The 103rd Grey Cup was played in Winnipeg last Sunday and the Canadian Football League’s west division champion Edmonton Eskimos were crowned the victors. Just days before Canadian football’s biggest day, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the group representing Canada’s 60,000 Inuit, issued a statement telling the Eskimos to change their team name.
Natan Obed, president of the national Inuit group, gave several reasons for the seemingly sudden call-to-action. Among them, he raised the notion that since the 1970’s, the group has identified itself as Inuit, and views the term “Eskimo” as offensive.
He also brought up the bigger movement to have Indigenous mascots and nicknames for varsity and professional sports teams removed across North America. Finally, he believes that with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “fresh in our minds,” this is an opportunity to foster a better relationship between Canadians and Indigenous people.
Every time a sports team is singled out for its offensive moniker there are inevitably diehard fans that defend the name or reject the right of the offended parties to be offended, brushing them off in the name of hyper-sensitivity.
Cornel Pewewardy, professor and Director of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University, has written extensively on the issue of professional sports teams using caricatures or counterfeit symbols purportedly representing indigenous people. In his essay, Why Educators Can’t Ignore Indian Mascots, Pewewardy details different reasons people may feel they should defend the problem teams.
Some people change the topic, others try to redefine the issue in their own way instead of listening to the offended parties, others still make statements based upon their assumptions of superiority. The most often heard response is what Pewewardy calls disavowal, the belief that the imagery ‘honours’ the culture, heritage and experience of Indigenous people across North America.
The most disturbing aspect of this cultural appropriation is the fact that so many of us are blind to it. This is a phenomenon Pewewardy calls dysconscious racism, a form of cultural violence that accepts dominant white norms and privileges, displaying how desensitized we are as a society to the in-your-face racism we promote when we support our teams.
In 1992, the American Indian Mental Health Association of Minnesota released a statement supporting the total elimination of Indian mascots and logos from schools. They had found, “…using images of American Indians as mascots, symbols, caricatures and namesakes for non-Indian sports teams…is damaging to the self-identity, self-concept and self-esteem of our people.”
The examples are endless, from the baseball Braves in Atlanta and football Chiefs in Kansas use of the ‘tomahawk’ chop to offensive names up and down the ranks of professional and amateur teams alike, as well as the countless offensive images used as logos and mascots.
Freedom of speech is important, and even offensive things should be allowed to be said, for what better way to show the stupidity or inferiority of an argument or idea then to expose it to rigorous debate. However, there is no principle to defend these practices and the harm that is done is irreversible and far-reaching.
For those who disagree, take Pewewardy’s words to heart. “If your team were the Pittsburgh Negroes, Kansas City Jews, Redding Redskins, Houston Hispanics, Chicago Chicanos, San Francisco Asians or Washington Whities and someone from those communities found the invented name, stereotyped labels and ethnic symbols associated with it offensive and asked that it be changed, would you not change the name?
If not, why not?”