When School Spirit Is a Slur
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.
Arcadia High School, Arcadia, Ohio First mention of mascot in yearbook: 1965.
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.
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 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.
Olentangy High School, Lewis Center, Ohio Mascot created: 1954.
THE BIG REDS
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.
“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.
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.