American Football Database

The propriety of using Native American mascots and images in sports has been a topic of debate in the United States and Canada since the 1960s. Americans have had a history of drawing inspiration from native peoples and "playing Indian" that dates back at least to the 18th century.[1] Many individuals admire the heroism and romanticism evoked by the classic Native American image, but too many view the use of mascots as offensive, demeaning, or racist. The controversy has resulted in many institutions changing the names and images associated with their sports teams. Native American images and nicknames nevertheless remain fairly common in American sports, and may be seen in use by teams at all levels from elementary school to professional.


During the 1960s, the National Congress of American Indians created a campaign to eliminate negative stereotyping of Native American people in the media. They focused mainly on cartoons and movies; however their protests of sports organizations garnered the most attention.[2] The National Congress of American Indians has long been opposed to mascots that portray Native Americans in a negative light. They feel that teams with mascots such as the Braves and the Redskins perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native American people, and demean their native traditions and rituals.[3] Proponents of Native American mascots, however, believe that Native American mascots pay respect to these people and promote a better understanding of their cultures.[2] Despite this issue emanating during the civil rights movement, it still continues today as many teams continue to possess mascots with controversial names and images.[2]

Varying degrees of offensiveness[]


Cleveland Indians player Omar Vizquel wearing a baseball cap bearing the image of the Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo

To further complicate this issue, many feel that there are varying levels of offensiveness with team names and mascots. Anil Adyanthaya from the Boston Globe writes on June 5, 2005:

The use of Aztec or Seminole as a nickname by itself would not appear to be racist, as such names refer to a particular civilization rather than an entire race of people. In this way, they are no different from other school nicknames such as Trojans and Spartans (like Aztecs, ancient peoples) or Fighting Irish and Flying Dutchmen (like Seminoles, nationalities). Similarly, Warriors and Braves are no different from the fighting men of other cultures, like Vikings, Minutemen, or Musketeers (all current NCAA mascots, the first of which is also an NFL mascot) so it seems hard to argue that their use is uniquely demeaning in some way.[4]
Could you imagine people mocking African Americans in black face at a game?” he said. 'Yet go to a game where there is a team with an Indian name and you will see fans with war paint on their faces. Is this not the equivalent to black face?'

—- Teaching Tolerance, May 9, 2001, Native American Mascots Big Issue in College Sports[5]

According to polling results published in Sports Illustrated in February 2002,

Although most Native American activists and tribal leaders consider Indian team names and mascots offensive, neither Native Americans in general nor a cross section of U.S. sports fans agree.[6] According to the article, "There is a near total disconnect between Indian activists and the Native American population on this issue."[6]

In 2004, a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania essentially confirmed the Sports Illustrated poll's findings, concluding that 91% of the American Indians surveyed in the 48 states on the mainland USA found the name "Redskins" acceptable.[7]

However, despite this varying degree of degradation, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the ruling authority on college athletics, distributed a “self evaluation” in June 2005, for teams to examine the use of potentially offensive imagery with their mascot choice.[4]

Some college teams, however, are changing their names and mascots without instruction of the NCAA. For example, Marquette University changed their team name from the Warriors to the Golden Eagles in 1994. The school’s president stated:

We live in a different era than when the Warriors nickname was selected in 1954. The perspective of time has shown us that our actions, intended or not, can offend others. We must not knowingly act in a way that others will believe, based on their experience, to be an attack on their dignity as fellow human beings.

Stonehill College also changed their mascot from the Chieftain to the Skyhawk “out of respect to Native American culture.[4]

Additionally, teams that are not directly affected by this controversy have issued their opinions. The University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Iowa have both refused to schedule non-conference games against schools with Native American mascots.[4] Ironically, the University of Iowa's own nickname, "Hawkeyes", has Native American origins (Iowa is the "Hawkeye State"), although the team uses a hawk as its symbol rather than an Indian.

