A Native American Experience with Offensive Mascots and Logos
The effects of the mass genocide of Indigenous people in North and South America are still felt today in modern Native America.
Here in South Dakota the atrocities of battles, boarding schools, and establishing reservations are fresh in the minds of Tribal members who are three to four generations removed. But the image of Native Americans takes on conflicting rolls. Old westerns depict them as bad guys, and sports teams as mascots.
South Dakota State Representative Shawn Bordeaux is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He remembers living in his grandma’s little sister’s basement when he was in college.
“…and we had three generations in the same household," said Bordeux. "And she told me, she said, ‘When I was a sophomore in high school, I sat down with my grandma and she told me stories and I wrote them down.’ This is a woman who, her grandma actually pulled the bullet out of somebody from Wounded Knee, one of her own relatives, a niece who rode horseback with a bullet in her back all the way from Wounded Knee a hundred miles to Rosebud. And she had a baby on her back as well that luckily wasn't shot. And so these stories are real. When your grandma tells about her grandma, it doesn't seem like 1880’s or nineties, it seems real present.”
Just like anywhere in the United States or the world, there are social issues that plague the reservations from poverty, addiction, suicide, housing and stereotypes. Currently there are around 2,000 sports teams in the United States that use Native American logos and mascots.
In the Late 80’s, Robert Walter Two Bulls, an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, moved to Washington D.C. from South Dakota. At one point, Two Bulls was excited to experience his first pro football game at RFK Stadium.
“The Vikings were in town, so I was super excited, said Two Bulls, ”first time I checked out a pro game, you don’t have those opportunities out there in South Dakota. So I was all ready to go and went to the game and noticed a few people protesting outside. I wondered what they’re protesting on, turns out they were protesting the team,” Two Bulls continued, “I didn’t get it until I was in and started looking around at the fans that were there and how they were dressed, the painted-up faces…feathers. It took everything out of it, all the fun, all the excitement, I just wasn’t into it after that at that point. --
The Washington Redskins, amongst other sports teams, faced scrutiny over the years for their name and logo, but just like Two Bulls’ experience, Bordeaux says the fans take it to another level.
“They're all wearing green and yellow and pink, whatever color feathers, that's not what we represent,” said Bordeaux “It's totally making fun of our culture and who we are and the things that are important to us.”
For years the owner of the of Washington football team Dan Snyder made his stance clear on the topic that he will never change the name. He was quoted in a 2014 Forbes interview that name was meant to honor and respect Native Americans. Two Bull Doesn’t feel that way.
“I don’t think that’s how it started, to honor,” said Two Bulls, “I think it was something else, it made good mascots, it made good for the sports team …that’s not honoring.”
Snyder went on to create the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, which was his idea to help address the challenges that plague the Native American communities through philanthropy.
“I think that was just a ploy,” said Two Bulls. “I’m trying to find the right word for that, but I think it was that like it was going to make everything all right…appeasement, trying to appease people.”
As the nation comes to terms with its long-standing racial inequality and biases amongst people of color, specifically after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, the pressure finally mounted against Dan Snyder and his Washington football club to officially drop the Redskins name and logo.
“I think that it’s sad that it has taken this long and it’s taken something like that to push the owners to rename, drop the name,” said Two Bulls in reference to Floyd’s murder, that should have happened a long time ago.
State Representative Shawn Bordeaux was born in Georgetown University.
“So as a kid," said Bordeaux, "I liked the Washington Redskins, because they had an Indian on their thing, and I thought somehow that represented us in the sense of, ‘Oh, we're finally acknowledged.’"
Bordeaux says he looked up to Muhammad Ali, Dr. J and Richard Pryor-because there aren’t Native Americans who are in the public eye other than Billy Mills. He says he understands why he was drawn to the Washington football team’s mascot.
“So I'm ecstatic to see that Washington is recognizing that this is important and those suicides and things like that are related to those images.," said Bordeaux, "and it's time that we get beyond that, and we're able to kind of respect that this is an important change and it's important to grab the moment and do something like this because it matters to the Native American communities who are facing all this trauma.”
Bordeaux says as a culture we're still in the middle of trying to figure out what happened to our people.