Time to reconsider Native American names, say activists and academics

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FILE PHOTO: A Washington Redskins football team logo is seen on a shirt at a sporting goods store in Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia, U.S., June 24, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

July 16, 2020

By Amy Tennery

(Reuters) – As the Washington, D.C. National Football League franchise contemplates a new identity, some activists, academics and branding experts say other teams should reconsider their Native American names and symbols.

The Washington team announced on Monday plans to drop its “Redskins” name after a review.

That decision has put a spotlight on other teams with Native American names and symbols such as Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves, as well as the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

“If we learned anything from this episode with the Washington team, it should be that it’s not up to the teams to define what is and isn’t honoring Native people,” said Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, the leader of the “Change the Mascot” campaign, in an email to Reuters.

The Indians franchise said earlier this month it would work “to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name” having already dropped its “Chief Wahoo” logo in 2019.

The Braves said this week that its “Tomahawk Chop” chant was “one of the many issues” being discussed with a Native American advisory group formed last year, but said a name change was out of the question.

The Chicago Blackhawks have said that they will not change their name, while the Kansas City Chiefs, which faced calls for from Native American leaders during their successful Super Bowl bid, declined to comment.

The Washington team nickname came under review amid immense pressure from top sponsors, but Gabriel Torres Colón, a Vanderbilt University professor who focuses on race, politics and sports, said a cultural shift is also at play.

“Money’s talking because there’s a general uprising with regard to racial consciousness at the moment,” said Torres Colón, citing ongoing protests across the U.S. following the death of George Floyd in police custody.

“Without the unfortunate death of George Floyd and subsequent popular uprising during a pandemic time, I highly doubt that the Redskins would have ended up doing what they did.”

Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing with Carnegie Mellon University, who has advised teams and the NFL in the past, said teams should see change as an opportunity to develop a more inclusive brand.

“We need to rethink processes that are legacy, outdated, meet with a lot of resistance,” said Lightman.

“You’re not going to alienate that fandom, that base. What you are going to do if you change (the name), is create more inclusivity to people that might have been distanced from your brand.”

Many fans are resistant to seeing their team’s logo or branding change, but Elizabeth Glynn, the CEO of Travois, a consulting firm that works with Native American and Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian communities, said “this is a good time to jump on a train that’s already moving.”

“This is the time where people will understand and be ready and if they wait, I think people will really question why, after all that has happened this year.”

(Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Toby Davis)

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