The University of Oregon, following the example set by The Oregonian newspaper, declined to refer to the University of Illinois team as the "Illini" in a basketball game in 2005.

The University of Utah, Ute mascot: In 1996 Swoop, a red tailed hawk, became the new mascot for the University of Utah. Swoop symbolizes the soaring spirit of the state of Utah and the institution itself.[8]

For many decades, the school did not have an official Western Athletic Conference mascot. As early as the 1950s, the University of Utah created a Ute Indian boy, named "Hoyo", as its mascot. The University of Utah club organizations, such as the Associated Students of the University of Utah, the University of Utah Alumni Association, the Daily Chronicle, and many other social organizations highly celebrated "Hoyo" at homecoming events, before and after football games events, and at other social events for many years.[9]

Even though Swoop is now the University of Utah's official mascot, Utah fans and its clubs alike still use "Utes" as their nickname at sporting events. This is done with permission from the Ute Tribal Council.[10]

Argument supporting the use of Native American mascots[]

FedExField - Redskins Jaguars pregame field

The Washington Redskins logo at FedEx Field, in Maryland

Some individuals who support the use of Native American mascots state that they are meant to be respectful, and to pay homage to Native American people. Many have made the argument that Native American mascots focus on bravery, courage and fighting skills rather than anything derogatory. Karl Swanson, vice-president of the Washington Redskins professional football team, declared in the magazine Sports Illustrated that his team's name "symbolizes courage, dignity, and leadership," and that the "Redskins symbolize the greatness and strength of a grand people."[11]

Others claim Native American mascots help promote the culture to those who might be unaware of its significance. Chief Illiniwek, the former athletic symbol for the University of Illinois, has been another figure who has come under scrutiny. However, in 1990 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois called the mascot a dignified symbol:

His ceremonial dance is done with grace and beauty. The Chief keeps the memory of the people of a great Native American tribe alive for thousands of Illinoisans who otherwise would know little or nothing of them.[2]

However, the tribal costume was not of the Illini confederacy, but that of the Lakota tribe.[citation needed] The Chief was retired on February 21, 2007, due in large part to the negative criticism.[citation needed]

Steven Denson, director of diversity for Southern Methodist University and member of the Chickasaw nation, while not issuing a blanket endorsement, has nevertheless stated that there are acceptable ways to use Native American mascots if it is done in a respectful and tasteful manner. He states,

I believe it is acceptable if used in a way that fosters understanding and increased positive awareness of the Native-American culture. And it must also be done with the support of the Native-American community. There is a way to achieve a partnership that works together to achieve mutually beneficial goals.[12]

Argument opposing the use of Native American mascots[]

Opponents of Native American mascots feel that the mascots breed insensitivity and misunderstanding about native people. Opponents also highlight the seeming double standard for racial mascots where there are no mascots based on African Americans, or Asian Americans depicted in sports.[13] The University of Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish."[14] and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's "Ragin' Cajuns" are notable exceptions to the debate, as those schools selected symbols that represent themselves historically. Another exception is the "Braves" of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a school originally created to educate Native Americans.

(Trudie Lamb Richmond doesn't) know what to say when kids argue, 'I don't care what you say, we are honoring you. We are keeping our Indian.' ... What if it were 'our black' or 'our Hispanic'?

—- Amy D'orio quoting Trudie Lamb Richmond, March 1996, Indian Chief Is Mascot No More[15]

A big issue in the Native American mascot debate is the use of Indian mascots by elementary, middle and high school sports teams. Opponents of Native American mascots feel that children should be exposed to realistic and positive portrayals of American Indians during their educational years. Kathy Morning Star, director of the American Indian Cultural Support, states:

It is the responsibility of educators to set the example and teach the youth of today to respect other ethnic or minority peoples - NOT to exploit or disrespect them by using them as 'mascots' or stereotypical 'images' which perpetuates racism."[13]

Many opponents also take offense to proponents of Native American mascots that claim they are simply paying tribute to native people. Considering many Native Americans’ stance on this issue, opponents of Native American mascots feel that the mascots should be deemed offensive by the people being imitated, not by those who are imitating.

