by Chad Charlie
Indigenous peoples and communities have long used stories to understand the world and our place in it. Seedcast is a story-centered podcast by Nia Tero and a special monthly column produced in partnership with the South Seattle Emerald about nurturing and rooting stories of the Indigenous experience.
Since the 1940s, Native people have been protesting professional and non-professional sports teams with racist names and mascots. From the Cleveland Indians to the Washington NFL team, Native-appropriated mascots have been portrayed as some sort of “honor” to the Native community. However, naming a team after a racial slur or allowing opposing fans to chant “Kill the Indians” and “Scalp em bro” is not honorable to me or my ancestors.
On July 13, 2020, Washington D.C.’s NFL team announced they will be changing their former racist name after 87 years due to economic pressure from their investors who were receiving increased public criticism and repeated threats of consumer boycotting. This includes FedEx who is the sponsor of the Washington D.C. stadium, as well as Nike and Amazon, who removed all Washington NFL Team gear from their websites. Along with the Washington NFL team, many other sports organizations are beginning to consider name and mascot changes. This includes the Cleveland Indians, who have since initiated plans to examine and review their name, and the CFL team, Edmonton Eskimos, who have ultimately decided to part ways with their controversial team name.
When their revenues were at stake, the franchise finally decided to refuse to support anti-Native team names. This was not an altruistic choice on their part but it is still a big step towards mass awareness. Over decades of Indigenous activism to remove racist names and mascots from sports, dominant culture has willfully ignored the requests of Native peoples to stop using harmful and racist stereotypes as mascots. Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington NFL team, said back in 2013 that he “will never change the name” of the team. Yet, seven years later, the change will be made because big companies asked for it. This proves that the NFL and large corporations are not acting in moral conscience but rather are protecting their bottom line and prioritizing profits over people or values.
In 2013, three unapologetic Black organizers — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — created a Black-centered political will and movement-building project called #BlackLivesMatter. It was in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. I mention this important history because movement work takes time and concerted effort. The work of these amazing leaders built the next layer of resistance which ignited impactful global change in the wake of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020. And it was this recent awakening that became the big push needed for the anti-mascot movement to gain traction.
With this change, we can see how Black Lives Matter, now the largest movement in U.S. history, has created a shift in the narrative. By demanding justice and holding settler colonial systems — and those who benefit from them — accountable for racist acts and beliefs, pressure has been put on both large and small corporations to examine their racist practices. With this pressure for drastic change, these corporations are compelled to realign their core values and dissociate themselves from systemic racism. Without the impactful work by the Black community, there would be little to no change towards racial equality.
Throughout history, both the Native community and Black community have undergone similar struggles. It is imperative to acknowledge that the Civil Rights Movement not only had an impact on the Black community, but the Native community as well. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was supposed to outlaw discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or national origin. However, the Native community had very limited protection under this act because they were not granted full access to the United States Bill of Rights. Influenced by the great changes being brought forth by the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement was formed to confront Native inequality and fight for Tribal Sovereignty. In 1968, prominent celebrities of the Civil Rights Movement era, such as Mohamed Ali, accompanied the American Indian Movement in The Longest Walk, a five-month march from San Francisco to Washington D.C. to bring attention to Native concerns. During that same year, the Indian Civil Rights Act was established, giving Native people access to basic civil rights. This was made possible by the unity of both communities understanding that they are fighting the same racist system that upholds an oppressive structure.
With this understanding of history and recent events, we can see that the fight for Black Liberation is a fight for equality for all. With the fight for equality comes the fight for Indigenous Sovereignty, and so on. Therefore, in order to have true change on a global scale, we need unity among all peoples and ethnicities that are affected by racial oppression to recognize and honor each others’ fights unconditionally, while being allies to one another.
There is no Indigenous Sovereignty without Black Liberation.
Chad Charlie (Black and Ahousaht First Nation) is a local filmmaker and writer who lives in West Seattle and creates both fiction and non-fiction work. He is a 4th World Media Lab and Vision Maker Media fellow.
Featured image: All In Wa Tribal Honoring production day with Chief Sealth statue. (Photo: Motion State)