Exalted in grade-school lore as the great coming together of Native peoples and Pilgrim settlers, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. It's the time when we as a nation gathered to appreciate and share what we have—food, fellowship, and football.
While we all revere Thanksgiving as one of our sacred founding myths, and like to believe our country was built on this kind of cooperation, the truth is the real modern symbol of our national origins is football; the field where our shared myths and ambitions are played out and watched by millions. Football, a game of gaining and holding property at all costs, is the quintessential American sport. And this Thanksgiving, when the Dallas Cowboys met the Washington Redskins in Arlington Stadium, each side fought to seize, defend, and win precious territory. These teams have met before. Since the founding of the new Republic back in 1776, the Cowboys and the Redskins have fought in thousands of scrimmages and scores of epic battles. We've all heard of the Apache and the Shawnee and the great quarterbacks, Geronimo and Tecumseh lining up against various U.S. teams. Over the decades, those Redskins lost down after down, and all of the important bowl games, two well-funded government franchises sitting on deep benches. With each season, instead of trophies and championship rings, the U.S. teams permanently gained yardage. The latest stats show they claimed 98 percent of the lands once held by Native peoples. And, instead of lucrative sponsorship deals, their talented agents negotiated more than 375 treaties that gave the winners political power over Native lands, rights, and resources. All sanctioned and codified by none other than the rules commission made up of U.S. presidents, legislators, and Supreme Court justices.
Given a record so chock full of defeat that even its best Native warriors wouldn't make the fantasy leagues, and at a time in history when most Americans have never even met a real Redskin, why is it that these losers are so glorified? So glorified, in fact, that more than 4600 professional, college, and high school teams have mascots associated with Indians. Since the first Europeans made landfall in North America, Native peoples have been assigned a variety of team names. The original Indigenous League had its own franchises, like the Iroquois, Nez Perce, and the Ute, but the new American Empire League quickly came to dominate, imposing new, fluid rules and assigning mascots more in keeping with their amped-up game of conquest. The earliest teams, the Original Natives, were strong and often victorious. They played on home fields under traditional league rules. Oddly enough, these were also the players who showed up at Thanksgiving, helping the pilgrims survive to compete. As immigrant populations swelled and competition for yardage became fiercer, the Original Natives hung on, using creative strategies and line defenses. Some even try joining the U.S. league, taking on the name the Five Civilized Tribes. But they were plagued by last-minute rule changes, unlucky coin tosses, and key injuries to prominent players. Just when all seemed lost, television came along in the 20th century to revamp the old standards and recruit players for the Wagon-Chasers and the Noble-Savages. Both mainly stuck to exhibition games, reenacting highlights from old Western league glory days. In the late 1960s, the Environmental Warriors came out of nowhere with surprisingly effective modern tactics. They scored an historic win when their quarterback wept about littering on the TV commercial. Although their dominance peaked in the 70s, to this day they retained a loyal fan base. More recent times have seen the addition of the Casino Millionaires. And that cross-generational, perennial crowd favorite, the Drunken Indians, remains in the lead. It is puzzling that, in spite of a couple of centuries of record losses, the old Indigenous League is possessed of such enduring strength and popularity. So much so that non-Native teams aspire to mimic them by taking on what they see as Native personas. That's how we got teams like the Atlanta Braves (no cowards in Indian Country) whose tribe of fans wields imaginary Tomahawks as no real Native ever did. Real Natives are still around, of course, and most U.S. ticket-holders are surprised to learn that they do not, as the Washington Redskins owner stubbornly maintains, have red skin. As the original nations, they retain rights to govern themselves, as well as exercising jurisdiction over their vastly shrunken territories. They also have the rights to hunt and fish on their former turf which was ceded to the U.S. over the course of all those bowl games. Those treaty deals were sometimes one-sided, but their ratification meant constitutional protections guaranteed for Native peoples for as long as the United States of America exists. While imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, Natives, themselves, are not impressed by the complement of Indian associated mascots. Instead, they find themselves undermined by images that flatten complex tribal, historical, and personal experiences. Those one-dimensional representations say nothing about real people and everything about collective U.S. winning-team fantasies. The NCAA has weighed in by forbidding hostile and abusive names and images. A growing number of schools are listening. Over the past 40 years, more than 600 high schools, colleges, and universities have retired their outdated mascots–The Arkansas State Indians became the Red Wolves and Ole Miss even traded in Colonel Reb for the Rebel Black Bear. Some schools, such as the University of Iowa, showed support by refusing to play teams holding onto their derogatory names. State and local governments are also becoming involved. According to Shelly McDonald of the State-Tribal Institute at the National Conference of State Legislatures, Wisconsin passed a law in 2010 creating a process to encourage the elimination of race-based school mascots. Legislatures in Colorado, Oklahoma, North Carolina, New Jersey, California, and North Dakota have also considered the issue. Movements promoting the introduction of legislation are underway in other states like Washington and Tennessee. School boards in Oregon, Nebraska, and Michigan have taken action by passing resolutions banning or discouraging these types of team associations. There is no arguing that the stereotypes impact how non-Indians regard real Native peoples; that they fail to capture the rich complexity of Native experience is likewise beyond argument. Interestingly, the break between fantasy and reality was observed by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who in a 2004 decision, remarked that, “federal Indian policy is, to say the least, schizophrenic" and went on to note, revealing himself as a fantasy leaguer, that tribal nations "are not part of this [U.S.] constitutional order and their sovereignty is not guaranteed by it." Thomas’s statements powerfully reflect the harsh reality that continues to confront Native nations who are only sometimes viewed as bonafide polities. This ambiguous situation is largely accepted because of the persistence of stereotypes and caricatures that place Native nations and their citizens– despite their treaties, constitutional recognition, and, at the individual level, their U.S. citizenship– in a fundamentally tenuous position relative to the U.S. and states. After all, how can the Tribal nations be real, how can treaties be meaningful, if all Native peoples are nothing more than funny/brave/noble/tragic cartoons? Just like Thanksgiving’s titanic football game, we could not predict who would win and lose in Native/Redskin and U.S./Cowboy relations, but until and unless the federal government, state lawmakers, and the American public let go of the fantasies and derogatory names, all the players—Native and non-Native– stand to lose. John F. Kennedy, in a speech at Yale in 1962 summarized the current predicament well: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” Let the games go on, but let’s be honest about the players, the history, and the stakes. Rename those teams whose demeaning monikers undermine shared American values like fairness and good sportsmanship; and make it impossible for real Natives to be respected players in modern society. There will be no celebratory coming together on any future Thanksgiving Day until all such myths and negative images are systematically and permanently dismantled. Because, in the end, what's the point? Are we hanging on to these names and images as a way to honor the heroic loser? Or the valiant warrior? Or is it really just the same impulse that compels us to name subdivisions after the very thing that was destroyed to make way for them—Fox Hollow. Maple Valley. Indian Summer Glenn. All dreams of what once was; a heritage sacked by manifest destiny Professor David E. Wilkins holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. His recent book publications include American Indian Politics and the American Political System, 3rd ed (co-authored with Heidi Stark) (2010), Documents of Native American Political Development: 1500s-1933 (2009), and On the Drafting of Tribal Constitutions (by Felix Cohen) (2006). Carter Meland teaches in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. His creative and critical work on Native literature and film has appeared in numerous books and journals.