Reverse appropriation

As much as we might like to ignore or obscure it, we can’t outrun our past. Many of the institutions we rely on were built, or at least conceived of, in a time when bigoted ideas were openly expressed and widely believed (unlike now, where they’re still widely believed but we at least have the decency to believe them a bit more quietly). Nowhere is this more evident than in landmarks that were named during the ‘less enlightened’ days of our civilization. Who could forget Rick Perry’s ranch at “Niggerhead” (or the more than 100 other places with the same name)?

Professional sports teams have also struggled with this issue. Coming from a time when casual racism against Native Americans was considered normal and healthy (so like… 6 years ago? 7? Less?), we get names like “Braves” and “Indians”, and perhaps the worst of all, the “Redskins” – although like landmarks, this is not the only thing to bear that name:

A picture of a taffy candy called "Redskins"

Taste the casual racism!

We have countless examples of things that are racist but shouldn’t be. We have comparatively few examples of organizations that have been forward-thinking and sensitive enough to change the racist elements of their identity. And, to my knowledge, we have only one example of something like this happening:

On February 13,we brought you this story about a school district in Cooperstown, New York that voted to change its nickname from ‘Redskins.’ As a gesture of thanks, the Oneida Indian Nation has offered to pay for new uniforms for the school, Cooperstown Central, after it chooses the new nickname.

From a letter from a representative of the Oneida Nation:

We understand that your courageous decision also comes with a financial consequence and, unfortunately, potential backlash from those who somehow claim that ethnic stereotyping is a victimless crime. We therefore wish to honor your courage and assist your transition to a new, more inclusive mascot. The Oneida Nation would like to lend its support and provide a donation to your school to help offset the necessary costs of changing mascots. We would be honored to help your athletic teams purchase new jerseys that reflect your new team name.

Now, to be sure, this should not be assumed to be the ‘right’ thing for the Oneida Nation to have done. This was the exceptional recognition of what should be a non-exceptional act. The fact that organizations are not doing this should be a cause for surprise. That being said, we still live in the world. The Oneida Nation chose to express a remarkable level of gratitude in acknowledgment of the school district doing what it should have done long ago (or, preferably, not have done in the first place).


Hurray for warm fuzzy feelings!

An animated .gif of some bunnies

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  1. thorarin says

    My middle school was the Thunderbirds and my high school the Tomahawks. As far as I know neither has been changed since I graduated. At least twice during my time in the school district, someone expressed concern that the school mascots were insensitive to Native Americans. Both times it was not a Native American raising the concern and both times the school district took the concern seriously and only after lengthy discussions with the local tribes during which the tribes said that they not only were not offended by the mascots but that they had over all positive feelings about their use. Now I realize that there is a huge difference between naming a team after a historical racial slur like Redskin and naming it after an aspect of a local population’s culture (tomahawks are less locally culturally relevant and more stereotype which does make Tomahawks more problematic that Thunderbirds). That being said, I was wondering how much you think the opinions of those in the local community should be considered if they are in favor of maintaining a name when the name is still potentially offensive to a much wider population. And I am not talking about the local opinions of the privileged, but of those with the right to be offended by the use of the names and mascots.

    I bring this up because growing up I only thought about it as a local issue and assumed that as long as the local tribes were in favor of our mascots then it was, if not a good thing, at least not a problem. As I have grown up and traveled more, I have come to realize that even something as relatively trivial as the local high school mascot has the potential to affect people on a larger scale through things like tourism, business trips, relocation or even just one of our teams traveling for a tournament. I look forward to any input you or the commenters may have.

  2. says

    Does Jeep still make “cherokee”s? At least they are “grand” …

    I was wondering how much you think the opinions of those in the local community should be considered if they are in favor of maintaining a name when the name is still potentially offensive to a much wider population.

    Then you’d have to deal with southerners making the “hey it’s tradition” argument, endlessly. Of course, naming a team the “crackers” would be OK, as long as it was sponsored by Nabisco.

  3. carlie says

    I went to a high school with the Warriors as a mascot. I moved 8 states away. My child now goes to a school with… the Warriors as the mascot. *sigh*

  4. freemage says

    Marcus: In fairness, that’s not what thorain is talking about. Rather, it’s a case where the most likely to be offended party is approached and consulted.

    An example, and it’s nice and juicy, with sincere arguments on both sides:

    The Chicago Blackhawks hockey team is named (indirectly) after Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk and Fox tribes. Unlike some other teams that use either generic terms or, even worse, outright slurs as names, the team staff and ownership has generally tried to treat the naming as an homage to a warrior, rather than as a jokey mascot. The team maintains a close working (and financial) relationship with the local Native American outreach center, which has the explicit purpose of educating the wider community about Native American history and instilling pride in Chicago’s Native American population (which is considerable). The staff there usually prefers to treat the Blackhawks as an opportunity rather than an insult–they get a natural ‘hook’ for talking to local schoolkids, for instance.

    On the flipside, periodically you’ll see fans doing the headdress thing, or otherwise appropriating symbols of Native American culture. This usually raises some hackles, and justly so. So the question becomes, does the outreach efforts and the approval of the local Native American community trump the general rule that such mascots should be edged out?

