a walking baseball named Homer the Brave, after criticism from native groups who said the portrayal was disrespectful. But in 2013, the team brought back a logo as a sort of throwback – the “Screaming Indian” – a caricature that was said to be even more offensive than the Washington Redskins’ name.

In the same year, the Oneida Indian Nation, a Native American tribe, held a symposium to discuss their campaign with the hopes of forcing the Washington Redskins to change their name.

Oneida Indian Nation Representative, Ray Halbritter, explained that the tribe wanted the NFL to stop using a racial slur as the name of a football team. Team owners made it clear that they will never change the name.

The Kansas City Chiefs, meanwhile, haven’t seemed to stir up as much national outrage, perhaps because their official mascot is the K.C. Wolf. But they have definitely drawn criticism for the way their fans celebrate the team; many wear feathers and Native American headdresses while celebrating with the “Tomahawk chop” and other tribe calls throughout the game.

Chicago Blackhawks fans also often attend games dressed in Native American garb, with headdresses and red face paint. The team name doesn’t necessarily contain an offensive caricature or a racial slur, but they are essentially using an Indian head as their logo.

Of course, not everyone will find the same things offensive. It is said that perhaps the Blackhawks face less controversy since the team name is honoring Chief Black Hawk, a real-life American Indian war leader who lived in the 18th and 19th-centuries, rather than the idea of a tribe.

“I don’t think it’s a sign of disrespect. I’m dressing up in a headdress and painting my face to cheer on my team,” said senior Matthew Pacelli. “It’s not meant to demean or mock anyone’s culture.”

Similar to the Chicago Blackhawks, U of I’s former mascot, Chief Illiniwek, was meant to honor, not mock. According to the Council of Chiefs’ website, the mascot was created as “a symbol to represent both honor and tradition at the University of Illinois.” The Council of Chiefs is made up of alumni who have portrayed the mascot at the university’s sporting events. But as of 2017, though it continues to be widely used by students, Chief Illiniwek has been officially retired.

For Lane Tech High School, the controversy began when the editorial board of the school newspaper, “The Warrior,” decided to eliminate all Native American imagery from its header.

The newspaper used to feature an “Indian head” inside the letter “O” in “Warrior” and use feathers for the “W.” But the issue went beyond a simple change in the newspaper. It was a domino effect that some fear could end up erasing a culture that many generations of Lane students, faculty and alumni cherish. When walking through the halls of Lane, there is historic artwork of Native American imagery and one can find trophies and plaques with the Indian logo.

Getting rid of the Lane Indian would mean getting rid of over 100 years of history.

“In my mind, Lane has kept the Indian symbol because they respect it,” Lane Tech alumna Daniela Castro said. “It’s tradition.”

To some, these logos and mascots are the honored traditions of their sports teams and school institutions. To others, they are race-based, disrespectful symbols that have to go.