The DeChief Movement to End Anti-Native American Racism in Sports

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We progressives have a reputation for focusing on the negative – the latest opportunist, massive waste, war, environmental disaster, outrage. Those aren’t necessarily bad, but it can leave us feeling a little overwhelmed, brunted by the sheer weight of crappy news after crappy news. And perhaps we’ve now got all this energy and not sure what to do with it besides HULKSMASH! Not that there’s anything wrong with a little of smashing like the hulk, but I want to focus on people being involved in positive measures for a change of pace. Today, we want to honor Native American/First Nations activist Jacqueline Keeler and the anti-racist DeChief movement.

It’s beyond obvious now that pro sports has a racism problem. From Dan Snyder profiting from Native American suffering with the Washington R*dsk*ns (I don’t publish slurs. And that team name is a genocidal, anti-Native American slur) to the lack of People of Color ownership of teams featuring People of Color, to of course our man Donald Sterling (I covered the last two here). But let’s not forget the Atlanta Braves’ Tomahawk Chop, Florida State Seminoles’ “Fear the Spear”, and the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo. These are but a few of many popular, money-making images of devaluing, appropriating, and mocking of Native people by billionaire team owners and White fans.

A trend that started with a Cleveland Indians fan is to rip out or silhouette the clownish figure of Chief Wahoo. It is to DeChief the apparel in a way that reminds observers that the US still hangs on to racist imagery in a way that targets and further marginalizes Native American communities largely eradicated from our land.

Jaqueline Keeler and like-minded Native activists started the group Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry to focus on ending this form of oppression. EONM targets not just profiteering team owners, but also other companies profiting from the exploitation of Native people – such as Nike. They gathered a group of protesters outside of Nike HQ in Washington state and demanded Nike stop selling merchandise with Chief Wahoo. Nike responded arguing that it was under contract to fill out whatever Major League Baseball teams ordered them to, and that protesters should develop dialog with said team owners. EONM volleyed back:

[T]he logical conclusion to [Nike’s response] is that they would sell any derogatory mascot if asked to do so — no matter how badly it reflects upon their brand. Are they really saying that if a community and a team agreed they would sell apparel with a Sambo mascot?…

We feel that there is a moral imperative and that since the American Indian community in Cleveland has been outspoken on the issue of Chief Wahoo for 45 years the opinions of the community have been ignored and no meaningful dialogue has occurred.

Keeler and EONM recognize that Nike, in refusing to DeChief, is skirting its own responsibility while pretending to take the high moral ground. Not unlike Snyder.

But Keeler is not just pointing fingers at a few individuals or even corporations in her critique of what she calls “Native Mascotry”. She explains in an interview on The Edge of Sports, a progressive political sports radio show:

Native Mascotry… is not just the static image of the native mascot that is the problem. You have Native mascots that are pretty noble. And you have these grotesque caricatures like Chief Wahoo. The problem is in either case, is what people do with it. It’s the issue of… the first acting out that goes out. I coined ‘Mascotry’ combining ‘mascots’ with ‘pageantry’ where people are not accountable for the things they do. You have people dressing up in red face at games wearing regalia that is precious to us. And also doing these very stereotypical chants.

[Mascotry] reinforces the idea that we are not really present today. And maybe make it harder for people to see us as fully human.

Something else observed in the interview is the relative speed at which the de-mascotry is starting to take a footing in pop culture. Even the ownership of the Cleveland Indians is starting to back away from the image of the Chief.

Also really exciting is how social media is able to set the stage for this. Before, trying to use the media to get a message across or to hope to gather a grassroots collaboration was expensive, exhausting, out of reach for most, and could only be localized except for the down-and-dirty big businesses like ALEC. Now, with social media, the message and the means are in the hands of the people most affected. And this message is spreading like wildfire. Native people and their cultures are #NotYourMascots.

Even conservative politicians like John “Maverick” McCain are getting in on the action.

(Native Americans) consider it a slur, dating back to a terrible chapter of our American history. If Native Americans are offended, then they should be heard.

“They should be heard.” It is time to DeChief racist anti-Native mascotry from professional sports – for the Natives are speaking.


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


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