Tag Archives: Native American culture

Searching the Present for Signs of the Past

As mentioned in my last post, I’ve been engaging in research lately with a focus on learning about the connections between the past and the present. I’ve learned that there are a lot of things I just haven’t been exposed to, such as some of the less savory aspects of this country’s history, as well as many present-day issues that are ignored by the media and the general public. Oftentimes these ignored parts of history are directly connected to the ignored political issues of today. For example, our schools here in New Jersey fail to teach students that the lands we’re living in today originally belonged to the Nanticoke tribe. My research has shown that while they lived here for thousands of years before us, they began losing their lands not long after European settlers arrived, and they still struggle with this issue today. As early as the 1700s, the Nanticoke were restricted to reservations in Delaware and New Jersey, and in more recent times, the tribe is still struggling with issues like state protection of their lands, property tax issues, and pollution.

onlooking_horowitzIn addition to learning about specific political and civil rights issues, I also wanted to learn about how to see more signs of the past right here in the places I live and work every day. It occurred to me that there could be issues right in front of my eyes that could connect to things from the past. So I took a step back from examining specific issues in order to learn how to look at what is around me. The inspiration for this exploration is Alexandra Horowitz’s book, “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.” In her book, Horowitz takes walks around her familiar city blocks with various experts, including her dog (who “saw” through scent and thus introduced her to a new way of seeing the world), a geologist, a bug expert, an expert on typography (who could tell her a lot of things about a building’s history just by the type of font used on the building signs), a doctor, and even a blind woman. After traveling with each expert, Horowitz found her mind opened to new ways of seeing the world around her.

Along those same lines, my hope was that being guided by an anthropologist might give me some insights into understanding how the world can be seen when you understand the connections between the past and the present. I contacted the Rowan University Anthropology Department, and I was put in touch with several professors who work in the Museum of Anthropology at Rowan University. The museum is brand new, having only just opened in 2012. I was taken on a tour of the museum’s collection by Maria Rosado, Rowan professor and one of the museum’s curators. I asked her to explain the museum’s artifacts to me so I could understand how they can serve as evidence of the past.

Most of the collection included bones and skulls from humans and various other species. Some were real bones, while others were plastic and plaster replicas made from the originals that are kept in other museums. Professor Rosado explained that original artifacts are always kept in museums near the place where they were discovered. I found this to be an interesting fact in relation to my Native American studies; just as many people wish to remain in the lands where their ancestors lived, it seems that anthropologists believe in keeping fossils and artifacts near their place of origin. The artifacts on display at the museum included replicas from Clovis, New Mexico, from the La Brea Tarpits, and from various other places around the world.

When I first asked what could be learned by studying these bones, Professor Rosado told me one of the main uses is forensic anthropology, which she called “The study of corpses as evidence.” Markings on the bones, for example, can indicate the cause of death, such as from a bullet wound or a stabbing. She also explained that the bones alone can tell a researcher a great deal about who the person was when they were alive. The shape of the skull can indicate sex, the size of the teeth can indicate whether it was an adult or child, cranial sutures can tell age, and the shape can even identify race. Individual physical characteristics can also be determined, such as by measuring the bones to determine the person’s height.

We then began looking at some of the animal fossils on display. I asked Professor Rosado what we could learn about human history by studying animal bones. It turns out that there is a lot we can learn. First, she showed me a fossil of an ancient horse skull, and she explained that horses were extinct in America for about 10,000 years. In fact, it turns out that American horses lived here for millions of years, and some that traveled across the land bridge to Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Present-day zebras are descended from those horses that originated in America. The horses that remained in America, however, died out as part of the mass extinctions that came as the planet grew colder and many species were unable to adapt. Horses were then reintroduced thousands of years later, when Europeans brought them here during the colonial period. Other examples included the American Mastodon, the Giant Beaver, the Giant Armadillo, and the American Lion. While most of these species are extinct today, they were alive when the ancestors of Native Americans first came to these lands, and they would have been hunted by those original inhabitants of the country.

This led to us discussing the evolution and migration of human life. Professor Rosado explained that current evidence suggests all human life began in Africa. She also sat that National Geographic has been tracing genetic mutations to compare populations to determine where people came from geographically. The oldest known human skeletons were found in Ethiopia, and date back 120,000 years. Genetic tests on ancient fossils, however, can do more than just tell us where people came from. They can also show a connection between present day humans and their ancestors, by tracing DNA. Professor Rosado explained that DNA comparisons between fossils in Africa from 50,000 years ago have been matched with the DNA of people living in the same region today, showing that those people are descendents of the land’s original inhabitants. Along those same lines, it is possible to test DNA to show the connection between Native Americans living here today and their ancestors who inhabited these lands for 10,000 years.

After speaking with Professor Rosado, I had a second guided tour by Rowan Professor Jared Schultz. This tour went beyond the Museum of Anthropology and took us out onto the campus itself. The goal was to see what we could find around campus that could be connected to the past. Specifically, we were looking for anything that could be connected to Native American history and culture.

We walked around the campus on  a warm spring day, which was conducive to an open and exploratory stroll. The first thing that Professor Schultz pointed out was the trees. He pointed them out as an artifact of cultural ecology, and as a renewable resource. He also explained how Native American tribes of the northeast cultivated the land through the use of what he called “slash and burn agriculture”. He explained how they would burn down trees, shrubs, and undergrowth in order to simultaneously clear and fertilize the land. This not only kept areas cleared of undergrowth to make plantation easier, but at the same time the burned plant life created nutrients for the soil.

Professor Schultz then pointed out the overgrown plant life that covered the campus just off the cement walkways we were walking along. Several of the trees were overgrown with vines that were choking them and stunting their growth. Professor Schultz explained that when the lands were cultivated with slash and burn agriculture, that kind of overgrowth wouldn’t have occurred. The overgrowth was made worse by the introduction of invasive species, which are often brought in for aesthetic purposes without proper consideration for the effect they will have on native plants. In fact, Gloucester County, NJ, where Rowan University is located, is home to 163 different invasive species of plants. Some of the invasive species commonly found in New Jersey include English Ivy, which was first introduced to the United States by European immigrants, and which can often be found growing over walls and choking tree trunks.

While we were examining the trees, Professor Schultz also pointed out the tree trunks and drew my attention to their bark. “We’re looking at the presence of Native American culture that’s not being used anymore,” he explained. The bark, it turns out, was once used in the building of wigwams, longhouses, and wattle and daub houses. Different types of bark would have been used for different purposes: birch was used in the construction of wigwams by the Algonquin, elm was used in the construction of longhouses by the Iroquois, and wattle and daub houses were made with rivercane and wood by the Cherokee. Other types of trees would be used in making other tools or canoes, depending on the type of wood.

