My sincerest thanks goes out to Andrew M. Greenstein, The unofficial NHL Uniform Database, Chris Creamer’s SportsLogos.Net and Mike Lessiter’s “The Names of the Games” (Lessiter, M. . The names of the game: The stories behind the nicknames of 102 pro football, basketball, baseball, and hockey teams. Markham: Beaverbooks [Chicago: Contemporary Books]).
Much has been made recently about the desire to change the names of sports teams carrying Aboriginal-related monikers to more politically-correct, socially-acceptable nicknames. Well, to be fair, the notion has likely been around for decades, but the omnipresence of the Internet has made both the expression and the dissemination of the idea significantly easier. Add to this the increasing willingness amongst governments to delve into the history of their tumultuous, often-shameful relations with Aboriginal communities – and acknowledge and apologise for the litany of wrongdoings – and the conditions are optimal for a frank societal discussion in North America over what we want our sports teams to represent.
Let’s pause on that word for a moment: “discussion”. It seems as though any representation of Aboriginals within the context of sports is increasingly seen as automatically offensive.
I am not Aboriginal, nor am I of Aboriginal descent. I do not have any conception of what it is like to have my culture, language and values – and or of my ancestors – torn from me and scattered to the winds. And I do not have any conception of what it is like to have this tragic chapter of my ancestry relegated to an aside in a grade school textbook. Thus, I can confidently state that I am not the best person to be writing about this. However, I do bring an outsider’s perspective to the issue, a perspective influenced neither by cultural history nor team fandom. So, with that all said, let’s take a look at Aboriginal team names from the four major North American professional sports leagues:
BACKGROUND: According to Mike Lessiter’s The Names of the Games, the “Braves” name came about in 1911 – following several name changes for the then Boston-based franchise – due to new team owner James E. Gaffney having a reputation as a “brave” on the political scene. The team eventually moved on to Milwaukee and, finally, settled in Atlanta, retaining the Braves name. Early logos were certainly stereotypical and the move to Milwaukee arguably worsened this condition. Only in 1990 did the franchise finally settle on something more palatable.
MY VIEW: A “brave” is defined by Merriam-Webster as a warrior of an Aboriginal group. The current logo is a tomahawk, a traditional Aboriginal tool and weapon. Though the past iterations of the logo are bad enough to make even the most iron-stomached among us nauseous, from the outside, there seems to be nothing explicitly wrong with the team’s current brand. But for the love of all that is good and pure Atlanta, knock it off with the “Fear the Chop” garbage. Seriously. We get that your logo is a tomahawk, but the music takes an already borderline tradition and drives it full speed into Wrong-Side-of-History Gorge.
BACKGROUND: The Names of the Games cites Louis Francis Sockalexis as the inspiration for Cleveland’s moniker, who was, apparently, the first person of Aboriginal descent to play in the major leagues (this distinction is contested). Sockalexis played with the team for three seasons in the early 1900s. In 1915, shortly after his passing, the Cleveland franchise renamed their team the “Indians” as a tribute, though there is not universal agreement on this point. The early logo history is abysmal, a condition that only worsened after the introduction of “Chief Wahoo” in 1946. Though the primary logo is currently a stylised “C”, Chief Wahoo has been retained as the team’s secondary emblem. Ironically, the Indians play at “Progressive Field”.
MY VIEW: No contest; get rid of it. The name, tribute or not, is no longer acceptable. Not only is it factually inaccurate, it is so generic as a representation of Aboriginals as to be downright insulting. The logo worsens things exponentially, with its exaggerated display of Aboriginal stereotypes. Perhaps consultation with Aboriginal groups in the area is in order to find a new name that pays proper tribute to the region’s history (the Florida State Seminoles is one such example). If that doesn’t work, there is always the franchise’s original “Forest Citys” name to fall back upon.
Golden State Warriors
BACKGROUND: The Warriors take their team name from the Philadelphia Warriors of the old American Basketball League. The team only lasted for two seasons, before being resurrected in 1946 for the Basketball Association of America. “Warriors” is a pretty generic name which can represent the subsections of nearly every society that defend said societies. But good gracious, that logo… Nahhh it’s okay though, that logo disappeared in 1962 and everything was fine after that. Okay, really now, third time’s the charm. OH COME ON.
