Logan High School senior Hannah Evans, 17, is one of two student mascots who come out on Friday nights to support their high-school football team, the Chieftains. Here, Hannah poses for a portrait on September 8, 2017, in Logan, Ohio, shortly before a game versus the Meigs High School Marauders. The Chieftains win the game 27–22.

When School Spirit Is a Slur

The world of Native American high school mascots.

ALL ACROSS AMERICA, thousands of high schools and middle schools’ sports teams and mascots pay a sort of questionable homage to Native Americans. Some 400 use the name “Indians” alone.

Over the past few years, a national debate has been raging about the ethics and legality of the name of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. In late 2013, an NPR anchor refused to say the name on air; over the next few years, hundreds of other media organizations also dropped the word from their style guides. (This past year, a school in Maryland banned apparel with the team’s logo.) Then came the fight over the trademark. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled six of the team’s registered trademarks in 2014, on the grounds that the name was “disparaging” (although the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the offensive name of a band called the Slants could be trademarked, rendering the Patent Office’s earlier decision void).

Outside of professional sports, words and names referring to indigenous Americans abound: there are high-school teams and squads called the Redskins, Redmen, Big Reds, Braves, Warriors, Chieftains, Indians, Savages, Squaws, Apaches, Mohawks, and Seminoles. Many of them are in the state of Ohio, which, some reports say, has over 60 high-school mascots with names considered to be slurs. (It’s worth considering the cost of “tradition”: a 2014 report by the Center for American Progress found links between these team names and the lowered self-esteem—and increased suicide rates—of young Native Americans.)

Earlier this autumn, photographer Daniella Zalcman traveled to the Buckeye State, where only 0.3 percent of the population identifies as indigenous, and where school officials claim that they have heard few, if any, concerns about their mascots. These are some of the students who take to football fields and gymnasiums identifying as the Indians and the Redskins and the Chieftains—and while Zalcman felt that few of the people she spoke with were acting out of malice, that doesn't mean that these mascots are without harm.


This term is the subject of frequent and heated debate. Its written history is thin, with instances of falsification. The most-cited study of the term is from 2005, by Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian, who claims the term was originally used by American Indians to self-identify. The earliest known use of the word “redskin” came from 1769, in a speech by an Illinois chief, but quickly changed from semi-neutral to an exclusionary, contemptuous pejorative, and, by the mid-1800s, was in use as a racial slur. In the NFL, the owner who renamed and relocated the Boston Braves to our nation’s capital—where the team became the Washington Redskins—was a noted racist.


Cuyahoga Heights Schools, Cuyahoga Heights, Ohio. Mascot first mentioned by area newspaper: 1953.

Members of the Cuyahoga Heights Middle School football team (founded in 1938) gather in their locker room after a game is halted, then canceled, due to a thunderstorm in early September.
The Cuyahoga Heights Middle School football team plays the Cardinal Middle School Huskies this fall.
A clock and a figurine on display at Cuyahoga Heights Middle School, whose team is called the Redskins. The school enrolls around 450 students.
Inside the Cuyahoga Heights High School football locker rooms.
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Arcadia High School, Arcadia, Ohio First mention of mascot in yearbook: 1965.

The Arcadia High School gym in Arcadia, Ohio. The school was founded in 1921.
An entryway at Arcadia High School. The school has around 190 students.
An old football sits in a trophy case at Arcadia High School.


Though once used by many athletic programs, including at St. John’s University and the University of Massachusetts, today Canada’s McGill University is the last prominent college team to be called the Redmen. McGill claims the name is a reference to the school color, which in turn was a reference to founder James McGill’s Scottish heritage—though there was a brief period when some indigenous iconography was used. The iconography was discarded, but the name remains. (For men, at least; McGill’s women’s teams are the Martlets.)

In any case, the history of the color “red” as it pertains to Native Americans is ambiguous. Research indicates the most likely explanation is that the European settlers who arrived in North America had very firm ideas about populations of people as divided by color: white Europeans, black slaves. Native Americans were the third category, being neither white nor black. By the mid 1720s, the accepted color for Native Americans was “red.”

Bucyrus High School, Bucyrus, Ohio Mascot created: 1927.

A pseudo-totem pole stands on the Bucyrus High School athletic fields, where the school teams are called the Redmen. The school has 645 students.
Freshman and junior varsity football player Karson Kimmel, 14, holds his helmet at Bucyrus High School. The school was founded in 1850.


