Time to rethink Native American imagery

ESPN.com Illustration

As you may have heard, North Dakota residents recently voted to retire the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname, ending a bitter controversy between the school, the NCAA, and local fans over the use of Native American names and iconography.

What you might not know is that the issue of Native American team names, mascots, logos, and other imagery has also been contentious on the high school level. Here's some of what's taken place in the past few months alone:

• The state of Oregon banned Indian-based high school mascots. (Wisconsin enacted a similar regulation in 2010.)

• A Connecticut high school changed its Indian-based logo and mascot.

• A parent in Delaware asked that two high schools change their Indian-based mascots.

And so on. Some people view these developments as a long-overdue response to offensive stereotypes; others view it as political correctness run amok. Either way, the issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

The intersection of sports and Native Americans is a touchy area, and it frequently descends into angry name-calling. But I don't think it has to be that way. If you're fine with the use of Native American imagery, that doesn't automatically make you a racist. And if you're opposed to it, that doesn't make you an activist crusader. In short, I think reasonable people can disagree on this issue.

I believe the issue is worth exploring and thinking about, though. And after thinking about it a lot myself, I've concluded that I'm generally opposed to the use of Native iconography in uniforms, logos, and team names -- but not for the reasons you might think.

Most people opposed to Native American imagery in sports feel that the imagery is inherently offensive. In some cases, they're right: The term "Redskins" is an ethnic slur, and it's hard to view Chief Wahoo (the Cleveland Indians' logo character) as anything other than a racist caricature.

Once you get past those two examples, however, I see this as more of an intellectual property issue. Basically, for those of us who aren't Native American (which basically means the vast majority of the people who reading this), I don't think we have the right to use images of headdresses, tomahawks, tribe names, and so on. It's not a question of whether such symbols are offensive, or whether they perpetuate outdated stereotypes; it's that they don't belong to us. If a non-Jewish group used a menorah or a Star of David in its marketing, wouldn't that raise a few eyebrows? Ditto for a non-military group using a Purple Heart. And if those examples don't pass the smell test, neither does a sports team using Native American iconography.

Unless a local tribe gives permission, that is. Florida State, for example, has worked out an arrangement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, so the school's use of Seminole imagery is fully sanctioned. Same thing goes for the Utah Utes. And at Eastern Michigan, the marching band just brought back the school's Huron mascot, which had been retired back in 1991. According to that article, the mascot's revival had the support of Wyandotte Nation (formerly the Hurons). That works for me.

This standard of acceptability -- getting permission from a local tribe -- seems like the least we can do. Personally, I'd also like to see some sort of royalty payment or licensing fee, but getting permission is a good place to start.

It's around this point that someone usually says, "I don't see anyone complaining about the Vikings or the Fighting Irish. It's the same thing!" But it's not. Minnesota was settled by Scandinavian immigrants. So when Minnesotans named their football team the Vikings, they were celebrating themselves. Similarly, Notre Dame is a Catholic university. So when they called their teams the Fighting Irish, they were celebrating themselves. If a Native American school wanted to call its teams the Indians, that would be analogous to the Vikings and Irish. But not when non-Natives do so.

There are a few other standard talking points that always seem to come up when discussing this topic. Let's go through a few of them:

If you go down this road, it’s a slippery slope. Someone’s always going to find something offensive about any team name or mascot. Where does it stop?

The "slippery slope" or "Pandora's box" argument seems reasonable until you actually take a minute to think about it. I mean, I've never heard of anyone having any issues with team names like Mets, Broncos, Red Sox, Suns, or Predators. Have you?

"Where does it stop?" is a good question. But here's a better one: Where does it start?

I realize the Redskins' team name is derogatory, but there's nothing wrong with team names like Braves or Warriors. Heck, a lot of those names were originally meant as tributes!

Maybe there were and maybe they weren't. Either way, there's no other ethnic group that's the subject of these "tributes" in the sports world. Don't you think it's better to let Native Americans decide how their culture should be represented?

Why are you getting so worked up about this when polls show that Native Americans themselves don’t care about this issue?

People who raise this point are usually referring to a poll conducted by Sports Illustrated in 2002. The results were published in this article, and here's the key passage: "Asked if they were offended by the name Redskins, 75% of Native American respondents in SI’s poll said they were not, and even on reservations, where Native American culture and influence are perhaps felt most intensely, 62% said they weren’t offended. Overall, 69% of Native American respondents — and 57% of those living on reservations — feel it’s OK for the Washington Redskins to continue using the name."

That’s powerful information — but it’s not quite the same as the blanket statement “Native Americans aren’t offended by these names.” Based on the poll numbers, between a quarter and a third of them are offended, which is a pretty sizable percentage. Anyway, that's 10-year-old data. What do Native Americans think about this in 2012?

In an admittedly unscientific attempt to answer that question, I recently invited Native American readers of the Uni Watch Blog to weigh in on this subject. Eleven people responded (a very small sample size, obviously), and their feeback makes for very interesting reading -- check it out. As you can see, some of them are fine with the use of Native imagery, others aren't. Interestingly, however, most of them made a point of saying they're opposed to the use of "Redskins."

I'm sick of this politically correct crap. If you have some sort of white guilt, that’s your problem. Don’t try to make me feel guilty, because I’ve never done anything bad to Indian people.

I'm not trying to make anyone feel guilty. Nobody's saying you did anything wrong to anyone. I just think it would be more respectful to let Native Americans decide how their cultural imagery should be used. If you think that's "politically correct," well, OK. I think it's just good manners.

I can see your point, but I’m a Cleveland native and a lifelong Indians fan. You can’t expect fans like me to just give up these team names and logos. We feel emotionally connected to them!

I totally understand that. And yes, as a fan of the Mets, 49ers, Canadiens, and Knicks, I realize I have the luxury of engaging in this debate from a safe emotional distance. Nobody's asking me to give up my bond to my favorite teams.

But if I were an Indians or Redskins fan (or if the word “Mets” turned out to have some offensive connotation), I hope I’d be strong enough to stay true to my principles. Doing the right thing can be hard sometimes. That’s why we tend to respect people when they do it.

Of course, your concept of doing the right thing may differ from mine, and that's fine. But I think these issues are worth thinking about and discussing. Hope you agree.

Paul Lukas attended Bayport-Blue Point High School, whose teams are called the Phantoms -- a name that, to his knowledge, has never offended anyone. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.