Opponents also deem it insensitive when unconscious phrases like “Kill the Indians” or “Murder the Redskins” are yelled during sporting events (the latter of which is particularly yelled by Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants fans, due to long-standing NFL rivalries), referring to the team playing, but also creating a negative view of Native Americans.[citation needed]

Florida State Seminoles[]

File:Chief Osceola on Renegade FSU.jpg

Chief Osceola rides his horse Renegade at a Florida State home game.

The Florida State University's use of Seminole imagery for its Florida State Seminoles athletic teams makes an interesting case study because of the university's close ties to the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The university has worn the nickname "Seminoles" since 1947 and annually crowns a Chief and Princess at Homecoming with Seminole tribe leaders participating as celebrants. Since 1978 home football games have been opened with the entrance of Chief Osceola and Renegade. Florida State University officials disapprove of referring to human figures as 'mascots' and have asked sports writers to cease doing so. Official university statements speak only of using 'symbols', 'nicknames', and 'images' inspired by Seminole tradition.

The question of a nickname for athletic teams arose in 1947 as the Florida State College for Women went co-ed (a status it had actually had before 1905) to become Florida State University. Students voted overwhelmingly for "Seminoles" over alternatives such as "Statesmen" and "Crackers." For the first two decades Seminole athletic teams mostly used stock images based on Hollywood Westerns and American currency. The first human figures seen at games were a gymnastic, back-bending Sammy Seminole (1958–1972) and, briefly and unofficially, a fraternity-house character named Chief Fullabull.[16][17] Both were portrayed by Euro-American undergraduate students dressed in faux American Indian garb.[16] Leaders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida who attended a basketball game on the campus in 1972 expressed their concerns to university officials regarding the antics of Chief Fullabull.[17] Seminole leaders and university officials agreed on the need for something dignified and more representative of authentic Seminole traditions. Both characters were retired that year.[17]

1978 marked the first appearance of Chief Osceola and Renegade, in which a student portrays the iconic 19th-century Seminole war leader Osceola. Renegade was the name given to his Appaloosa horse. The student, chosen for his horsemanship, wears clothing provided by the Seminole tribe but is not necessarily of native American descent himself. At the beginning of each home game Osceola plants a flaming spear at midfield. The image and actions of this figure were worked out in coordination with Florida Seminole leaders. Osceola never speaks or appears walking on foot. When the US national anthem is sung, Osceola simply waits with his spear across his lap. For the first three years of the tradition the figure actually went nameless; he was referred to as 'the Seminole warrior' because tribal leaders at the time preferred that the name of the actual historical figure not be used. The Florida State portrayal of Osceola romanticises tradition in some aspects. The historical Osceola, a war leader, did not actually live long enough to attain the rank of Seminole "chief", for example, and historians debate how much inclination or opportunity he had to ride horses in wartime.

In August 2005 the NCAA granted a waiver to the Florida State University which removed it from the NCAA’s list of colleges using imagery “hostile or abusive” towards Native Americans. According to Bernard Franklin, senior vice president of the NCAA,

The staff review committee noted the unique relationship between the university and the Seminole Tribe of Florida as a significant factor. The decision of a namesake sovereign tribe, regarding when and how its name and imagery can be used, must be respected even when others may not agree.[18]

The Seminole Tribe of Florida officially sanctions the use of the Seminole as Florida State University’s nickname and of Chief Osceola as FSU's mascot. Max Osceola, the chief and general council president of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, has stated that he regards it as an “honor” to be associated with the university.[18]

However, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is only one of the tribal authorities representing Seminoles. Some members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, among them activists David Narcomey and Michael Haney,[19] opposed FSU's use of the Seminoles mascot and name. In addition, general council member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma David Narcomey stated, speaking on his own behalf:

I am deeply appalled, incredulously disappointed ... I am nauseated that the NCAA is allowing this 'minstrel show' to carry on this form of racism in the 21st century.

