Headbloom Blog

Derogatory expressions and images regarding Native Americans

On April 9, 2010, the North Dakota Supreme Court upheld the right of the University of North Dakota to drop the name “Fighting Sioux” from their school. To see the Fighting Sioux image and read details of this four-year-long court battle, go here . The name Sioux (pronounced “Sue” ) was the translation from another Native tribal group for the word “snake” and meant as an insult to the Natives of North and South Dakota. The Native people of the Dakotas refer to themselves as Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota. For a discussion of the history of the University nickname and why local Native American groups never supported it, read here. Because of this landmark legal decision and the little that is known about Native Americans, I have compiled a number of images and references for you here.

The unique issue confronting Native Americans in the N. Dakota case and across the U.S. is the depiction of Native people as team mascots. According to the Native community, the “honor” of being a mascot is not an honor at all, but an insult. In fact, the American Heritage Dictionary defines “redskin” (the name employed by the Washington, DC pro football team) as “offensive slang used as a disparaging term for a Native American,” which is equivalent to the “n-word” for African-Americans. Other minority groups are not referred to by such disparaging labels because newspapers avoid printing such words and broadcasters avoid saying them. For more on Native Americans in the news, go here .

Expressions and images considered disrespectful

  • Indian giver = a person who reneges on a transaction
  • Cowboys & Indians = childhood game, similar to Cops & Robbers (good guys fight the bad guys)
  • Honest Injun = I swear I’m telling the truth.
  • squaw = dismissive term for female Native American (Nat. Am. for “vagina” )
  • an Injun = simplistic pronunciation for “Indian”
  • prairie nigger = racial slur for Native American
  • timber nigger = racial slur for Native American
  • redskin = name for Native American (based on supposed skin tone)
  • Washington Redskins = Washington, DC professional football team
  • Chief Wahoo = mascot for Cleveland Indians professional baseball team (“fun time” )
  • Chief Nokahoma = mascot for Atlanta Braves professional baseball team (“knock a homer” )

Oscar Arredondo, a Minnesota artist of Aztec heritage has made it a personal crusade to challenge the blind stereotyping of peoples through sports mascots, taking on one of the most offensive sports teams, the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo in a 2001 art project, A Mile in My Moccasins. A moccasin is a traditional Native American shoe. The expression, “walk a mile in my shoes” means that before you judge a person, you should experience his/her existence for a period of time.

Here are some images that cause many Native Americans sadness and anger:
Chief Nokahoma
Chief Wahoo
Nebraska high school mascot

In the Grand Rapids, MI area, a 2009 controversy was raised over the proposal to change the name of the Saugatuck High School’s mascot, the Indian. A Native American artist who painted the school’s logo in the gymnasium in 1970 as a teenager now regrets the mural that was painted when he didn’t understand his culture. As an adult, he now feels that the images of Native Americans as sports mascots are demeaning. (For the full story, go here.)

The (mostly white) people who resist calls to change usually cite “tradition” or “honoring heritage” in their defense. Sadly, the word “tradition” simply means “this is how we’ve done it and we don’t question it.” With regard to “heritage,” it should be noted that when the University of North Dakota changed its name from the Flickertails (a native ground squirrel) to the Fighting Sioux in 1930, there were no Native Americans enrolled at the university. On the other hand, the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish, an often-cited example of “positive” racial mascots, used to be called “Rovers,” “Ramblers,” and “Terriers”; they finally adopted “Irish” in the early 1900s because of a high number of Irish Catholics on their sports teams. Given the sad historical treatment of Native Americans by European American settlers and succeeding American governments, it is doubtful that any of these institutions of higher education were founded to honor the legacy of the local Natives.

Here is an image of a Native American with a mock sports shirt for the Fighting Whites.

In an intimately personal and moving poem called, “I Hated Tonto (Still Do),” Native American Sherman Alexie recalls growing up with stereotype movie Indians, loving them, wanting to be them, and realizing how much self-loathing the (white-dominated) media has created in him and his boyhood friends.

In perhaps the most compelling reference, Jill Beattie writes, “Tackling political issues can sometimes seem overwhelming, and it is important to acknowledge that, in order to be activists, we do not all have to be super-heroes…. We can start small. We can begin by recognizing the problem. The real problem is not the Indian mascots. The real problem is rooted in the attitude of dominant society. Whether or not it is intentional, the truth of the matter is that dominant cultures cling to their dominance. Imposing stereotypes is a way of keeping control. It oppresses members of minority communities and prevents them from being competitive. There is an insensitivity to other cultures as we contend only with our desires to stay on top. If we dig a little bit deeper, we may see that this need to dominate and is based upon a fear of losing control. Only when we can see that we are all members of the same global community, will we learn to accept our individual differences.” (American Indian Mascots: A Past Grievance?)

In this final image, a Native American opposes racial stereotyping. (Language note: Black Sambo, a racial stereotype about black Americans, is no longer acceptable.)

Alan Headbloom