Monday, May 18, 2009

Racist depictions of American Indians in sport

Racist depictions of American Indians in sport

By: Sara Cooper

The long residuals of American Indian history can still be seen in today’s society, especially in athletics. Many professional and college sports teams use American Indian names, images and symbols. Some examples include the Florida State Seminoles, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs and the University of Illinois Illini. The fierce, tough nature of American Indians is the reason athletic teams want to associate themselves with such images. Those practices that tie the present to the past, like the erotic appeal of athletic performance, make athletes want to be fierce and perform well, and fans want to associate with teams that are aggressive, powerful and ferocious (Shultz, 2009). In a politically-correct society, there are many who believe that it is inappropriate for these teams to continue to use American Indian names, images and symbols. For instance, the term “redskin” is an offensive slang term that refers to the slaughter of American Indians in the past. Knowing this, one would think that a team would dissociate itself from such a term, not embrace it. There are several American Indian groups that protest the Washington football team for using an offensive term as its name.

The invention of national tradition can also be seen in this situation (Shultz, 2009). Because American Indians were the first to live in the United States, their history will always be a part of our national tradition. Their symbols, rituals, costumes and language are well-known in society, but are often depicted in stereotypical ways. At Florida State, an American Indian mascot rides a horse across the football field before games and throws a burning stake into the ground. At the University of Illinois, an Indian mascot jumps and dances around during halftime performances. Many American Indians find both mascots to be offensive because of the stereotypical face paint and clothing that he wears. In addition, fans are often seen doing the “tomahawk chop” at Florida State, another offensive symbol. However, Florida State is able to continue with its name because the Seminole Tribe of Florida said it is OK (Associated Press, 2005). Therefore, the NCAA allows the school to keep its name and Chief Osceola as its mascot.

Finally, the issue with the Kansas City Chiefs is the appearance of mascot Chief Wahoo. His red skin, cheesy grin and feather at the back of the head is a stereotype of the way American Indians are viewed in mainstream society (King, 2008).

In conclusion, racist depictions of American Indians in sport continue today. At the collegiate level, the Florida State Seminoles and University of Illinois Illini receive criticism for using Indian names and symbols. At the pro level, the Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs receive the same criticism. The names, images and symbols used by each of these teams are seen as “hostile” and “abusive” (King, 2008). Although the teams feel that they are representing American Indians in a strong way, most American Indians are offended by what they see. Each of the teams mentioned is a testament to offensiveness, even Florida State. Although the NCAA has said it is OK for Florida State to keep its name and mascot, does the Seminole Tribe of Florida have the right to make that decision for every Seminole Indian? I do not think so. Therefore, all racist depictions of American Indians should be removed from sport.


Associated Press. (2005). FSU authorize court action in mascot ban if needed. Retrieved April 23, 2009 from

King, R. (2008). Teaching intolerance: Anti-Indian imagery, racial politics and anti-racist pedagogy. Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, 30(5), 420-436.

Schultz, J. (2009). Sport in the “New World”. The History of Sport in America. Lecture presented in KNES293. University of Maryland, College park, MD.

Recommended Reading:

Banks, D. (2000), Tribal names and mascots in sports. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 17(1), 5-8.

Burgas, G. (2009). Where Native America meets pop culture. Retrieved from

Giago, T. & Lyman, K. (2009). American Indians are not mascots. Retrieved from

Staurowsky, E. (2004). On the legal and social fictions that sustain American Indians sport imagery. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 28(1), 11-29.

Wolburg, J. The demise of Native American mascots: It’s time to do the right thing. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 23(1), 4-5.

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