The Seminoles are a group originally formed by members of several different tribes who immigrated to Florida in the 18th century, mostly fleeing conflict with white settlers. According to a 1937 account, the word itself translates to “runaway.” As a mascot for an Ohio school, it’s an unusual choice: originating in different parts of the South, Seminoles now live in mostly Oklahoma and Florida.

Monroe Central High School, Woodsfield, Ohio Mascot created: 1994.

The Monroe Central High School varsity volleyball team hosting Shenandoah High School this fall. Monroe Central was created when two high schools merged in 1994. The student body was asked to pick a new mascot to replace the existing options, and, according to a football coach, Florida State University's Seminoles football team was doing so well at the time that Monroe students decided to give their own team the same name.
The Monroe Central High School fight song and logo appear on the wall inside the gym. Around 260 students attend the school.
A handmade sign at Monroe Central High School.


The written record of the noun “brave” in reference to indigenous people dates back to the early 1800s, but there are differing definitions. One school of thought is that it refers simply to any Native American man; another is that it means one who has not yet “counted coup,” or made a demonstration of bravery on the battlefield. The latter definition is pervasive and seems to come from 19th-century artist George Catlin, the first white American to paint portraits of the Plains tribes in their native territory.

The word “brave” itself comes from French. In Middle French, spelled the same way, it meant ... basically the same thing as it does in modern English. It may come from the Latin barbarus, meaning foreign, uncivilized, and threatening—though some linguists are not totally convinced.

Indian Valley High School, Gnadenhutten, Ohio First mention of mascot in yearbook: 1988.

Indian Valley High School in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, where the team is called the Braves. The town is also the site of the 1782 Gnadenhutten Massacre, during which 96 Lenape men, women, and children were killed by American militia who were supposed to be their allies.
A sign points the way to the high school stadium. The student population is 459.


Olentangy High School, Lewis Center, Ohio Mascot created: 1954.

A sign for the Olentangy Braves baseball team hangs on the school athletic fields. Founded in 1953, the school has around 1,830 students.


Early European descriptions of Native American populations usually used words like “tawny” and “brown.” Yet red became a conventional descriptor. Aside from Europeans’ mania for skin-color classification, explanations for this range from some groups’ use of red face paint, to an association with the earth, to an insinuation that Native Americans are warlike and vulgar (as opposed to “pure, peaceful” white). Nobody really knows how the term stuck.

Bellaire High School, Bellaire, Ohio First mention of mascot in yearbook: 1951.

The Bellaire High School junior varsity football team practices after class. The school was founded in 1876 and has been in its current location since 1925.
Painted tomahawks with football players’ names line the walkway from the parking lot down to the football stadium in Bellaire.
A truck parked outside Bellaire High School. The student population is around 300.
Bellaire High School cheerleaders share a moment before a JV game.


“Arrow” is a very old word, dating back to Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of most of the modern languages of Europe. It became arhwō in Proto-Germanic, and changed during its trips through Old and Middle English (arwe, arow) before becoming “arrow” in modern English. Although the word may not have an explicit connection to Native Americans, in the United States, bows and arrows have been historically (and stereotypically) associated with indigenous people.

Ashland High School, Ashland, Ohio Mascot created: 1952.

Sophomore Liam Harper, 15, dressed as the Ashland High School mascot “Arry the Arrow.” Ashland has around 980 students.
A supportive message for the Ashland High School teams. The new school opened in 1962.


Originally coming from the Latin for “captain,” this word mutated through Old French (chevetain) and Anglo-French (chieftayn) before ending up as “chieftain.” Its meaning overlaps broadly with “chief,” though it is slightly less versatile, being used generally only to refer to the leader of a group of people. (There are no chieftain executive officers.) Although it’s often been used, it’s a very inexact way to refer to Native American social structures; there are as many different kinds of indigenous leaders as there are languages and ways to describe them.

Logan High School, Logan, Ohio Mascot created: 1927.

Logan High School senior Colton Lonberger, 17, runs the length of the football stadium with a Logan Chieftains flag while the varsity team takes the field on a Friday night in September. The school was founded in 1861.
The crowd stands for the national anthem at Logan High School before a Friday night football game. It’s a larger high school, with 1,159 students.
One of the Logan High School varsity football coaches confronts a referee during a Friday night game.
Logan High School cheerleaders gather before the start of a Friday night varsity football game between the Logan High School Chieftains and the Meigs High School Marauders. The Chieftains go on to win the game 27–22.

Additional reporting by Dan Nosowitz.

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