In 2005, Jennifer McBee, the Oklahoma Seminole tribe's attorney general, stated that the council had taken no official position on the FSU issue.[18] Despite the individual comments of some members of the Oklahoma Seminoles, Ken Chambers, principal chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma told The Palm Beach (Florida) Post in August 2005 that he had no objection to Florida State University using the Seminoles as a nickname and symbol, reversing the earlier public position of the Oklahoma tribe's spokesperson.[20] In July 2005, the Seminole Nation General Council, the legislative body for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, voted 18-2 not to oppose the use of Native American names and mascots by college sports teams.[citation needed]


File:Ticket Washington vs Stanford 1930 side1.jpg

1930 Football ticket stub depicting the former Stanford Indian mascot

The Central Michigan University nickname, the Chippewas, was originally placed on the “hostile or abusive” list but was removed when the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Nation of Michigan gave its support to the nickname.[21]

Stanford University had "The Stanford Indian" as a Native American as mascot from 1930 to 1972. Today "Stanford Cardinal" honors the university athletic team color. The mascot of the Stanford Band is the "Stanford Tree."

Miami University in 1996 changed its team nicknames from Redskins to Redhawks at the request of the Miami tribe, for whom the school is named. The tribe had earlier allowed the school to continue to use the name Redskins, but then demanded that the nickname be discontinued.

Seattle University changed the nickname of their mascot from Chieftains to Redhawks in 2000.

Other Indian tribes have also supported the use of their tribal names as a tribute to their heritage. The Ute tribe approved the use of the name "Utes" for the University of Utah and the NCAA granted a waiver to allow the name to remain. Haskell Indian Nations Fighting Indians continues to participate in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference.[22][23]

The University of North Dakota's former athletic logo, a Native American figure, was recently dropped. Due to the NCAA's perception that the term "Fighting Sioux" and the accompanying logo are offensive to native Americans, the NCAA pressured the university to discontinue use of the logo.[24] When UND moved in the fall of 2009 to change its nickname, one of the two Sioux tribal councils in the state sued to have the name retained.[25]

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, however, is permitted to use the name "Illini" owing to the NCAA ruling that the name "is closely related to the name of the state and not directly associated with Native Americans."[26] The term Fighting Illini is in fact a reference to veterans from Illinois who fought during World War I. The symbol Chief Illiniwek was ruled "hostile and abusive" and was retired in 2007 to comply with the NCAA's ruling, and the following year, in compliance with a related NCAA ruling, both U of I and Northwestern University retired their then-current rivalry trophy, the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk.

The College of William & Mary, nicknamed the "Tribe", was forced to remove the two tribal feathers stemming from their logo in 2006 due to insensitivity towards Native Americans. Their adoption of the griffin mascot allowed the reestablishment of the feather logo in 2010.

The Arkansas State University officially removed its mascot, the "Indians," in 2008, replacing it with the "Red Wolves," at the request of the Osage tribe.

Many high schools across the country have encountered the same scenario. Frontier Regional School, in Deerfield, MA was forced to remove its Redskin mascot in 2000. The school now goes by the moniker of the Redhawks. Also, Turners Falls High School of Turners Falls, MA had to change its fight song, known as the tomahawk chop, but did not change its mascot. On the other hand, Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a high-profile high school athletic program,[27] has consistently opposed protests and proposed legislation intended to change its "Redskins" nickname.[28] The Savannah Savages of Savannah High School (Missouri) have been criticized as having a mascot that is offensive in its portrayal of American Indians. Several campaigns have been started to change the mascot, but these campaigns have been met with opposition.[citation needed]

Financial impact of change[]

