On Tuesday, a number of major league sports teams posted on social media to condemn racism and show support for Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the globe.
In support of #BlackoutTuesday, when many brands and organizations posted support for the Black community in response to police killings, the Washington Redskins football team tweeted a black square captioned with the hashtag. The Atlanta Braves baseball team tweeted a lengthy statement opposing “any and all discriminatory acts, racism and injustice.” The Cleveland Indians baseball team said they were “committed to making a difference.” The Chicago Blackhawks hockey team—who use the disembodied head of a Native American man wearing feathers in his hair as a logo—said they were “taking this time to listen and learn.”
But the statements struck many Native Americans as paradoxical in light of years of criticism aimed at those teams for the names, logos, mascots and chants that indigenous groups find offensive—and racist.
“The tweet by the Washington Redskins rings hollow to me,” said Roberto Borrero (Guainía Taíno), president of the United Confederation of Taíno People.
“If the team was really interested in standing in solidarity for racial justice, they would change their name from the dictionary-defined racial slur they continue to use,” Borrero said. “As an indigenous person, I feel their tweet comes off as tone deaf, not woke. Violence comes in many forms, some more subtle than others. Indigenous Peoples are not your mascots.”
The Redskins, Braves, Indians and Blackhawks are among several American sports teams that still use Native American slurs or imagery (the Kansas City Chiefs are another). All of the teams have been criticized, or even sued, by Native American groups asking that the names and traditions be changed.
The Atlanta Braves retired their longtime mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa in 1986. But controversy remains over the franchise’s signature “tomahawk chop” and foam tomahawks handed out to fans at games. Last October, the Braves said they would engage in offseason talks with Native American groups after public criticism from St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Ryan Helsley, a Cherokee Nation member.
The Redskins have been mired in heated battles for decades over the team’s name, which is widely considered an anti-Native American slur. The team has been sued by Native American leaders, including Suzan Shown Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse, in trademark court, who tried and failed to convince courts that a racial slur cannot legally be trademarked.
Blackhorse told Adweek that the Redskins “attempt to stand for racial justice is laughable.”
“Native people have fought so hard for so long, to call for Indigenous racial justice through protests, lawsuits and calls to action since before I was born,” Blackhorse said. “Dan Snyder won’t listen to us and pushes back the louder we get. It’s as if we’re not even consider human beings, but mere profitable images. Washington needs to take a seat and think about how much damage they’ve caused Native people through their racist name.”
In 2013, a letter signed by 51 faith leaders asked the NFL to change the Redskins’ name, saying “words can cause great pain.” More than once, President Barack Obama asked the team to change the name. In 2015, Obama said it was time for sports teams to “break stereotypes” and praised Adidas for working with schools to rebrand Native American mascots and logos.
“I don’t know if Adidas made the same offer to a certain NFL team here in Washington,” Obama said at the 2015 White House Tribal Nations Conference. “But they might want to think about that as well.”
The National Congress of American Indians has repeatedly opposed the use of the Redskins name. In a lengthy resolution adopted by the National Congress of American Indians in 2018, the group explained the roots of the term and why it is deeply offensive to indigenous Americans.
“The Washington team’s R-word name derives from policies of colonization in which bounties were paid for the bloody skins of American Indian and Alaska Native men, women and children as proof of their killings,” the resolution reads.
On Wednesday morning, the NCAI took a more hopeful tone in a statement emailed to Adweek questioning whether the teams’ support for the Black community might indicate more changes to come.
“We can only hope that today’s #BlackoutTuesday gestures of solidarity by these professional sports teams are indications of their commitment to racial equity and respect for the lives and humanity of all people of color,” said Kevin J. Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians. “But these teams have a civic and moral responsibility to demonstrate that this commitment is genuine by taking real action to make our society an equitable, respectful, and just society for all Americans.”