  5. Rip Steakface says


    My middle school was the Warriors. I’m gonna guess it’s in yet another state.

    All of the middle schools in the public school district here are named after local tribes (Chinook, Nisqually, Komachin). These names could be a lot worse – none of them even have First Nations-themed mascots (Warriors, Blazers, Panthers… unless you consider “Chinook Warriors” to be a theme, which is very possible). At the very least, they’re not taken after some generic/derogatory term for the group of peoples, but rather just their tribal names. It’s less an appropriated insult and more a stolen demonym.

  6. yazikus says

    De-lurking, a neighboring city to mine is dealing with this issue currently. I was roundly convinced by Adrienne over at of the need to change team names. @thorarin, there may have been people you were not aware of who were offended, or other instances of attempts to change that were more quiet. And as for the content of the post, it is nice I guess that the tribe is buying them new uniforms, but isn’t that kind of like a KKK member saying they will only stop wearing their outfit if the black community buys them a fluffy kitten costume? I don’t know.

  7. says

    I don’t think the change of the name was contingent on sponsorship from the Oneida Nation. Rather, I think the Oneida wished to thank and reward the school district for doing the right thing.

  8. yazikus says

    Re-reading I agree with your conclusion. I guess I would like to see other major companies and sponsors would doing the same thing for other schools. Very nice of them in the end, I suppose.

  9. thorarin says

    freemage: I think your example is even better than mine. There are cases where the within a group some will take pride in what will offend others and there are cases where what can be seen as culturally insensitive is being used as a tool for outreach and education.

    I just discovered that the Thunderbirds are now Totem Middle School Thunderbirds. On the local level, this could be a huge step backwards or it could an olive branch to the local tribes that is being used to build community with and within the tribes. Even if the decision was made with the local tribes and even if it is promoting understanding and community on the local level, it still looks like just another example of cultural insensitivity to others.

    Assuming the best possible situation, I have no idea how to weigh the local effects against the farther reaching effects when determining if this was a good move by the school district or huge mistake.

  10. MarkP says

    This is an issue that has often been unclear to me. I understand that some are offended, and whole-heartedly agree that outright slur names should be changed. However, why are Native American names more offensive / less acceptable than names based on other cultures? Why are the “Fighting Irish” ok, but the “Fighting Sioux” inappropriate?

    My privilege may be showing, but this is something that I have really struggled to understand.

  11. says

    I don’t know the the “Fighting Irish” is okay, but I’m not the person to ask about that. I can say that from what I’ve heard a big part of the issue is the erasure of Native cultures from the American landscape and social spheres is particularly problematic. Rather than incorporating actual aboriginal cultures and recognizing real Native historical contributions to history, we have instead appropriated fetishized versions of our mischaracterization of their culture. Living Native people now are left to contend with these fetishes, and then to have their actual culture systematically undermined and destroyed.

    I don’t know if you can say that about the Irish who, though they undoubtedly faced harsh and racist discrimination, have managed to find themselves more or less incorporated into American life (again, with a few of their own fetishized stereotypes to contend with even today).

    There’s also the whole “not being immigrants” thing on top of all that, I’m sure.

  12. Rieux says

    There’s also the fact that a large proportion of the people who founded Notre Dame University were (and a lesser but still substantial proportion of those who fund and attend it today are) Irish. If a meaningful fraction of Americans of Irish descent found the moniker offensive, it’s hard to believe that the University would be able to stick with it.

    The same goes for the Minnesota Vikings, who were named for a major ethnic group in their home state. If Scandinavian-Americans found the name, or its association with football, to be ugly, they’ve got the pull in Minnesota to force the team to change it.

    Native American groups demonstrably don’t have the same power to effect change in the presentation of Dan Snyder’s flagrantly ugly football franchise or Larry Dolan’s nearly-as-bad baseball one.

    As a sort of middle-ground example, the teams associated with the high school in my area are called the Scots, complete with bagpiper mascot and red-plaid branding. Notably, I don’t believe that a significant proportion of the population of this area has ever been ethnically Scottish; instead, the mascot exists (as far as I can tell) because the geographical name for our area happens to have a Scottish connotation.

  13. HappyNat says

    Deadspin has written a couple of article about this, specifically the Washington Redskins. They mention that the franchise would take a temporary financial hit with a name change, although I think that is over stated they would still be 1 of 32 NFL teams and still have the DC market. However, what is strange is how white people (fans and owners) defend the name by saying they have pride in the mascot. Not sure how anyone has pride in the mascot of the team they root for (I say this as a Buckeye fan), but to have pride in a blatantly racist one? The knots people will tie themselves in to defend “tradition”.

  14. says

    As with many of these things, it’s worth pointing out that there’s always going to be a long list of reasons provided to excuse inactivity. None of them will be the real reason that nothing is being done.

  15. LaurentPMPenet says

    As a very aside comment, in the old world and in the 80’s, “Redskin” has become a word to mean the part of the skinhead movement that stayed leftist (of the red kind) and antiracist as the original movement was in the first place. But that’s really just an aside.

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