After examining the plant life, we also toured some of the campus buildings. While we didn’t find many examples of Native American art, culture, or architectural influences, one modern thing that Professor Schultz did point out was the Rowan Lacrosse team. Lacrosse, he explained, was originally invented by Native American tribes. It was played as far back as 1100 AD, and it was introduced to European settlers in the 1600s.

At the end of the tours, I was left with more questions than answers. These connections, from DNA to plant life to sports, are just some small examples of the connections between the past and the present. What was most interesting, however, was how those connections can be found in such simple things that are right in front of our eyes. Hopefully, in the future I’ll be able to learn to look at such things with new insight. It takes a lot of deeper digging to learn all of the facts and details behind such things, but knowing where to look in order to ask the right questions is the first step.

Past and Present Oppression

As you may know, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into Native American culture. I’m about to start working on an article based on what I’ve learned so far, which with any luck will end up being published somewhere in the near future. In the meantime, I’ve still been exploring different avenues of research and trying to make connections between them. A few weeks ago, I attended the Native American Voices exhibit at the Penn Museum, and then I had the privilege of speaking with an official representative of the Nanticoke tribe in Delaware. These experiences, combined with the reading I’ve been doing, have led me to want to learn more about how issues of the past are connected to the present.

Initially, I made some connections between past and present issues of oppression. Native Americans have been oppressed in the past and are still oppressed today, and a lot of the reason has to do with the way history has depicted them. For example, in elementary school, my class learned about Native Americans in the 1600-1700s, in relation to colonial history in the United States. What we learned back then has three major issues. One, students are only taught about Native Americans from a colonial perspective, so almost nothing is taught about Native American history and culture before the Europeans arrived. However, there are thousands of years of history that go back long before Europeans ever came to these lands, and that history is far more vivid and deep than most people are taught. I’ve begun learning a bit about it by reading the Book of the Hopi, which combines Native American history and mythology with present-day archaeological research to tell a detailed account of the lives of Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans. This book is just one small example, but it represents an entire ignored area in our education system. If the depth of Native American history before the colonial period were taught in schools, then their culture might not be ignored as much as it is today.

The second issue in this education is that it only depicts Native Americans in ways that are easily stereotyped and which tell us nothing about their real culture. For example, children are taught about the First Thanksgiving, but the typical depictions have led to us having a certain inaccurate image that persists in our cultural awareness.

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia

This image, however, has been described as not only inaccurate, but as being based on a story that is completely made up. Furthermore, it presents an image of Native Americans that isn’t accurate to who they are today. We don’t think of modern day Americans as still being the same people as the pilgrims that first came here in the 1600s, but many people still view Native Americans based only on these images from the past. This leads to issues like the #NotYourTigerLily debate over the  selection of white actress Rooney Mara to play the role of Tiger Lily in the upcoming live-action Peter Pan remake. In addition to protests over casting a white actress in a Native American role, there are protests against the very use of the Tiger Lily character, based on the argument that she portrays a stereotypical view of Native American women that is harmful and offensive. This view ignores the reality of modern Native American women by depicting them as a caricature rather than as people (imagine, by comparison, if modern day white women were still viewed in the images of their Puritan Protestant pilgrim ancestors). By contrast, many online activists have been posting pictures showing what real, present-day Native American women are really like, such as in this photo posted by online activist Jacqueline Keeler.

The third issue, which stems in many ways from the first two, is the complete lack of education about the present-day struggles of Native Americans. In addition to the mascot debate I’ve been researching, and the #NotYourTigerLily debate I just mentioned, Native Americans still struggle with many issues that are ignored. For example, 28.2% of Native Americans are living below the poverty line (and on reservations, that can increase to between 38% to 63%). By comparison, the National Poverty Center reports only 15.1% of Americans nationwide living below the poverty line (it is also worth nothing that the NPC  page linked here includes subsets for the poverty statistics of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, but doesn’t mention Native Americans). Another issue related to the media portrayal of Native Americans is that Native American women are twice as likely to be raped as women of any other race in America. One explanation for this is that Native Americans are viewed as a “conquered people,” and media portrayals of Native American women (such as in movies like Peter Pan) depict them as weak, vulnerable savages that are submissive to white men. This portrayal leads to them being more likely targets for aggressive and violent criminals. There is also the issue that many of the assailants are never prosecuted, and tribal courts often lack the legal authority of their own when state and federal courts fail to act.

These and many other present-day issues are often ignored by the general public, and awareness of these subjects seems to be low. At least part of the blame for this lack of awareness surely stems from the lack of education in mainstream schools. The schools I’ve attended, from elementary school through high school and college, educate students about plenty of other “current events” issues, including the gay marriage debate, copyright laws in the digital age, healthcare reform, and the wage gap between genders. My classes have been invariable silent, however, on any issues related to Native Americans.

While exploring all of these issues, I became very aware of my own blindness and lack of understanding. I therefore sought out the assistance of experts who could better understand the relationship between the past and the present. This is the core concept of Anthropology, which is defined as “the study of humankind, past and present.” To learn more about this, I contacted a group of Anthropology professors from Rowan University, two of whom were kind enough to take the time to assist me in my research. My next post will explore what I learned from them as I attempted to open my eyes to seeing beyond the world right in front of me and into the connections with the past.

Reflections on my Interview with Alexander Pierce

As I mentioned earlier, tonight I had an online interview via Twitter with a friend of mine, Alexander Pierce. He was gracious enough to spend some time talking to me about his views on sports and sports culture.

Since the interview was logged on Twitter, you can read the conversation starting here and under the hashtag #HRSI.

Alexander and I chatted online in a casual back-and-forth of tweets, which was part of the purpose of the online format. My goal was to keep things casual and try to keep us on equal grounds as much as possible. Along those lines, I avoided having any direct list of pre-planned questions, and mostly tried to ask him for more information about the specific subjects he brought up. It was interesting to see that he made some comments that were similar to my earlier twitter poll on sports culture, and to the in-person interview I conducted last week. For example, the subjects of sports as religion, as local and national identity, and as a highly emotional activity all came up during this interview.

The interview started off, not surprisingly, with some ice-breaking by talking about sports. When I first asked Alexander how he was doing, it ended up being the first thing that came up in natural conversation.

Alexander_Interview_1The conversation quickly moved into a discussion about the specifics of hockey as a staple of Canadian culture. Alexander explained a few things about how and why hockey is such a popular sport for Canadians.

Alexander_Interview_2Alexander_Interview_3Alexander_Interview_4Alexander_Interview_5We also discussed a bit about how sports can be a way for families to bond. This is a subject that has come up frequently in my research, how families use sports as a way to relate to each other and as a way to have something to talk about. It was similar to what one of my in-person interviewees, Brian, said about sports bars. He explained that sports is something you can talk to anyone about without causing anger or offense (as opposed to taboo topics like politics and religion). It seems that a similar principle is in place when people talk to their family about sports.

