The 2,128 Native American Mascots People Aren’t Talking About


Illustration by Kelsey Dake
Illustration by Kelsey Dake

By Hayley Munguia,

When Samuel Henry was a kid growing up in D.C. in the late 1950s, he and his friends were devoted Washington Redskins fans — they had the jerseys and knew the lore. And as the lore had it, the “reddish-brown tint” of paint on the team’s downtown D.C. headquarters came from the blood of Native Americans. “When I was a kid, me and my friends, we really thought that they had captured and killed Native Americans and pasted them all over the building,” Henry said. “We were just kids, we didn’t know any better. But we really, honestly believed that.”

Now, almost 60 years later, the Redskins are enmeshed in a debate about whether their name is a racist epithet and should be changed. Advocates for keeping the name reference its origins: In 1937, owner George Preston Marshall changed the team name from the Braves to the Redskins. Marshall said the change was in honor of the head coach at the time, William Henry Dietz, who claimed to be part Sioux (although that claim is suspect). Critics including Henry say its origins are irrelevant and that the name is racist and demeaning. “I’d love to see a boycott of all things Redskins,” he said.

Dan Snyder, the current owner, purchased the team in 1999, when it was fighting its first legal battle over the name. The lawsuits have continued, and earlier this year, the Trademark Trials and Appeal Board canceled the franchise trademark because “a substantial composite of Native Americans found the term Redskins to be disparaging.” Snyder has faced mounting pressure to change the name, even from President Obama and George Preston Marshall’s granddaughter. But Snyder plans to appeal the trademark decision and says he will “NEVER” change the name. Polling suggests Snyder has the backing to ignore the calls; most NFL fans (and Redskins fans in particular) oppose a name change.

What’s considered an outrage in the NFL is embraced or at least tolerated all over the country. While we’ve been consumed by the debate about the Washington Redskins, we’ve overlooked thousands of team names and mascots depicting Native Americans, often stereotypically. These teams are not feeling the kind of pressure that Snyder is. To understand the Washington Redskins, we have to understand the Estelline Redmen, the Natick Redmen, and the Molalla Indians, too.

Terry Borning, the proprietor of MascotDB, has kept a database of the nation’s mascots since 2006. He gathers his data from a variety of sources, including state high school athletic associations, websites and local newspapers. Borning’s database doesn’t have every high school, college and pro team in the country, but it does have 42,624 of them. Looking at MascotDB is as close as we can get to understanding how prevalent Native American team names and mascots are across the country.

“There were a lot of interesting mascots where I lived growing up,” Borning said. “But those have mostly fallen by the wayside. Some of those things of the past were definitely offensive, but also more interesting than the generic mascots we have now.”

I searched the database and found 2,129 sports teams that reference Braves, Chiefs, Indians, Orangemen, Raiders, Redmen, Reds, Redskins, Savages, Squaws, Tribe and Warriors, as well as tribe names such as Apaches, Arapahoe, Aztecs, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Chinooks, Chippewas, Choctaws, Comanches, Eskimos, Mohawks, Mohicans, Seminoles, Sioux and Utes. (Not all teams with the names “Raiders” and “Warriors” are referencing Native Americans, but we spot-checked 20 schools with each name and a majority of each did.)


Some 92 percent of those 2,129 team names belong to high schools (the rest were college, semi-pro, pro and amateur league teams). Of all the active high schools in the database, 8.2 percent have Native American team names.


I reached out to about a dozen of those high schools, and most didn’t want to comment on a controversy that hadn’t yet arrived. But the conversations I did have suggested that the way communities regard their teams’ Native American names and mascots depends on the makeup of the communities themselves.

Estelline High, home of the Redmen, is located in a small town in South Dakota, 24 miles west of the Minnesota border. South Dakota has the third-largest Native American population share in the country, but Estelline hasn’t seen the kinds of protests directed at the Washington Redskins. The town has experienced little, if any, controversy over the Redmen name.