MY VIEW: Nothing wrong with the name. However, given the unfortunate history of the name’s representation – that of exceedingly stereotypical depictions of Aboriginals, the Warriors should think about a less-generic logo for their current uniforms to emphasise the fact that their moniker has truly moved away from its troubled past. Besides, the current logo isn’t all that exciting and would probably function better in a secondary role anyway.
Kansas City Chiefs
BACKGROUND: According to SB Nation blog Arrowhead Pride, former Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle earned the nickname, “The Chief” on account of his work with the Aboriginal communities, and his nickname was the most-submitted entry in the contest to name the relocated Dallas Texans of the American Football League. The early logo was a stereotypical gongshow but, since 1972, it has been a simple arrowhead. Of course, arrowheads are a constant within the history of many cultures, but it isn’t Chief Wahoo so we’ll just gloss over that.
MY VIEW: Oh good, they do it too! -___- Come on, Kansas City. It’s a bad tradition to begin with, but you also stole it from the Atlanta Braves…who apparently stole it from the Florida State Seminoles. Anyway. The name comes from a good place and the logo is stereotypical but pretty tame. Few problems here.
BACKGROUND: The Redskins were named as such due to their one-time tenancy at Boston’s Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. However, since 1937, the team has been located in Washington, D.C., removing any legitimacy for their clearly insensitive team name. Prior to becoming the Redskins, the franchise was known as the Braves (passable) and the Eskimos (also abhorrent), so questionable names have been around since the beginning. Add to this the fact that their primary colour can be interpreted to represent stereotypical interpretations of Aboriginal skin tones and you’ve got yourself the strongest argument of the bunch for a total team branding revamp.
MY VIEW: The worst of the worst. Owner Dan Snyder’s claims that the name is “a badge of honor” were debunked in 1933. The logo appears to represent no person in particular and the colour scheme is questionable at best. Blackskins, Whiteskins and Yellowskins would all be grossly inappropriate. So why is Redskins allowed to stand?
BACKGROUND: The team is named for a World War One unit that was named after Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk Nation, who stood up for his tribe against the strong-armed tactics of the United States Government and its constant desire for expansion. The logos have remained fairly consistent over time – the primary emblem is a headshot portrait of an Aboriginal and the secondary is two tomahawks crossing over a stylised “C”.
MY VIEW: So we’ve got the name of a legendary Aboriginal leader. That’s a pretty good start; I feel like, if a team really feels compelled to to utilise an Aboriginal-themed moniker, then it is good practice to choose a specific element of Aboriginal culture – whether that be a given tribe, position, role model or artefact – to draw from. The primary logo is a somewhat stereotypical, though admittedly neutral, image of an Aboriginal (The Names of the Games indicates that this portrait is a depiction of Chief Black Hawk, though Internet sources give mixed indications, with The (unofficial) NHL Uniform Database and Chris Creamer’s SportsLogos.Net both not indicating as such). The Blackhawks get a pass from me, though, should they indeed decide to change their logo, there is already a pretty solid alternative ready to go.
In conclusion, I mean no offense and no harm by this article. They are simply my observations as an outside observer that is neither a fan of any of the above teams nor someone of Aboriginal descent. North American society can’t shy away from discussions about our troubled past – and present. For instance, I think we can all support the alteration of history curriculums to encompass the history of Canada and the United States as a temporal whole, rather than simply focussing on the European perspective of what happened after Europeans landed on North American shores. On the other hand, we also have to be aware of the fact that some people of Aboriginal ancestry are not bothered by this debate at all.
In terms of sports, we cannot let maniacs like Dan Snyder continue doing what they’re doing. And yet, it is not prudent to just delete any and all references to Aboriginal culture from our sporting teams. If we do, where do we stop? If some people of Scandinavian descent are offended by the Minnesota Vikings, and their logo and mascot, are we going to change their name, too? No, that’s ridiculous. The vast majority of people can distinguish between the Viking propensity for ferocious warfare and the Scandinavian people as a whole. Now, if the team were named the Minnesota Whiteskins, it might be a different story. In the same way, I would imagine that most people know that the name “Braves” represents a small part of historical Aboriginal society, and is not reflective of Aboriginal people as a whole. Clearly, balance is needed.
TL;DR? We should be wary of painting things with too broad a brush. At the same time, we should not refuse to acknowledge that a brush exists at all.