Alexander_Interview_6Alexander_Interview_7Alexander_Interview_8One thing that came up during this interview that hadn’t been touched on much in the others is the dark side that can come from sports fanaticism, including parental pressure and sports-related violence.

Alexander_Interview_9Looking over everything we discussed, I see some interesting connections between these various points. The conversation moved from discussions of national identity, to family bonding, to aggression and competition. Which makes me question just how strong those connections are. Are aggression and competition such an integral part of our family and national identity? When considering everything from sibling rivalry to economic competition to long years of war against other countries, it certainly seems that the answer is “Yes.”

This also makes an interesting parallel to what I’ve learned about the relationship between sports culture and Native American culture. If sports culture is so deeply tied together with aggression, violence, and competition, it doesn’t seem surprising that it would lead to conflict with other cultures. A conflict that seems similar to the long history of conflict and aggression that has been directed at Native Americans for centuries.

These comparisons between different types of violence certainly opened my eyes to some ideas about the causes of these conflicts. A culture that is used to such violence (and even cheers it on) seems unlikely to be willing to engage in peaceful negotiations with someone they perceive as threatening their identity. And since sports fans associate their team name with their identity, they may therefore show aggressive behavior towards someone who threatens that identity by demanding the name be changed. Furthermore, the same competitive ideals may lead sports fans to a “win or lose” mindset that detracts from the possibility of compromise or collaboration on a mutually beneficial solution.

As for the interview itself, I definitely found Twitter to be an effective medium. It allowed for a casual conversation that was easy to transcribe. It left me with some questions about how this aggression may be affecting the people it’s directed against, beyond the emotional damage it can cause, as discussed in my interview with Reverend John Norwood.

Hopefully from here I’ll be able to tie some of these concepts in with the academic research I’m doing on the subject. For example, I’ve read several journal articles discussing the specific causes of sports fan aggression and the volatile behavior it can cause. I should be able to make some good connections between that research and the concepts that came up in this interview.

 

Interview with Reverend John Norwood

As part of my ongoing research into Native American culture and the debate over the Washington Redskins name change, I felt it was important to reach out to members of the Native American community in order to hear their perspectives. As I’ve mentioned previously on the blog, I’m extremely aware that from my standpoint as a white American, I’m incapable to fully grasping the struggles and perspectives of another race. Speaking to members of that community to hear their voices is the best way to learn about their perspectives.

To this end, I reached out to the Nanticoke Indian Tribe in the hopes of finding someone I could speak to about these issues. My request for contact was forwarded to the Chief and Council of the tribe, and I was then contacted by Reverend John Norwood, who said he was asked to respond to my request and serve as the spokesperson on behalf of the tribe. He was gracious enough to speak with me in a telephone interview on Tuesday, March 26th.

After greeting Reverend Norwood and telling him about my research into the name change, I asked him for his thoughts on the debate.

“The position I take on the mascot,” he said, “is that people don’t understand how devastating it can be, even when you are trying to honor the tribe.”

He explained that matters like the use of Native American images in mascots have to be handled sensitively, and that they should be handled on the local level. When Native American images are used at the national level, such as with major sports teams, he said that can make it difficult to teach people about the needed sensitivity. In some cases, the use of Native American imagery is handled properly and respectfully.

“Our southernmost community has a relationship with their school district,” he said, explaining how that tribe has granted permission for their local school district to make use of their tribal images. “That is between that tribe and that school district. But the school does not own the images, and the school is teaching about sensitivity.” The fact that the individual school is addressing the issue with respect and sensitivity, he explained, is an important variable.

“Most of the time it’s not the case,” he added, explaining that many other uses of Native American images aren’t handled properly. “What you have are mascots that do harm to the history and psychological well-being of tribes.”

When I asked him more about how some institutions improperly use the images, he said, “Native Americans don’t have the opportunity to control how the mascot is displayed. That is actually the stealing of heritage. The way it was taken is the same way our lands were taken. Most of the institutions don’t have any link to tribal heritage, and the images used are stereotypical about 90% of the time.”

He then explained some of the issues about the specific ways in which the mascots are displayed. He referenced some of the violent conflicts from the past where many Native Americans were killed. “Indians were being decapitated,” he said. “Whole villages would be decapitated. When people see a floating Indian head, that’s what they remember. If it brings up painful memories and painful history, then that’s offensive.”

This point is one that I haven’t seen raised in the other articles I’ve read regarding the mascot debate. Most of the articles I’ve read tend to speak about how the name “Redskins” is racist and offensive, but the image of the mascot itself is often ignored. Yet it turns out that the image itself can be associated with a violent and traumatizing past.

Reverend Norwood also spoke of the ways in which Native images are often portrayed as caricatures and stereotypes. He told me about how his son played in an intramural basketball league, and when his team played against a school with an Indian mascot, the images painted on the walls were of “a racist looking caricature of an Indian.”

“If an African American had walked in and seen a caricature of an African,” he said, “or if it were a Jewish or Asian image, something would be done about it. When it’s Indian people and we say we’re offended, they say, ‘We’re just honoring you.’ We are dismissed.”

His words reminded me of a number of articles I’ve read in the last few weeks that referenced that same point. People who defend the use of Native American mascots often argue that they do so to “honor” the Native American people. But Reverend Norwood explained that the use of these images in improper, misrepresentative ways does not honor them.

“Only certain people were allowed to do certain things and earned that honor,” he said. “When we say we are offended and these people who say they are honoring us, they dismiss us.

“It is possible to gain the support of a local tribe to bless the use of an image. To truly honor by engaging and understanding that is a privilege. Not a right. Typically, there is an arrogance. The misappropriation of badges of honor.”

What Reverend Norwood was referring to is called “cultural appropriation.” It is defined as “the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group,” but it can also be referred to as “the act of stealing and corrupting.” Along with the debates and protests over the use of Native American images in sports mascots, there are protests over individuals using traditional Native American clothing and adornments as fashion statements. One example that has gained recent notoriety is the band Pink Pony, which sparked protests when they posted photos of one of their band members wearing a Native headdress “that is traditionally reserved for Native Tribal Chiefs and not for members of unsigned Electronica bands.” This is another example of what Reverend Norwood referred to when he said, “Only certain people were allowed to do certain things and earned that honor.”

“It wouldn’t be tolerated with any other race,” he said. “The history of American Indians is unique in this country because we’re the only indigenous people.”

He then explained how his people are often excluded even in the language used by many others in the country. As an example, he spoke about how many politicians will use the phrase, “We are a country of immigrants,” a phrase that was even used by President Obama on Citizenship Day 2013. Yet as Reverend Norwood explained, such phrasing excludes Native Americans who have lived here since long before our current country was founded.

“My people were here,” he said. But he explained that his people have a sense of exclusion, and that they are viewed as a conquered or vanquished people who are often ignored by politicians and the government. “They don’t want to deal with the plight of the tribes today. It’s a huge insult.”