The mascot dates back to sometime between 1915 and 1920, when a local newspaper referred to the Estelline athletic team by the color of its uniforms — “the men in red.” The name wasn’t officially adopted, but the team soon became known by its unofficial moniker, the Redmen. According to Estelline superintendent and high school principal Patrick Kraning, the association with Native Americans didn’t come until around 1930. Estelline followed with its own depiction of a “Redman” as a stereotype of a Native American chief wearing a headdress. Events such as the annual naming of a “Moon Princess” and “Big Chief” at homecoming became part of the tradition.

“There’s been very little controversy over the team name,” Kraning said. “In the ’90s there was some discussion about changing the name for a series of schools [throughout southeastern South Dakota] that still referred to themselves as ‘Redmen.’ But in the end, a lot of us — Estelline included — decided to keep the name and just keep away from any Native American imagery associated with it.”

Since then, the only symbol associated with the Estelline Redmen is a logo of an E with two feathers attached. Kraning believes that this change, combined with the fact that Estelline doesn’t have a significant Native American population, is why there hasn’t been much local debate on the topic.

“There’s a community feeling that since the origin of the nickname was not a Native American reference, there’s not a desire for change,” he said. “If there were a discussion, most people would probably view it as going against 80 or 90 years of tradition.”

Natick, Massachusetts, did go against tradition. In 2007, the school board dropped its high school mascot — also the “Redmen” — after an alumna of Native American descent came to the board and said she was offended by the activities surrounding the team she had experienced at Natick High School. The historian for the local Nipmuc tribe told me that the logo and mascot used by the school depicted a “stereotypical northern Native with a headdress,” but that depiction bore no resemblance to the actual indigenous people who lived in the Natick area. Nevertheless, protest groups soon sprouted up, claiming that the Natick Redmen honored Native Americans and were an important tradition.

Soon after the change, school board meetings and a town-wide referendum turned the issue into a much broader discussion. The main critique came from the Redmen Forever Committee, a self-described grassroots effort that sought to influence the non-binding referendum. “We added a question to the referendum asking if townspeople wanted the Redmen name restored,” said Erich Thalheimer, co-founder of the Redmen Forever Committee. “It won overwhelmingly, but the school committee didn’t abide by the town’s wishes.”

“If it were decided by popular vote, we would have the name,” said Anne Blanchard, a member of the Natick School Board. “But we had to take into account our nondiscrimination policy, as well as minority and majority interests.”

The Redmen Forever Committee says it won’t give up the fight. “We chose the name of our committee very intentionally, very purposefully,” Thalheimer said. “This is our town. We’re going to live here until we die. We will forever try to re-establish the Redmen name.”

While the controversy in Natick stemmed from a decision that affected one school, several states have taken a grievance from a single school and used it to forbid Native American mascots. One of the more sweeping bans so far was implemented with the help of Samuel Henry, the man who grew up earnestly believing that the Washington Redskins had painted their downtown D.C. headquarters with the blood of Native Americans. Henry is currently the chair of Oregon’s Board of Education, which instituted a statewide ban on Native American mascots and team names in 2012.

The story goes back to 2006, when Che Butler, a member of the Siletz tribe and a student at Taft High School, raised the issue before the board. Butler said he was offended by the stereotypical and inauthentic manner in which the mascot of a rival school, the Molalla Indians, portrayed Native Americans. He and fellow Taft student Luhui Whitebear, a member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Tribe, made a presentation at a board meeting asking for a statewide ban on mascots that “misrepresent” Native people, who instead “should be represented with true honor and respect.”

According to Henry, the board agreed that “having Native American mascots did not seem like a good idea,” but decided to defer the decision.

The grievance was taken up again six years later, when the director of public instruction decided to put it back on the board’s agenda. This time around, after some member turnover, the board agreed to ask its chief attorney to draft a proposal for a ban on the use of Native American mascots in public schools. The only dissenting vote came from a woman who claimed that it was too selective, and that devils and saints should be banned as well.

