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The fight against Native American mascoting in sports: ‘You can still love your team and just hate the name’


“We came here and created a blank slate. We were born a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. Yes, we have Native Americans, but honestly, there’s not much Native American culture in American culture.”

— Rick Santorum, former US Senator from Pennsylvania, two-time presidential candidate and fired as a CNN commentator in May 2021 based on his comments on Native Americans.

The noise rumbles from above like a booming sound wave at a sporting event. It doesn’t matter if it’s from Truist Park in Atlanta, Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, or Doak S. Campbell Stadium on the Florida State University campus.

What do all these places have in common?

The Tomahawk Chop, that robotic arm move to “honor” Native Americans while moaning some sort of call to battle for the fans.

While it remains in many stadiums across the country, its relative, the Native American sports mascot, is slowly fading into history.

Many teams have removed the Native American mascots and changed names such as the now Cleveland Guardians and Washington Commanders.

A new documentary, “Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting,” explores the battle to eliminate racist mascots that plague American sports teams.

The film opens its national theatrical run in New York at the Quad Cinema on Friday, March 31, coinciding with Atlanta’s visit to the Washington Nationals.

The NHL’s Atlanta and Chicago still promote Native American signatures for their teams, while Atlanta continues to use the Tomahawk Chop.

Washington dropped its racist nickname after two years of being known as the Washington Football Team and changed its name once more to the Commanders in 2022.

But it’s more than just nicknames.

In baseball, Atlanta had a character named Chief Noc-A-Homa (1966-85) who would emerge from his teepee to “dance” after home runs, while Cleveland had Chief Wahoo (1951-2018) as a mascot.

It took a while, but some teams saw the light.

The Edmonton Elks of the Canadian Football League used to be called the Eskimos and the NBA’s LA Clippers, formerly based in New York state, were known as the Buffalo Braves.

In New York City, St. John’s changed its name from Redmen to Red Storm in 1994.

It’s been a long job for ESPN co-producer Kevin Blackistone, professor of practice at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, to bring the project to life. The movie has a point even if it makes some viewers nervous.

“It makes people uncomfortable,” Blackistone says. “You can see in the film that the people we interviewed, who you would assume would be very progressive on this issue, are uneasy thinking about how they never were. Me included. That’s part of the reason I made the movie.”

Co-producer and co-director Ben West, a Cheyenne, agrees with Blackistone about the awkwardness.

“Sometimes that’s one of the best tools,” he says. “One of the best ways to move the needle. There is an element of discomfort.”

Blackistone, a Washington soccer fan since he was a child, took a while before the problem hit him. Washington was the last NFL team to join, and when he saw the civil rights movement taking hold, he saw a problem in his own backyard.

“That got me thinking about the Native American protest against the name and images of the Washington football team,” says Blackistone. “That’s when I made that connection and began to question my own fandom for the team with this name and images that people of color found offensive.”

He knew this was an important issue and got the ball rolling by contacting his friend Sam Bardley, writer and producer of the ESPN documentary “30 for 30″ about the late Len Bias.

In addition to Blackistone and Bardley, there are three other co-producers, including West, who co-directed the film along with Aviva Kempner and Yancey Burns.

Kempner also directed documentaries about New Yorkers in “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” and “The Spy Behind Home Plate” about Moe Berg.

The “Imagining the Indian” project, which began in 2014, is a source of pride for West, but he never utters the team’s racist name and, like Blackistone, grew up a fan of Washington football.

“I realized at a relatively young age that something was wrong,” West recalls. “The face on the helmet, jersey and sweatshirt, which he wore as a child, was not mine.”

“It’s amazing that people don’t respect the opinion of those who would be victims of what they feel and know to be racist,” Blackistone says. “That’s the really frustrating part.

“You can still love your team and love the game and just hate the name and respect the sensibilities of others.”

The film educates the viewer with the history of some of America’s greatest athletes. There’s Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox), who is considered by many to be America’s greatest athlete. He is a member of the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame. He also captured two gold medals at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in decathlon and pentathlon and played baseball, including three seasons with the New York Giants.

Navy Lt. Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) captured gold in the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Games.

However, the film takes a not-so-happy, but necessary trip down memory lane.

Many of the people interviewed for the film are Native Americans from various tribes such as the Pawnee, Oneida, Standing Rock Sioux, and Laguna Pueblo represented by the current United States Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a longtime Native American activist whom West calls “my Aunt Cheyenne,” is the godmother of the movement to remove racist mascots from American sports teams.

She was a co-producer in the mid-1960s at WBAI Radio in New York for the biweekly “Seeing Red” program, the first indigenous news program in the United States.

Harjo received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 from President Obama and calls working to eliminate racist mascots “a life and death battle for us.”

The campaign continues against American sports teams and schools.

The Cleveland baseball and Washington football teams have changed their names and attitude, but not all.

NFL team Kansas City refuses to remove the Chop, but has banned headgear and face paint. The Atlanta MLB franchise refuses to change the team name and stop the Chop, while the Chicago NHL team refuses to change the team name but bans arena tagging.

And nearly 2,000 high schools across the country currently use Native American logos or mascots.

The future of removing Native American pets may need a push from the next generation.

“Young people today have a much better perspective than I do on what is right and what is wrong,” West states, “and hopefully, as the demographics of our legislators and policymakers change, this would be a example that would simply be unavoidable.”

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West hopes the film will stick with America’s consciousness.

“We want people to walk out of the theater and not just be enlightened about why these mascots and other depictions are not only offensive and racist, but also harmful,” he says.

“(The film) is not necessarily an attack on European culture, but rather an uplift and recognition of native culture,” recalls Blackistone.

If the movement is looking for a catalyst, Rick Santorum could be its mascot.

In the film’s opening, Santorum, the former two-term US senator, made his remarks to a meeting of the Young Americans Foundation in April 2021. His comments hit Blackistone hard, but he stuck by them.

“We have to use this,” he remembers thinking when he first heard it. “This is our opening. We should probably write him a check.

And maybe Big Chief Santorum will be the latest victim of the Tomahawk Chop.

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