Home Indigenous Sports and controversy: the history of team name changes and the need for more

Sports and controversy: the history of team name changes and the need for more

Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Blackhawks are among the teams in need of a brand makeover

New logo of the Washington Football Team in the National Football League. (Washington Football Team/Creative Commons)

This story is part of Monumental Challenges, a series looking at Ryerson, reconciliation, and the issues surrounding replacing names and monuments.

Five teams that changed their names

Washington Football Team

One of the most recent sports team names to be changed is the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (NFL). In a statement posted on the team’s official website in July, it was announced that they are officially replacing the Redskins name and logo. They will be called the “Washington Football Team” for the time being. The team had been called the Washington Redskins since 1933.

Edmonton Football Team

Another recent change is the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League (CFL). In a statement posted on the team’s official website in July, they announced that the team would be discontinuing the use of the Eskimos name. The statement claims that the name was originally chosen over 100 years ago. It also said that for the time being, the team would be called both the “EE Football Team” and the “Edmonton Football Team.”

McGill University

In April 2019, McGill University released a statement written by Suzanne Fortier, the principal and vice-chancellor. It says that they would no longer be going by the Redmen name, which was previously used for the men’s varsity teams. This statement was a followup to an earlier statement from January 2019 when it was announced that they would be looking into changing the team’s name. For the 2019-2020 season, the team went by “McGill teams.” 

Stanford University Cardinal

Stanford University, located in California, referred to their sports teams as the Indians from a period of 1930-1972. While they did not have an official mascot at this time, the “Indian” was considered to be their symbol. After several student referendums and meetings with the president of Stanford in 1972, the school’s new official nickname became the Cardinal — in reference to the colour rather than the bird. Their mascot was later updated to reflect the change.

Saanich Predators

The Junior B hockey team in Saanich, B.C., that plays in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, formally known as the Saanich Junior Braves, announced in July they would be changing their name. According to a statement posted on the team’s website in October, the team’s new name is the “Saanich Predators.”

“The newly named VIJHL Junior B Hockey team dropped their long-standing moniker, The Saanich Braves, in early July out of respect for First Nations and have been working on a new name and logo since that time,” said the statement. 

Five teams that still need a name change

Cleveland Indians 

The Major League Baseball (MLB) club got its name over a century ago to honour its first Indigenous baseball player, Louis Francis Sockalexis. Wowed by his skills, the Cleveland Naps were then inspired to be renamed the Cleveland Indians. Although the story is true, it glosses over the fact that after a couple of disappointing games, fans turned on the baseball player and Sockalexis had to deal with racism throughout the rest of his career. Local newspaper The Plain Dealer even went as far as referring to him as a “A Wooden Indian” and “a broken idol.” His major league career only lasted 94 games. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Suzan Shown Harjo, an advocate for Native American rights who has led the fight against inappropriate Indigenous team names and mascots in sports for decades, said no matter the good intent, the name should still be changed.

The Cleveland Indians officially retired their mascot, Chief Wahoo, at the start of the 2019 season and in July 2020, they announced that they were taking steps towards a name change. 

Chicago Blackhawks 

The Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League (NHL) argue that their hockey club’s name isn’t a racial slur, unlike the Cleveland Indians and the previously named Washington Redskins. Rather, it honours a real person. 

In July, the NHL team put out a statement saying, “The Chicago Blackhawks name and logo symbolizes an important and historic person, Black Hawk of Illinois’ Sac & Fox Nation, whose leadership and life has inspired generations of Native Americans, veterans and the public.” 

Black Hawk was a warrior and the chief of the Sauk people in the early 1800s. He is known for starting the Black Hawk war of 1831 as a result of an unfair treaty on land division signed in 1804. The 15-week war resulted in roughly 70 settlers killed and an estimated 442 to 592 Indigenous deaths. 

Chicago’s American Indian Center has announced that they, “will no longer have professional ties with the Blackhawks or any organization that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.” 

Kansas City Chiefs 

The reigning Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chief of the NFL, got their name from a Boy Scout of America group; the Tribe of Mic-O-Say. Before the Kansas City Chiefs, they were the Dallas Texans. 

According to an article in Indian Country Today by Mohawk journalist Vincent Schilling, the boy scout group was founded by a non-Indigenous man, Harold Roe Bartle, in 1925. He was nicknamed “Lone Bear” and was often called “chief” by the Mic-O-Say group. 

Bartle later served two terms as the mayor of Kansas City and became one of the big factors in moving the Dallas Texans to Kansas City, Mo. Fans over the years have adopted cultural Indigenous aspects such as the Tomahawk Chop and wearing a headdress to games.

In a Pro Football Talks interview, team president Mark Donavan explained that the situation with their team name is different than that of the previously named Washington Redskins. 

“There’s a lot of true equity value in the traditions and the name and the history of the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s extremely valuable not only from an economic standpoint, but with the tradition of this team,” says Donavan. 

Utah Utes

The Utah Utes are the intercollegiate athletics teams of the University of Utah. The university got their nickname from the Nunt’z (Ute) peoples. According to historian Ned Blackhawk and the University of Utah’s “Utes Nickname Project”, many violent conflicts occurred between the Ute, Paiute and Shoshone people and the European settlers over treaties and land cessions in the Great Basin (modern day Utah). 

In an article by the Salt Lake Tribune, the present-day Ute Indigenous Tribe allowed the university to continue to compete as the “Utes” as long as they continue to educate their incoming students on the tribe’s history. The university’s formal deal with the tribe dates back to 1972. 

Atlanta Braves

Georgia’s MLB club, the Atlanta Braves, is another sports team under fire for their organization’s name. According to The Team Name Origin, the Atlanta Braves started as the Boston Red Stockings in 1871 and became the Atlanta Braves in 1912 when the former owner James Gaffney bought the team. The name first debuted when the team was still in Milwaukee (the Milwaukee Braves) and continued when they moved to Atlanta in 1966. The nickname “brave” came from the Indigenous symbol Gaffney used for his Tammany Hall political group. 

Amid the recent controversy around other sports teams with Indigenous names and imagery, the Atlanta Braves are unlikely to change their name. According to the Associated Press and a statement by the MLB team, the Braves “honours, supports, and values the Native American community. That will never change.”

The statement also says that the team has “created an even stronger bond with various Native American tribes, both regionally and nationally, on matters related to the Braves and Native American culture.” 

Fans of the Atlanta Braves, however, still use the Tomahawk Chop as a cheer during games.

In an interview with the St. Louis Post Dispatch, St. Louis Cardinal pitcher and member of the Cherokee Nation, Ryan Helsley, said he sees it a misrepresentation of Cherokee and Native American people. 

“It just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual,” Helsley says. “They are a lot more than that. It’s not me being offended by the whole mascot thing. It’s not. It’s about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way or used as mascots.” 

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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