As in Natick, one of the major arguments against the ban came from people who said that the mascots didn’t disparage Native Americans, but honored them. Many of these opponents knew little of Native American culture, Henry said. “I asked one of the students who made that argument what the name of the local Native American tribe was, and she didn’t know,” he said. “To me, that indicated that her reliance on saying that they were honoring Native Americans — that the support for that argument was pretty thin at best.”

For high schools, a statewide ban is about as sweeping as it gets. Graduate to the next level, though, and schools have broader authorities to answer to. In 2005, the NCAA implemented its own de facto ban1 on Native American mascots for all NCAA colleges.2 The ban focused on a specific list of schools whose mascots were deemed “hostile or abusive,” and precluded them from participating in postseason play if those nicknames or mascots appeared on any team uniforms or clothing.

The NCAA had already taken a stand on a similar issue: the use of Confederate flags. In 2001, the organization banned arenas in South Carolina and Mississippi from hosting postseason championships because the Confederate flag flew proudly on their statehouse grounds. After that decision, the president of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota asked the NCAA to impose a ban on Native American mascots.

The NCAA called on 18 schools (out of 1,046 total member schools at the time, or 1.7 percent) to drop their mascots.

Not all of the targeted schools felt that their nicknames or mascots were “hostile or abusive,” and the ban was followed by a surge of criticism.

“I must have gotten 2,000 emails from people just complaining about it,” the NCAA’s executive committee chairperson at the time, Walter Harrison, said. Even almost 10 years later, he still remembers one persistent caller. “He, or she, I don’t know if it was a man or a woman, would call my office phone at four in the morning and just play their school’s chant until the answering machine cut off,” he said.

But the more serious backlash came in the form of appeals. One came from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and its Fighting Illini. The Fighting Illini were portrayed at halftime performances by a student dressed in full Lakota regalia, including face paint and a headdress. He went by the name “Chief Illiniwek,” and became the focus of the university’s fight against the ban.

Controversy surrounding Chief Illiniwek predated the NCAA’s ruling by decades. The university’s board of trustees had been quietly in the process of considering a potential mascot change since 2001, and the publicity surrounding the nationwide ban reignited already-existing tension among students and alumni. Lawrence Eppley, who was the chair of the university’s board of trustees at the time, said he received hundreds of comments from foundations and alumni organizations threatening to withhold donations. He and the rest of the board figured the only option was to strike a compromise to keep both sides — passionate students and alumni and the NCAA — happy.

Through its appeal, the school was allowed to keep its team name, but not its mascot. Chief Illiniwek portrayers, who had been a part of an official student organization called the Council of Chiefs, could continue the tradition as long as the group no longer had any official affiliation with the university. “One of the things that made it tough to retire it was making sure the fans knew that, if you loved the chief, that was nothing to feel guilty about,” Eppley said. “It’s just that times change, and there’s not much we can do about that.”

Ivan Dozier, who currently portrays Chief Illiniwek, said that officially retiring the mascot was the wrong way for the university to respond. He believes that Native American mascots are a way to reach and educate an audience that wouldn’t normally be knowledgeable about Native American culture or history. “What concerns me is if you eliminate all references to Native American culture, people aren’t asking questions anymore,” he said. “Sports fans here are the vocal majority. They’re the ones who need this information the most, and now they have no way to go about getting it.”

Eight of the schools on the NCAA’s list secured vocal support from local Native American tribes to successfully appeal and retain their team names and mascots. Eight others have changed their names and one dropped the use of a mascot entirely. Carthage College changed its team name from the Redmen to the Red Men and dropped all Native American imagery, which satisfied the NCAA’s requirements.



Turning the Washington Redskins into the Red Skins is unlikely to appease the team’s critics, though. Given that the name is racist by definition and no tribe has come out in support of Snyder, it probably wouldn’t pass the NCAA’s grounds for appeal, and it certainly doesn’t pass in the court of Native American opinion.