I then asked him about the Washington Redskins as a specific case. “The term is a term we don’t call ourselves,” he said, echoing the words of the “Proud to Be” video released by the National Congress of American Indians. “It’s an insult. The arrogance of the owners is a travesty. If it was any other race, they would understand. We are dictated to, more so than any other individual group. The mascot issue is symbolic of the continuing struggle of American Indians.”

He then continued, “An institution will get an individual group to say it’s okay. That doesn’t matter.” Instead, he explained, a team would need the support of the tribal nations. An example of what Reverend Norwood was referring to can be seen in the recent news about Redskins owner Dan Snyder and his efforts to reach out to Native American communities. As reported by The Nation, Dan Snyder recently released a letter in which he described how he spoke “face-to-face with Native American leaders and community members,” but as The Nation’s article points out, he didn’t speak with the oldest Native American civil rights organization, the National Congress of American Indians. In essence, what this means is that while Mr. Snyder may have gained the support of some individual communities, that support cannot be said to represent the beliefs and views of the tribal nations as a whole.

When I asked Reverend Norwood to explain when a mascot would or wouldn’t be okay or under what circumstances permission would be granted, he said, “When it crosses the line into disrespect, then it’s a problem. It’s a direct insult to your very identity. And when you say that, you’re cast as being unreasonable.

“Opinions vary. Some extreme people will say, ‘It’s all wrong.’ Some say ‘Oh, it’s not a problem.’ Something in the middle is where the real problem is.”

We then discussed the way certain individual schools and institutions could gain permission. “Let’s say you have an area with a tribe that is still active in the area,” he said. “The tribe continues to educate and advise so that the school doesn’t think that they own it.” In this way, he said, the use of a Native American mascot can be monitored by the tribe to make sure they don’t devolve into an insulting image. Without this continued relationship with a tribe, he said, “Mascots will deteriorate into a caricature and an insult.”

As an example, he told me that his local township uses an Indian symbol. “But the township has a formal relationship with the tribe,” he said. “Their engagement and understanding is valuable. That was blessed. That’s okay. This is how we can respect and honor the culture. But I have never personally spoken to a tribal Indian who thought it was okay to have an offensive mascot.” It is important, he explained, for there to be continued engagement between the institution and the tribe, and that the tribe should retain the rights to withdraw their permission in the future, should they feel the need to do so.

“There must be a continuing relationship of respect,” he said. “And if you’re not going to do that, stay away from it.”

But this type of continuing relationship, he explained, can only occur on a case-by-case basis with individual tribes and their local schools and institutions. On the national level, he said, “There’s no tribe to get consent from. They need to change. If you’re using those images, you need to engage them. If you do anything less, you’re doing violence to them.

“I’ve had to wipe the tears off the cheeks of my own children and the tribal children dealing with that. When racism happens, we are all victimized by that racism. All are affected. Our mindset is affected. It has a negative influence on our society and our cultures. We are all victims. We are all victimized by it, in some way, shape, or form.

“Even the head of the Redskins is bound by that,” he said in conclusion. “It kills a bit of his soul. It affects all of us.”

Reverend Norwood also forwarded me a publication by the National Congress of American Indians, titled, “Ending the Legacy Of Racism in Sports & the Era of Harmful “Indian” Sports Mascots.” It is a compelling document that I strongly recommend reading.

Interview Schedule

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m working on a series of interviews to learn more about the topics of sports culture and Native American culture. Some of these interviews will be conducted in person, and some will be online. I’ve also scheduled a guided tour with an expert in anthropology, and I have leads out for a second such guide (who I am waiting for a response from).

This post is a schedule of the interviews (most of which are already set dates, except for the one last one I’m awaiting a response from, and one that was delayed and needs to be rescheduled). There should be blog posts coming with each of these interviews, most likely either the same day or the day after the interview takes place.

In-Person Interviews:

1. My first in-person interview was conducted today, since the person I was interviewing was available right away. I was able to get the chance to speak with him before I had even heard back from several of my other leads. The person I interviewed was a man named George, who is a bartender at Chili’s in Cherry Hill, NJ, and also an avid sports fan. I’ve already posted my pre-interview thoughts, and the interview results should be posted by tomorrow. We met in-person at Chili’s during the afternoon and engaged in a fascinating and insightful discussion about the role sports play in people’s lives.

2. My second in-person interview is scheduled for this Thursday, March 27th, at 2:00 pm. I’ll be speaking with a man named Brian, who I was introduced to through a friend of mine. Brian is a major sports fan with a great deal of knowledge about sports history, statistics, and so on. We’ll be meeting in a Starbucks in Cherry Hill, NJ, a location chosen simply because it should be a quiet environment that will be conducive to a good conversation. Posts related to that interview should go up on Thursday.

Online Interviews

1. My first online interview will be with Alexander Pierce, a friend from Twitter. He volunteered to help due to his strong interest in sports. Due to both of our busy schedules this past weekend, we haven’t yet set a time for the interview, but a post will go live on the blog as soon as the date is set. The interview will be conducted on Twitter, so it will be viewable live to anyone interested in following along (or participating!).

2. My second online interview will be with Jacqueline Keeler, an online activist who has been working to spread awareness of several issues related to Native American struggles. She has her own blog on which she posts a variety of articles discussing recent news and explaining movements like the #NotYourMascot Twitter hashtag. She can also be seen regularly tweeting on the #NotYourTigerLily hashtag, which is in protest of the upcoming Peter Pan movie remake that cast Non-Native actress Rooney Mara in the role of the character Tiger Lily. This has drawn recent debate based both on the exclusion of Native American actors and actresses from the production and on the stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans seen in many films, such as the original Disney version of Peter Pan. I’ll be discussing these issues with Ms. Keeler  in order to learn about her unique voice and perspective (date and time still being decided upon).

Guides

1. This Wednesday, March 26th, I have an appointment with Maria Rosado, Professor of Anthropology at Rowan University. I contacted her regarding the Rowan University Museum of Anthropology, which I took interest in following my previous experiences at the Penn Museum’s Native American Voices exhibit. My experiences at the museum were interesting, but I was lacking in an expert guide to explain what I was seeing in more detail. Professor Rosado has agreed to give me a tour of Rowan’s museum and explain the significance of the artifacts they have on display. My hope is that learning to see these cultural artifacts “through an expert’s eyes” will give me a better perspective on the issues I’m researching. A blog post regarding my experiences should go up Wednesday night.

2. I also have contacts out with other experts in the field of cultural anthropology, and will be scheduling another guided experience as soon as I hear back with final confirmation from them.

Telephone

Finally, I have a telephone interview scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, March 25th, with Reverend John Norwood of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe, headquartered in Bridgeton, NJ. In my discussions with him, I hope to gain some insight into the tribe’s perspectives and learn how these issues have impacted them. A blog post regarding the telephone interview should go up on Tuesday.

