A Cleveland Indians fan, attending this year’s season opener wearing a fake headdress and red face paint, walked up to a member of the Apache Nation, at the game to protest the Indians’ racist caricature of a mascot, and reportedly told him, “It’s Cleveland pride.”
That’s an extreme and obnoxious example, of course. But it’s not wholly removed from doing the “tomahawk chop” to cheer on the Atlanta Braves, or yelping “war cries” as a college student on horseback gallops down the football field at Florida State University with the headdress and flaming spear of a Seminole Indian.
Those actions may be innocent, even celebratory, and done with all the right intentions. Chances are, the average fan has never thought twice about them.
But they carry weight and baggage that too often goes overlooked, and the same is true for school mascots that invoke the name of American Indians. And it’s not just anyone saying that. It’s the tribal members themselves.
So while the intention may be to honor, it more often diminishes and dehumanizes.
There is no place for that at any level of sport, and the few Maine high schools left with offensive nicknames should work with state tribal officials to make a smooth, educational transition.
Many already have done so. A decade ago, dozens of Maine schools used nicknames like Redskins, Indians and Warriors. By 2010, the number was down to nine.
High schools in Sanford and Scarborough, for instance, both once the Redskins, have started new traditions, and in just a few years time, they are the Spartans and Red Storm, respectively, through and through.
Now there are just three: The Skowhegan Indians, and the Nokomis and Wells Warriors.
Wells is now phasing out Native American imagery, opting for the generic use of the Warrior mascot, just as Southern Aroostook High School and many others have done. Nokomis very easily could follow suit.
The case in Skowhegan is more complex. The nickname “Indians” is not on its face racist or derogatory, not in the way that “Redskins” clearly is.
Redskins is being erased slowly from the lexicon. Unfortunately, it is holding on in popular culture in a big way, through the NFL’s Washington Redskins, and then only because of obstinance, the power of merchandising rights, and a misplaced sense of nostalgia.
In Skowhegan, the Indian theme runs deep. The town’s official seal contains an Indian head, and a giant sculpture of a Native American adorns the downtown. The items are meant to honor the town’s heritage — although at times some school-sponsored artwork has erroneously depicted American Indians native to the Midwest, not central Maine.
To most residents and fans, the nickname is an honorific, or at least a harmless tradition.
But the outcome, however unintentioned, is that the overwhelming cultural depiction of American Indians is a stereotype, from a time when they were thought of as uncivilized or less than human.
Maybe because it’s an image so ingrained in popular culture, or because the Native American population is so small. But it is the only ethic group that is depicted in such a way. To do the same to African-Americans, Hispanics or Asians would be unthinkable.
That doesn’t make the people who cheer for the Indians or Warriors racists or bigots. Not even close.
It is, however, increasingly careless. It requires that we rethink the power of the words, and perhaps with the help of the Maine Indian-Tribal State Commission, come to a solution that makes everyone proud.