Many supporters of Native American mascots feel that the financial cost of changing mascots would far outweigh the benefits. Sales of merchandise with team mascots and nicknames ranging from t-shirts to beer cozies generate millions of dollars in sales each year, and teams contend that a change in team mascots would render this merchandise useless.[11]

Opponents, however, are unconcerned with the cost of changing and view mascots as caricatures of real Indians that do not honor them, but rather trivialize and demean important Indian dances and traditions. Opponents feel that despite the cost of a change in team mascots, it should be done to prevent what they believe is racial stereotyping. Clyde Bellecourt, the director of the American Indian Movement, stated:

It's the behavior that accompanies all of this that's offensive. The rubber tomahawks, the chicken feather headdresses, people wearing war paint and making these ridiculous war whoops with a tomahawk in one hand and a beer in the other; all of these have significant meaning for us. And the psychological impact it has, especially on our youth, is devastating.[11]

One attempt to affect the use of mascots financially began in 1992 when five Native Americans filed a petition to remove the trademark status of the Washington Redskins team name, which would have disallowed sales of branded merchandise without payment of royalties. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in 1999 ruled in favor of the petition and cancelled the trademarks. Following appeals, in 2005 the D.C. Court of Appeals in Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo reversed the cancellation, ruling that there had been insufficient evidence to support the finding of disparagement and holding that the majority of the petitioners were barred by laches from maintaining the suit.[29] On 16 November 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court, refused to hear an appeal from Harjo, effectively ending the dispute started in 1992.[30]

Current status[]

The Native American mascot issue remains fiercely contested because of the many Native American mascots still currently used in sports. According to the American Indian Cultural Support, as of 2006, at least 2,498 kindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools use Native American Indian mascots throughout the country.[13]

In April 2001 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools, stating "the stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious or other group, when promoted by our public educational institutions, teaches all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, which is a dangerous lesson in a diverse society." [31]

Though changes have been made at the high school and college levels, the professional sides have seen virtually no change. Several teams, such as the Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, and Edmonton Eskimos still utilize Native American themed mascots, although the Golden State Warriors have de-emphasized using a Native American mascot. Similarly, The Cleveland Indians have replaced Chief Wahoo with a block letter "C" in some situations. In addition to the mascot controversy, the Redskins were also the last NFL team to sign an African American (then-owner George Preston Marshall was a renowned racist)[32] and only did it after John F. Kennedy threatened the Redskins would not be allowed to play at D.C. Stadium, which was directly owned by the federal government.

The NHL's Chicago Blackhawks use an anthropomorphic hawk as their mascot character although a Native American's profile appears on their jerseys and the team was named in honor of the team's founder's military unit, which was named the "Blackhawk Division" after Black Hawk, a Native American chief.

In 2010 a law was passed in Wisconsin to eliminate race-based nicknames, logos and mascots in schools.[33] Schools can argue to keep their race-based mascot if they have the permission of local Native American tribes. It is the first law of its kind in the country and during the same year a similar law was proposed in Colorado and Minnesota.[34]

In May of 2012 Oregon joined Wisconsin as the second state to ban Native American mascots in public schools.[35]


  • In Whose Honor? (1997). Written and produced by Jay Rosenstein. Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey: New Day Films.

See also[]

  • Charlene Teters
  • Chief Illiniwek
  • Chief Wahoo
  • Chief Noc-A-Homa
  • Washington Redskins mascot controversy
  • List of sports team names and mascots derived from Indigenous peoples
  • Occurrence of Religious Symbolism in U.S. Sports Team Names and Mascots
  • List of ethnic sports team and mascot names (all ethnicities)
  • Mascot
  • National Congress of American Indians
  • Seminole
  • Vernon Bellecourt