But even if the Redskins became the Red Skins or the Red Flyers or the Red Snyders, there would still be thousands of other teams that reference Native American imagery. Whatever happens with the Redskins, there will still be the Estelline Redmen, Chief Illiniwek, and the West Texas Comanches, each upholding the questionable legacy of Native American sports names.

Port Townsend HS begins new year without Redskins nickname

(Photo: KING)
(Photo: KING)


By: Chris Daniels KING 5 News


PORT TOWNSEND – The football practice looked the same at the old grassy field.

There were those familiar red and black football jerseys and the smell of fall hung in the air. It is a rite of passage in this small peninsula town, which has clung to a nickname for 88 years that many people felt was steeped in tradition.

But on this first day of classes, there were few signs of the term “Redskins” on this 400-student campus.

“We want to move forward,” says Scott Wilson, the Port Townsend High Athletic Director, who has led a sometimes controversial conversion. The School Board voted last year to change the school mascot, after numerous calls to do so, including from the neighboring Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

The school colors remain the same, but the players will now wear “Townsend” or “Redhawks” across their chests.

“Not that we want to obliterate the old one, but we want to be positive about this,” said Wilson, as he strode through the school gym.

The old references are gone, and a new logo is at center court. It’s just one of the changes on campus, which included the removal of a granite welcome sign near the school entrance.


Wilson estimates the cost is roughly $90,000 in all, and says some of the work falls under the needed infrastructure improvements, but that some of the other costs have been picked up by private contributions. He says the tribe donated $25,000 for the needed changes.

Port Townsend Junior Ellis Henderson walked around campus on this first day and said the change was finally settling in. “It’s good for the community, and why they wanted to change it. We know how some people found it offensive.”

His teammate, Lucas Foster, another Port Townsend Junior agreed. Although he wasn’t too sure about the name change originally, he said, “Now we’re Redhawks, and we’re liking it.”

Opponents of Racist D.C. Mascot to Hold Event at NFL Fall Meeting

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

The Oneida Indian Nation is taking its ‘Change the Mascot’ campaign a step further.

On Monday, October 7th, the Nation plans to convene in Washington, D.C. to hold a public conference calling on the NFL and its teams to end the use of the slur, Redskins.

The conference, which will be held in the Ritz Carlton, in the same hotel as the NFL’s Fall Meeting, is open to the public and press.

This conference comes just weeks after the Nation broadcast its “Change the Mascot” radio advertisements, and months after students at Cooperstown Central School District in Cooperstown, New York, made national news by voting to change their teams’ name from ‘Redskins’ to the ‘Hawkeyes.’

“As proud sponsors of the NFL, we are encouraged by how many leaders are standing up, speaking out and joining the grassroots effort to get the Washington team to do the right thing and change its name,” said Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter in an earlier news release.

The Nation, along with U.S. Lawmakers: Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia), Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), and special guests hope to spur a discussion that will lead to change.

“We should be treated as what we are: Americans,” Halbritter said.



Washington High School Drops Redskins Mascot

Indian Country Today Media Network

Despite widespread community support for keeping the name, Port Townsend High School in Port Townsend, Washington will drop its Redskins name and mascot. The Port Townsend School Board voted unanimously last night to make the change, according to the Associated Press.

The school board’s decision was made on the recommendation of a study group that found that the name was offensive to Native Americans and  it should be retired. But this didn’t sit well with the nearly 300 people in attendance last night, with many routinely cheering speakers who opposed the name change and booing those who took an opposing view, reports the Peninsula Daily News.

With Port Townsend’s decision, only one high school in Washington state still uses Redskins as its mascot, Wellpinit, according to the Capital News Service’s The Other Redskins study.

Students and community members will select a new mascot and nickname for Port Townsend High.