That should cover it. I may post an update later if I get responses from some of the others I contacted regarding interviews, though I’m uncertain at this time if there will be any more than those listed here.

Sports Culture Interview, Pre-Interview Prep

As part of my ongoing research into sports culture and Native American culture, I’m conducting a series of interviews. Some will be in person, others online. The first in-person interview I’m conducting will be taking place later today.

The individual I’ll be interviewing is a man named George, who is a friend of a friend. He was recommended to me by a friend who is a manager at Chili’s. As manager of a grill & bar restaurant, my friend meets lots of people who come to Chili’s to eat, drink, and socialize. Like many other grill & bar establishments, Chili’s usually has TVs hanging throughout the bar area, making it a welcoming place for sports fans. As a result, the environment is a prime one for finding sports fans gathered together as part of a fan-based community. People there watch various sporting events on TV, discuss the games, and share their opinions and experiences. Thus my friend meets a lot of sports fans, and he was able to help me find some that would be interested in speaking with me.

The book PostModern Interviewing suggests that interviews should be conducted on equal grounds to keep an open flow of communication. Rather than seeing the interview as a way for the interviewer to probe the interviewee for information, we will instead be constructing the information together. While I’ll be guiding the interview to a degree, my goal is to let George discuss whatever topics he finds most interesting. In this way the interviewee will be “a productive source of knowledge” (p. 74). What this basically means is that the interview itself will be “producing knowledge.” We may end up discovering new ideas and concepts that neither of us had considered before. For example, earlier in my research I discovered that many people consider sports to be an integral part of their family dynamics. If this sort of subject comes up during the discussion today, then it’s possible both George and myself will learn something, through introspection and exploration, that we didn’t previously know about the relationship between family and sports.

The interview will take place at Chili’s, since it provides a natural environment for discussing sports culture. My hope is that if there are any games on during the interview, I may even be able to ask George’s opinions about them. Alternatively I could also learn about things like what the added appeal is to watching a sports game at a restaurant instead of in the privacy of one’s home. I suspect that there are social variables that might draw someone to become part of a group by joining in a public activity like this.

I don’t expect what I learn from George to be all-inclusive, since there is no absolute truth or perspective that will apply to all individuals. Postmodern Interviewing states that “we cannot assume that we get to the truth of the phenomenon talked about in interviews,” but that we “can make more or less valid . . . claims and interpretations about the interview text” (p. 238). What I take this to mean is that when I later analyze the interview experience, I should be able to come up with interpretations about the nature of sports culture and use the quotes from the interview to back up my claims.

I’ll be writing a followup post later, after the interview, in which I’ll share the specific subjects that we discussed and try to interpret what George’s answers mean about the nature of sports culture. I’ll also be welcoming comments in order to find out if others agree or disagree with the views expressed in the interview. That will add an additional dimension to the interview by bringing in more voices to the discussion.

I’m Going To A Hockey Game

My first ever ticket to a hockey game.
My first ever ticket to a hockey game.

As you may know, I’ve been doing research lately into sports culture and Native American culture and history. The core of this research relates to the ongoing debate over the Washington Redskins name change, and I’ve found news articles arguing both for and against changing the team’s name.

In addition to reading about the news and debates on this subject, I’m conducting field research. I’ve come to view the debate as a clash between two cultures. On the one side are the Native American cultures that have thousands of years of history in these lands, including a long history of racism, genocide, and oppression. On the other side is the modern American sports culture, comprised of fans from various social and cultural backgrounds who are unified by their common interest and participation in a community-building activity. In order to fully understand the conflict taking place, I am trying to study both of these cultures in depth.

In order to study sports culture, I decided I need to go to a sporting event and take part in the activities there. I’ve never been a sports fan; my dad took me to two baseball games when I was a child, and one of my uncles once took me to a football game, and each of these experiences bored me. I never understood the passion, camaraderie, excitement, and bonding that people experience around sports. That means that to me, this culture is a foreign entity, and I’m an outsider.

I’m therefore going to attend a game with an open mind and a notebook in hand, hoping to gain some better understanding of what it means to be a sports fan. The book “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” says that understanding and getting close to a culture requires “physical and social proximity to the daily rounds of people’s lives and activities” (p. 2). A researcher needs to immerse themselves within a culture and experience it firsthand in order to report on it. While attending a single game will only be a minor amount of “immersion” into this culture, it should nonetheless be an enlightening experience.

While at the game, I will be making a specific conscious effort to study the fans there, and hopefully I will have the chance to interact with some of them and learn about what drives them. I plan to take a lot of notes, since “Fieldnotes” says that fieldnotes are “the primary means for deeper appreciation of how field researchers come to grasp and interpret the actions and concerns of others” (p. 17). Understanding and interpreting the actions (such as cheering on your team) and concerns (such as fearing your team’s defeat) will be a difficult task for me. I’ve seen people watching sports on TV, and I’ve always been confused when the spectators (both those at home and those visible in the stadium on TV) get up and start cheering and shouting over a certain part of the game. I really do not understand what prompts this reaction, and I’ve never experienced this excitement firsthand.

While at the game, there is also a secondary subject that I will be observing. During my research, I read an article by Amanda Blackhorse, “Why the R*dsk*ns Need to Change Their Name.” Blackhorse’s stance is that the name is racist and oppressive, and she argues that it should be changed. In addition, during her article she detailed her experiences attending a football game between the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs, both of whom have mascots based on Native American cultures. Blackhorse described her experience and specifically pointed out her reactions to the team decorations, posters, and other paraphernalia:

“Meanwhile, we were surrounded by imagery that mocked Native Americans and our cultures, in the form of posters, paraphernalia and even a portable toilet in the shape of a teepee. I did not feel safe. It was an ugly display of hostility and disdain toward my people.”

This is another dimension to the conflict I am studying. In addition to the name “Redskins,” there is an issue regarding the mascot images and how they portray Native Americans in a stereotypical fashion that Blackhorse described as “mock[ing] Native Americans and our cultures.”

I’m not currently able to attend a football game like the one Blackhorse attended (since football season ended several weeks ago). However, by chance it turned out that the hockey game being played in Philadelphia this week is between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks.

Now, during my research, I found references to a number of other football and baseball teams with Native American-themed mascots. Some of the other teams were also the subject of controversy, but according to an article I read on CNN.com, “The Florida State Seminoles, Central Michigan Chippewas, Utah Utes and Mississippi College Choctaws have all been granted waivers to keep their nicknames after the respective tribes gave their support to the schools.” I therefore realized that some teams might be more accepted than others. Hockey teams didn’t come up in my original research run, so when I saw that the game being played tomorrow included the Blackhawks, I decided to look into it and find out whether they are also the subject of controversy.