  1. Calloway, Colin G. (2004) First Peoples, 2nd Ed.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Fight Hate and Promote Tolerance.[dead link] Teaching Tolerance.
  3. National Congress of American Indians National Congress of American Indians Applauds "Redskins" Trademark Cancellation[dead link]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Adyanthaya, Anil (June 5, 2005). "Sports, mascots, and Native Americans". The Boston Globe.
  5. Teaching Tolerance. "Native American Mascots Big Issue in College Sports". Retrieved 2008-08-26.[dead link]
  6. 6.0 6.1 S.L. Price & Andrea Woo (March 4, 2002). "The Indian Wars". Sports Illustrated. pp. 66-71.
  7. "Most Indians Say Name of Washington "Redskins" Is Acceptable While 9 Percent Call It Offensive, Annenberg Data Show", National Annenberg Election Survey, September 24, 2004,, retrieved 2008-08-11
  8. Nickname History, University of Utah Athletics website
  9. 1951 Utonian, p. 153, University of Utah
  10. Utah Traditions, University of Utah Athletics website
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Emert, Phyllis Raybin (2003). "Native American Mascots: Racial Slur or Cherished Tradition?" Respect (newsletter), New Jersey State Bar Foundation, 2:2 (Winter 2003).
  12. Native-American Nicknames/Mascots, Red Orbit (June 2, 2005).
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Mascots - Racism in Schools by State, American Indian Cultural Support
  14. Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Traditions: The Leprechaun, University of Notre Dame Athletics
  15. Amy D'orio (March 31, 1996). "Indian Chief Is Mascot No More". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-26.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Florida State Seminoles: A Tradition of Tribute :: Timeline[dead link]
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 DeSlatte, Aaron (August 17, 2005). "FSU worked to cultivate better image of Seminole". Florida Today. Retrieved 2012-06-13.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Wieberg, Steve (Aug. 23, 2005), "NCAA allowing Florida State to use its Seminole mascot," USA Today.
  19. Giago, Tim (Nov. 17, 2011). "The Powerful Medicine of Michael Haney". Huffington Post.
  20. Oklahoma Seminoles OK Name
  21. [1]
  22. Haskell Indian Nations University Athletics quick facts
  23. Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference Members
  24. "NCAA: Don't bring Fighting Sioux name to playoffs.". February 29, 2012. Retrieved March 8, 2012.
  25. Davey, Monica (December 9, 2009). "In Twist, Tribe Fights for College Nickname". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2010.
  26. Statement by NCAA Senior Vice-President (retrieved 11 Sept 2010)
  27. "Sports Illustrated names Tulsa's Union on list of top athletic programs", Tulsa World, July 6, 2009.
  28. Randy Krehbiel, "Indian Coalition Backs Nickname Bill: The Bill Would Bar Public Schools From Using the Names 'Redskins' or 'Savages.' ", Tulsa World, January 31, 2009.
  29. Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo, 415 F.3d 44 (2005)
  30. "Court rejects appeal over Redskins trademark -". CNN. Retrieved May 20, 2010.
  31. "Statement of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols". The United States Commission on Civil Rights. April 13, 2001. Retrieved 2012-06-13.
  32. "Lecture: Lynn Povich and George Solomon". New York University. Retrieved 2008-04-05.
  33. Keen, Judy (Oct. 7, 2010). "Wis. law lets residents challenge race-based mascots". USA Today.
  34. Brovsky, Cindy (Jan. 29, 2010). "Legislators fume over Native American mascots". Colorado Statesman. Retrieved 2012-06-13.

Further reading[]

  • King, C. Richard, guest editor. "Re/claiming Indianness: Critical Perspectives on Native American Mascots." Journal of Sport and Social Issues 28, no. 1 (February 2004).
  • King, C. Richard, and Charles Fruehling Springwood (2001). Beyond the Cheers: Race as Spectacle in College Sport. SUNY Series on Sport, Culture, and Social Relations. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-5005-8.
  • King, C. Richard, and Charles Fruehling Springwood, eds. (2001). Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy. Foreword by Vine Deloria Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Spindel, Carol (2002). Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy Over American Indian Mascots. Updated edition, with a new afterword. New York: New York University Press.

External links[]




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