The Name Game

With the Washington Redskins once again coming under fire for their team name, the Cleveland Indians have taken the proactive step of announcing that they will be reviewing their team name. Apparently, they are concerned that the name might cause offense, and want to get ahead of any possible controversy.

The names of the Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Chiefs are coming under scrutiny as well.

I am puzzled. Not that they are taking such a step these days, but that the names could be found “offensive”.

Indians” is a perfectly acceptable name for the aboriginal Native Americans and their descendants. A “Native” American is, quite properly, anyone born in North or South America. I’m a Native American by that definition, but no one would confuse me with a North American Aborigine or the descendant of one. I gather that a good number of Indians are OK with the use of the term. So if the people who would most be offended by the use of the name AREN’T offended, why should anyone else be?

Braves” is a rather generic term that corresponds to “warrior” or “fighter”. I don’t see anything offensive with it. Get rid of the “tomahawk chop”, though.

The “Chiefs” got that name because it was the nickname of their first owner. I understand it was because he liked to cosplay as an Indian stereotype, but that’s his problem, not the team’s. Don’t make the sons pay for the sins of the father. Especially when any related imagery seems to be restricted to the mere depiction of an arrowhead. I’d love to have someone explain to me how that is offensive.

We’ve recently seen the “erasure” of another Native American corporate icon. Last April, the Land O’Lakes maiden was “retired” under pressure from activists. “Mia”, as she was known, was created in 1928. In 1939, she was turned into an Indian woman kneeling and holding a box of butter. In 1954, she was redesigned into the final version.

Here’s the problem: That final redesign was done by Ojibwe artist Patrick DesJarlait. His primary contributions were to change the generic floral motifs on Mia’s dress to traditional Ojibwe beadwork, and he tweaked the shoreline of the lake in the background to represent the Narrows, where Upper and Lower Red Lake met on tribal lands. So the activists, with all their good intentions, got rid of arguably one of the very few proper depictions of a Native American in corporate iconography.

This isn’t the place to get into a discussion of the failings of our educational system when it comes to our own history. But we need to come to grips with the fact that a LOT of Americans get educated and informed about history from depictions in popular culture and art. How many of those complaining about the name of the Cleveland baseball team can name the tribes that populated Ohio? If we erase all the names and icons, will we consider that a Job Well Done, pat ourselves on the back, and forget all the real problems that Native Americans are dealing with on the reservations (like the rampant poverty and lack of health care)?

Yes, it is true that in the past, the team used imagery that we would now consider offensive in its promotional materials. But they aren’t using it now. We allow people to learn from their mistakes and grow and improve* – why not let organizations do the same?

If it were up to me, I’d keep the Cleveland Indians name. But I’d put an occasional essay in the yearbook about the tribes of Ohio, and see if space can be made on a concourse for a display of contemporary native American art. Take the opportunity to educate and inform.

* We do allow people to do that – don’t we?

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