The first article I found zeroed in on the exact question I was asking. The article, “Redskins Rep Asks Why Blackhawks’ Name Isn’t Being Challenged,” was tied in to the Redskins name change, and explained some direct comparisons between the Redskins and the Blackhawks. Both teams have been around for a long time (the Blackhawks since 1926 and the Redskins since 1937). However, the article states that the Blackhawks team is “named after the “Blackhawk Division” of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion of the 86th Infantry Division during World War I.” That infantry division, in turn, was named after Suak Chief Black Hawk. The name was chosen by Frederic McLaughlin, who was a commander with the Blackhawk infantry division. McLaughlin became owner of the Blackhawks hockey team several years after the end of World War I. It therefore seems plausible to consider that since McLaughlin named his team after his own WWI infantry division, there may be more of an argument in favor of the legitimacy of the name. By comparison, several articles I read referred to the Redskins team name as a racial slur, which is definitely different than naming a team after a Suak Chief.

In addition, an article on ABC.com quoted Joe Podlasek of the American Indian Center:

“Podlasek runs that center in Chicago and was instrumental in the fight to get the University of Illinois to bench its mascot, Chief Illiniwek. He says what makes the Blackhawks a bit better is they don’t use a mascot to dance around and, in his opinion, mock his heritage.

In the locker room, players are told not to step on the chief logo, and fans in the stands don’t do a tomahawk chop, like at Braves games in Atlanta.”

Comparing this quote to Amanda Blackhorse’s description of her experiences at a Redskins vs Chiefs game, I see a more complex reason for the lack of controversy over the Blackhawks’ name. Blackhorse described how the mascots of the Redskins and the Chiefs “mocked” her culture. According to the ABC.com article, the Blackhawks don’t do that. Likewise, another article in the Chicago Tribune said that the lack of controversy could be related to “Chicago’s small American Indian community [and] the team’s support of a local American Indian organization.”

After reading all of this, I will be curious to see what it is like to watch the Blackhawks play firsthand. While I might get more of a feel for the culture of the Blackhawks as a team if I attended a game in their home city of Chicago, I still expect there will be Blackhawks fans at the Philadelphia game. So while observing fans in general in order to understand sports culture, I will also be looking out for anything I can learn about the Blackhawks fans, their team, and the way they behave with regards to their mascot.

Though I should note that since I grew up in the Philly area, I am going to be rooting for the Flyers. It’s the principle of the thing.

Review of Recent News About the Redskins Name Change

As I’ve mentioned in some recent posts, I’m currently engaged in a research project where I’m studying Native American culture, racism, and sports, with particular focus on the debate over the Washington Redskins name change. I’ve written a few posts exploring this topic, most recently looking into the culture of sports.

Today I plan to review some of the most recent news articles I’ve found on the subject, in an attempt to summarize the various views. I’ve searched a variety of news sources and compiled a list of articles arguing various sides of the debate. I’ll be posting some general summaries here, taking a neutral stance since the purpose of this post is to review what people are saying, rather than to express my own opinion. This review will then help as background for my future posts, similar to an academic literature review.

In favor of changing the name:

Most of the articles I’ve found in favor of changing the name have been very direct in their views. These articles mostly show a firm stance with no room for compromise. In an article on Huffington Post, Dan Treadway cites a statistic that 79% of Americans are against changing the name and support the Redskins staying as they are. He refers to those 79% as “stubbornly ignorant.” He argues that the name Redskins is unarguably racist:

“I mean, literally — if you look up the word Redskin in the dictionary, it’s defined simply as, “Used as a disparaging term for a Native American.” This isn’t even really debatable, the name is offensive not because of any sort of allusion or interpretation — it’s defined as a racial slur.”

He continues by saying that any attempt to keep the name is “completely absurd.”

Treadway then cites cases of other sports teams that have changed their names, such as the Arkansas State team changing “from the Indians to the Red Wolves.”

Similar views are expressed by Amanda Blackhorse, Native American issues advocate, who wrote an article where she refers to the team as the R*dsk*ns in order to avoid citing the racial slur directly. She refers to the term as “disparaging, racist, and hateful.” Both Blackhorse and Treadway refer to the fact that the name was first adopted in the 1930s, a time when racism was even more prolific than it is today. Both writers also state that defenders of the team name argue that it is a longstanding tradition. Blackhorse counters that argument by saying, “Just because something has gone on for a long time does not mean that the activity is a legitimate tradition. Not all traditions have carried on and many are harmful and repressive.”

Blackhorse also discusses her views as a member of the Navajo Nation. She cites an example of a time she attended a game in Kansas City, where Washington played the Kansas City Chiefs, and she “saw fans ‘playing Indian,’ wearing outrageous and pathetic costumes that stereotyped traditional Native American regalia.” She explained how the various posters and decorations around the stadium showed stereotypes of Native American culture. She referred to these as an “ugly display of hostility and disdain toward [her] people” that made her feel unsafe.

However, Blackhorse also spoke about the various types of support for the name change, citing mayor of Washington, D.C., Vincent Gray, among the political figures who has spoken out about the name change. She also mentioned that “leading columnists for The Washington Post, including Courtland Milloy, Mike Wise, Sally Jenkins and Robert McCartney, have written powerful articles calling for the team to change its name.” In addition to such articles, multiple major news publications have implemented policies refusing to use the Redskins’ name in their articles (instead referring to the team only as “Washington”). I found multiple articles stating that the Washington team name is no longer being printed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, and Merrill College’s Capital News, or used by individual columnists such as Tim Graham, sports writer for the Buffalo News, and Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist John Smallwood.

Further political support for the name change was cited by Bloomberg Businessweek. The article states that Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma together sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. In the letter, Cantwell and Goodell stated that, “The National Football League can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur.”

Several articles also refer to other sports teams who have faced similar issues and made changes to their teams. An article on CNN.com states that “Two MLB clubs, the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, changed their logos to become less offensive to Native Americans.” They also cited college sports teams who have faced controversies, saying that “15 teams have changed their mascot to be more sensitive to Native Americans.” In addition to the teams that have changed their names or mascots, the CNN article says that there are some teams who haven’t had to change. Specifically,  “The Florida State Seminoles, Central Michigan Chippewas, Utah Utes and Mississippi College Choctaws have all been granted waivers to keep their nicknames after the respective tribes gave their support to the schools.”

Against the name change:

In searching for articles speaking against the name change, the most prominent figure I found was Dan Snyder, the Washington team owner. As reported by CNN.com, Snyder wrote a letter defending the team name:

“Our franchise has a great history, tradition and legacy representing our proud alumni and literally tens of millions of loyal fans worldwide. We are proud of our team and the passion of our loyal fans. Our fans sing ‘Hail to the Redskins’ in celebration at every Redskins game. They speak proudly of ‘Redskins Nation’ in honor of a sports team they love.”