Positive Reactions to Cooperstown Central Changing School Mascot


National Public Radio host Michel Martin talked with Ray Halbritter, of the Oneida Nation, about the gesture to pay for schools uniforms after the decision to change the “Redskins” name at Cooperstown Central School.  Listen here



February 25, 2013

The message that calling sports teams “Redskins” isn’t right seems to be getting across in some circles and, perhaps most important, to the younger generation.

Some, including Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, still say the derogatory term is fine. Though others say his argument, that it’s all right to use because there are some 70 high schools in 25 states that use the name, is weak.

In her February 13 Washington Post column titled, “On Washington Redskins’ name, it’s time the grown-ups talk sense into Daniel Snyder,” Sally Jenkins was one of them.

“If you’ve long suspected that football is not a measure of intellect…a series of prominently displayed pseudo-articles defend the club’s use of a racial slur as a mascot on the grounds that lots of high schools are nicknamed ‘Redskins’ too — so it must be okay,” she says. “Which we can only take to mean that pretty soon owner Daniel Snyder will be skipping class to build a potato gun.”


But Snyder couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, recent events fly in the face of his argument. Like at Cooperstown Central School, when in early February, the students there decided they no longer wanted to be known as the Redskins.cooperstown-central-school

When Cooperstown students stood up, national news media noticed. Their decision to get rid of the nickname was reported by The Associated Press, ESPN, Fox Sports, the Wall Street Journal and Indian Country Today Media Network.

“There were several students who came forward to the superintendent and myself,” Cooperstown Board of Education President Dr. David Borgstrom told ICTMN. “They told us how uncomfortable they felt about it and we made a commitment to educate the students about cultural diversity. When they brought it forward there wasn’t really any other response we could give them than, ‘You’re right.’”

Borgstrom said he’s incredibly proud of the students for coming forward and that the most important thing he has learned in this name-change process is just how socially aware the younger generation is and that they recognize the role they can play in making changes.

The older generations, especially alumni from schools that use the mascots under scrutiny, have been harder to change.

This has been the case in Cooperstown as well. Borgstrom said that when there was heated debate over the mascot changing at a board meeting, the students stood their ground. The next board of education meeting is scheduled for March 6. That’s when the official vote on whether to keep or remove the Redskins mascot will take place.

“What we have been discussing here has been linked to the football team in Washington and I think it has put more pressure on them and the Cleveland baseball team…. If a few students coming forward in Cooperstown paves the way for change elsewhere, wouldn’t that be wonderful,” Borgstrom said. “The way this is going it’s not out of the realm of possibilities.”


But changing monikers is going to cost money. Money that some schools just don’t have. That’s why when the Oneida Indian Nation heard about the students in Cooperstown, it offered to pay for the school’s new uniforms once a new nickname is chosen. Borgstrom couldn’t give a definite cost for new uniforms, but estimated it will cost between $5,000 and $7,000 to make the change.ONEIDA_NATION_LOGO

“You have announced a standard that recognizes that mascots which are known to dehumanize and disrespect any race of mankind have no place in our schools, or our great country,” wrote Oneida Nation Representative and CEO Ray Halbritter in a letter to the Cooperstown students. “We understand that your courageous decision also comes with a financial consequence and, unfortunately, potential backlash from those who somehow claim that ethnic stereotyping is a victimless crime.”

By providing monetary help, the Oneida Nation has taken one worry off the school board’s plate.

“I think it’s a wonderful gesture on the part of the Oneida Nation. It speaks to the importance of it to them,” Borgstrom said.

This could mean there are other tribal nations out there willing to help other schools that want to take the plunge and get rid of their Native mascots or logos.

That’s why in an upcoming issue of This Week From Indian Country Today, there will be a call to action to establish a fund to help other schools. The idea is to make students feel empowered, not hampered when thinking about making the decision to leave behind dehumanizing terms like “redskins.” Offering donations will be a way to help students understand they have help with this journey and won’t have to take money away from other programs their schools offer.