- Race, Colonialism, and the Politics of Indian Sports Names and Mascots:The Washington Football Team Case
in july 2014 the Center for American Progress released a study titled Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth. Written by Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips, this study further substantiated that the use of Indian team names and mascots has a clear negative social and psychological impact on Indigenous people, especially young people (Stegman and Phillips 2014; Fryberg et al. 2008). To introduce and publicize the report, the Center invited guest speakers and a panel to address the topic. The keynote speaker was Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who in discussing the controversy over the Washington, D.C., football team’s name noted that i a derogatory word for people who are Jewish, African American, or Chinese was proposed as a sports team name, it “wouldn’t be allowed, no one would stand or it, but for some reason, the term ‘Redskin’ gets a free pass” (Center for American Progress 2014). Rep. McCollum is firmly on the side of those seeking to end the use of these names and mascots for sports teams at the high school, college, and professional levels in the United States. At the same time, her “for some reason” statement reveals an underlying confusion about why this is even an issue at all, and why there has not been comprehensive indignation and swift action to end this practice. McCollum is not alone in her confusion, as it is articulated often by those who oppose such names and mascots. The source of this confusion is the inability to grasp the manner in which settler-colonialism is both ubiquitous and, for most people, relatively invisible in U.S. political and cultural life. The history and present of settler-colonial violence toward and dispossession and appropriation of Indigenous people’s bodies, territory, and identity is ever present in the sports names and mascots issue. However, what most political actors and observers see and discuss in this debate is not settler-colonialism but rather race and racism. To deem as racist names such as the “Redskins” is not so much wrong as it is analytically [End Page 1] incomplete and thus politically off the mark for grasping why these names and mascots get a “free pass”—why they were created in the first place, persist, and are so vehemently defended today by those who seek to maintain the status quo.
The present debate and politics regarding Indian sports names and mascots, such as with the case of the Washington football team’s name, provides an excellent opportunity to politicize and center settler-colonialism as a historical and contemporary structuring force of the United States. The sports names and mascot issue is a persistent and public practice of U.S. settler-colonial rule. It is a mnemonic device that disavows the dispossession of Indigenous territory and the violent and aggressive assimilatory practices against Indigenous peoples. Paying attention to the political functioning of memory matters here because understanding and intervening in this and other issues requires more than just getting the historical facts straight. Facts matter, but an awareness of facts will not do enough politically to generate change, and this is where we need to see and directly engage with collective memory, specifically settler memory. Settler memory refers to the mnemonics—that is, the functions, practices, and products of memory—of colonialist dispossession, violence, appropriation, and settlement that shape settler subjectivity and governmentality in liberal colonial contexts such as the United States. Settler mnemonics include not only places and teams named after Indigenous peoples, but also calendric commemorations such as Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, military nomenclature such as the Apache helicopter, and many other examples. These mnemonics are so ubiquitous that they are, at once, present and absent in American collective memory. That is, in settler memory Indigenous people are both there and not there at the same time, before our eyes across American culture but also disavowed of active political meaning in and by the settler imaginary—ubiquity and invisibility as two sides of the same settler-colonial coin...