In addition to Snyder’s comments in support of his team name, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has spoken on the issue. As reported by Sports Illustrated, Goodell said that the team name “honors Native Americans” and that 9 out of 10 fans support the team keeping their name. He also said that “the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”

Some articles also take the stance that the name change is not a key topic. One article quoted a team statement saying, “With all the important issues Congress has to deal with such as a war in Afghanistan to deficits to health care, don’t they have more important issues to worry about than a football team’s name?” Another article by Jason S. Parini of the Bleacher Report said that the team name should not be changed. Parini cited the Oklahoma Redskin Theatre as as example of another long-standing business bearing the same name, and also said that the name “‘Oklahoma’ comes from the Choctaw for ‘red people.'” He also spoke of an investigation by Senator Cantwell into the Redskins’ tax-exempt status, and called the investigation “just another money-making scheme by the U.S. government.”

Parini also argued against the point that the Redskins name is a racial slur, stating that “the Redskins also have presented a 2004 survey that found that over 90 percent of Native Americans were not offended by the name.” He expressed an opinion that the majority should not be outweighed by the demands of a few, saying “the hurt feelings of a small amount of individuals should not take priority over a large majority who see it otherwise.”

Other articles on public opinion cited statistics by a Washington Post poll, which found that 61% of Washington D.C. residents support the Redskins’ name, and 66% further say that the team should keep its name.

In addition, an article by Rick Reilly on EPSN.com argued that it is “White America” that is offended by the name, and he cited a number of examples of Native Americans who are not offended. Reilly quoted Bob Burns, his father-in-law and a bundle holder in the Blackfeet tribe, who said, “The name just doesn’t bother me much. It’s an issue that shouldn’t be an issue, not with all the problems we’ve got in this country.”

He also quoted Brett Hayes, a Choctaw man who is an English Teacher at Kingston High School in Oklahoma. Kingston is a school that is 57.7 percent Native American, and their team is also called the Redskins. Hayes was quoted as saying, “It’s a name that honors the people. The word ‘Oklahoma’ itself is Choctaw for ‘red people.’ The students here don’t want it changed. To them, it seems like it’s just people who have no connection with the Native American culture, people out there trying to draw attention to themselves.” Reilly also cited several other predominantly Native American high schools that have teams named the Redskins, including Wellpinit High School in Washington (91.2 percent Native American) and Red Mesa High School in Arizona (99.3 percent Native American).

Conclusion

In reviewing all of these articles (including several others I didn’t cite here simply because they repeated the same points), it seems clear that there is a lot of divide on this issue. That divide doesn’t seem to be limited purely to people of one race or another. Even among Native Americans themselves, I found articles citing individuals both for and against the name change. The statistics vary a bit from one article to another (with one poll stating 61% of respondents supported the Redskins’ name, another saying 79% supported the name, and another saying 90% supported the name). People on both sides of the debate argue from the perspective of people defending their culture, honor, and traditions. They simply take drastically different views on how those traditions affect them.

Fieldnotes and Practice Research

As I’ve mentioned a few times lately, I’m currently doing research into racism, sports, and Native American culture. As part of this research, in the near future I have plans to visit a Native American Museum in Delaware (which, unfortunately, isn’t open weekdays until April) and the Native American Voices exhibit at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia (which I will hopefully be visiting this coming Thursday, March 13th, if all goes according to plan). While visiting these museums, I plan to collect as much information as I can, including talking to any experts I might encounter who can share more than what is seen in the exhibits.

In preparation for this, I’ve engaged in some practice field research, taking notes and studying the “culture” of a local bookstore. Alongside my classmates and fellow researchers, I observed a variety of individuals and their interactions. My goal was to capture as much about the moment as possible so that it could later be recreated as a written scene.

This is the first of three “practice research” blog posts where I’ll be compiling the results. Below are pictures of the hand-scrawled fieldnotes I recorded at the bookstore, along with typed translations of my poor handwriting and more complete descriptions in full sentences. There will also be a post dedicated to composing a full scene based on these notes, and then a third dedicated to making a more vivid description of an individual from the bookstore in an attempt to capture and relay their image.

  • Cash Registers:Bookstore Fieldnotes (1)
  • The cashier wears a black sweatshirt, a scarf, glasses, and a small frown. When I first saw her, it seemed strange that she wasn’t wearing any kind of uniform or nametag. If she hadn’t been behind the register, I wouldn’t have known she was a bookstore employee.
  • She sits behind the register, her eyes down on the table before her. She seems to be reading, texting, or doing something else with her smartphone.
  • When a customer approaches she rings him up without saying much, bags his purchase, says “Thanks,” and then returns to her phone before he has even left the store.
  • One of my fellow researchers approaches and engages her in conversation.Bookstore Fieldnotes (2)
  • The cashier says she can tell us about what really goes on in the bookstore. Her first remark is that the store is cold. She gestures to the windows behind her and says, “These windows are not insulated.” She also explains that the windows in the manager’s office are insulated, and complains about the unfairness of that.
  • When we ask, she confirms that the cold (especially with the register being right next to the door) is why she is wearing a sweatshirt and scarf.
  • She then begins telling us about what it’s like to work here. “I’ve been here so long,” she says. “I’ve worked here so long. Each semester gets worse.”
  • She begins complaining about the college students who come to the bookstore and asks, “How do these kids get into college? Do you not know when we return books?”
  • She tells us about an example of a student who bought a $200 textbook before class started, who clearly didn’t read the directions. The bookstore puts a sticker on the books including the latest date that returns are accepted, and telling students not to unwrap the plastic-wrapped books (which include sets of multiple books and sometimes additional CD-roms) until they’re sure if they’re the right ones. Some, she explains, end up with the wrong books or end up dropping the class, but then find they cannot return the book sets that have been opened.
  • She then tells us that even though the bookstore offered an additional extension of nearly two weeks, students still came in after the deadline.Bookstore Fieldnotes (3)
  • A sign right above the cash register reads “Last day for returns is 1-27-14.”
  • Despite this, she says that some kids came in as late as February 9th and said “I wanna return my book,” then they “get an attitude” when she tells them they’re past the deadline for returns.
  • She also says, “It’s not even the kids – it’s the parents.” She tells a story about a student who brought their parents down to the bookstore to try to argue about the return, in one case even when the Bookstore Fieldnotes (4)book was supposed to be returned last semester.
  • She concludes, laughing, that “Students have no common sense.”

The Racism Behind A Name

This post is part of my ongoing research into Native American culture and modern issues of oppression. To see all posts on this subject, view the category page.

“Should the Washington Redskins change their name?” This topic is one of major debate right now. The basic argument is that the name is offensive and racist, which makes many Native Americans argue that is should be changed, while many sports fans say that it is a long-standing tradition and a symbol of pride for their team. I’m going to explore both sides of this issue.

There are many different aspects of Native American Culture, history, oppression, racism, and modern views to explore. I haven’t yet narrowed down my primary focus, so for the moment, I’m going to explore some thoughts and ideas here on the blog. Much of this will be a sort of “thinking out loud,” where I try to sort through ideas that I’m not very familiar with. I’ll be sharing research material that comes up as I explore these subjects.

The first thing I want to do, however, is declare my standpoint. In Communication Studies, Standpoint Theory is a theory which states that an individuals perspectives and views will be altered by their place in society, their history, their knowledge, and their power. On a basic level, this means that people from one standpoint can’t understand the troubles of another. For example, a wealthy white male from a privileged home who went to private school and works in the government can’t understand the troubles and life of a minority female who is a single mother living on welfare. Their experiences are different, and that can affect the way one views the other.

Every aspect of your standpoint can influence your view. If you’re the same race as another person, but one of you is rich and one is poor, you’ll have a similar standpoint on some issues and a different standpoint on others. There is no single “catch-all” category that will allow anyone to fully understand anyone else’s viewpoint.

Because I will be attempting to understand a culture I know little about, I am entering this research with firm awareness of my standpoint with regards to this subject. Therefore, I think it is important to declare who I am, so that both myself and anyone reading my research will know my standpoint and be aware of any possible biases or preconceptions my standpoint might bring.

I am a white, heterosexual, single male. I come from a lower-middle class family. I have experienced life working for minimum wage, and I know what it is like to be uncertain where my next meal is coming from. I do not have children, nor do I have any experience raising children (including personal understanding of the struggles and financial burdens of childcare). I am a college graduate, but I am also a nontraditional student and I didn’t graduate college until I was 33.

Based on my standpoint, I understand that I have a limited awareness of racial issues. I read about them, I learn about equal rights in school, and I support equality in every way. I have not, however, experienced the type of oppression that many people from minority groups have.

With that in mind, when I sat down to begin addressing the issue of Native American culture and oppression, I found that I went through a train of thought that ended up leading to an interesting question. The rest of this post will be exploring those thoughts and ending with that question.

My first thought when I was faced with the question “Should the Washington Redskins change their name?” was “It’s football, who cares?” I obviously had to move past this thought, but it’s important because it adds another dimension to my standpoint: I am not a sports fan.

Why is that important? Sports aren’t a crucial social issue, or so I might have said. But then I thought deeper about it, and I realized that someone’s status as a sports fan has some deep cultural implications. Here’s a list of why someone’s standpoint as a sport’s fan is important:

  • There has been research done into the psychological effects of “Sports Team Identification” (when a fan considers themselves part of the team’s group-identity) on a person’s behavior. A study by Keaton, et al., found that “Identified sport team fans who used catharsis, conflict linkage, and relational maintenance report a greater inclination to commit negative social behaviors as a result of team performance” (p. 3). In short, devoted sports fans develop a psychological connection that links their own self-worth to the performance of the team. If the team fails, the fans can feel like failures themselves. This can lead to aggressive behavior such as lashing out.
  • Sports also play a cultural role in our society. They are a group activity with customs, traditions, and an emotional impact on people who are involved with them. Orlando Patterson, a historical and cultural sociologist, said that sports have a “cultural and economic significance” and that “sport is a highly crystallised form of social structure, not found in other areas of society” (p. 550). In essence, this means that sports can be viewed in a cultural context in the same way art, music, and religion can. In fact, it can be argued that sports brings an even greater sense of community, a stronger emotional impact, and more cultural fixation than art does (just compare the number of fans at a sporting event to the number of visitors to a museum).
  • Sports fans are very well known for defending their team, and Sports Team Identification can lead to an “us vs them” attitude. Rival teams (such as the Cowboys vs the Eagles) can lead to fans feeling that fans of the opposing team are “enemies” or at the very least “others” (as in, not part of the “us” group). This can lead to segregation, and if someone from a rival team enters, say, the wrong sports bar, they may be subject to ridicule and aggression.

So by looking at sports in this way, I shifted my understanding of sports as “just another waste of time” (no different in my mind than any other activity), to “a complex, cultural activity that leads to the formation of groups and altered emotions and social behavior.” I think that distinction is important because of the points I’m about to address.

When considering the question of the Washington Redskins’ name change, I think it’s important to address what that change means. Originally, my view was “It’s not a big deal.” When I start thinking about sports teams and their fans as cultural and social constructs, however, it becomes more complex. The proponents and opponents of the name change debate become two different cultures, each with their own history, traditions, beliefs, and practices. Is one set of beliefs more important than the other? Well, I don’t think that’s the important factor here. The important factor is racism.

When I first heard the argument that the Redskins’ name was racist, I stopped and tried to put myself in the shoes of the Native Americans who would be insulted by this name. At first, I had a hard time. I’m Irish, and I could label myself as “Irish-American” instead of just “white.” My grandfather’s family was born in Ireland, and his parents and older brother all moved here before my grandfather was born. I have distant second-cousins still living in Ireland, and my family keeps in touch with them.

Based on my standpoint as an Irish-American, I tried to think how I would feel if the debate about the name change was over another team: the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. My thoughts on the matter basically amounted to, “I could be offended that this team name stereotypes Irish as both drunkards and brawlers.” It did not, however, move me to any real emotion (I didn’t get angry or offended over this; I merely considered the possibility that others could).

I felt like I was missing some important point, however. Sports fans in favor of keeping the Redskins’ name have said they feel that the name “honor[s] the Native Americans” as “a symbol of loyalty and courage.” Those statements are easily open to dispute, but rather than focusing on the statements themselves, I want to look deeper.

After giving the issue some thought, I ended up considering the following scenario:

Imagine you are an African American. You find out a new sports team is forming nearby. The team uniforms will be inspired by colors used in the flags of African nations, and the team is meant to “honor African Americans” as “a symbol of African pride and heritage.”

Then you find out that the team will be named “The Mississippi Coloreds.”

Would you find this offensive? Would you want them to change the name? I went to Twitter and asked if people would consider “coloreds” offensive. The responses were consistent: yes, they find it offensive. Along those lines, I am sure there would be a LOT of protest to naming a sports team in this way.

This then brings me to a better understanding of the Redskins’ name change debate. If it’s not okay to name a sports team “honoring African Americans” by naming the team based on the color of that race’s skin, then why do people think it’s okay to name the Redskins in the same way?

Perhaps our society hasn’t had enough education in this regard to view “Redskins” as an offensive term in the same way we do other racist words. Though you might need to consider whether you would ever use the word when speaking to a Native American. I think that a more appropriate way to “honor Native Americans” would be to only use names they embrace, rather than names they find offensive.

This train of thought has certainly influenced the way I view the name change debate. I think that when taken in this context, it should be clear why the name is offensive.

There are a lot of other angles for me to pursue as I take this research forward, but I think what I’ve covered here is helping me to narrow my focus. Some of the key issues are cultures, the “us vs them” perspective that can develop between cultures, and the offensive nature of referring to a group of people based on their skin (even if people claim they are doing it to “honor” them). I’ll be exploring these issues more in the future, and hoping to increase my own understanding as I go along.