Recent protests over the name “Redskins” for the Washington football team reflect a larger objection — that athletic organizations and others who use Indian imagery “degrade,” “insult,” and “stereotype” Native Americans and their culture.

Many schools are being pressured to drop team names such as Indians, Chiefs and Warriors with their attendant symbols of braves, tomahawks, feathers, etc., as well as their “mascots” in Indian dress. Professional sports teams such as the Cleveland Indians have also been apprised of their “offensiveness” and “insensitivity,” along with Atlanta Braves fans who have been condemned for their feathers, war paint, tomahawk chop and Indian-like chant.

Surely no reasonable person on either side can believe that Indian imagery has been adopted in most such cases with the intention of degrading or insulting anyone. Team images are used for just the opposite reason — to inspire emulation of all the desirable qualities associated with the images. This is obvious in less-charged examples of team imageries like the Vikings, Patriots, Padres, Lions, Tigers and Saints.

Non-Indians seek to emulate the strength, determination and spirit associated with “braves” and the like. The occasional counterexamples of having Indian teams called the “Virgins,” or Indians waving rosaries in the air, have no similar purpose. In fact, the inspiration for these counterexamples is precisely that ill will for which the protesters wrongly accuse non-Indians.

Moreover, it is somewhat mystifying that a few spokesmen for the Native American community appear to have missed the pattern wherein individuals or groups take the name of something they value and wish to emulate. Doing so is common in the history of Native Americans themselves. Non-Indians use imagery for exactly the same reasons Indians use animal imagery for given names. Are the spirits of bears, eagles, elk or buffalo dishonored or belittled and degraded by Native American names? Of course not.

In the same way, American Indian imagery is not intended negatively, nor received that way, in our coinage, with its buffalo nickel’s obverse side showing an Indian head that the Redskins logo has clearly copied, or the Indian Head penny that was in circulation for 50 years. More recently we have the Sacagawea dollar coin.

It is interesting to hear some refer to the field representative of the image as a “mascot” with the clear implication that there is something wrong with being a mascot. In general usage as well as in the dictionary, “mascot” carries only the sense of something desirable, something to be cherished, to be held in affection. If the beholder sees the representation and enthusiasm of the mascot as undesirable, that is more a measure of the beholder’s failure to understand than a measure of reality. And once again, one may ask: Is Indian mimicry of wolves, eagles, bears, buffalo, etc., essentially any different? Each is honorable.

Our national heritage embraces, absorbs and celebrates many cultures, from Native American to African-American to Irish to German to Vietnamese to Mexican and more. The prominent Native American contribution is seen through sports teams, coinage, postage stamps and even the names of states from Massachusetts to Ohio to Utah, and of innumerable cities and landmarks.

Whatever success America has had with cultural diversity can be attributed at least in part to our tolerance of each other. Of course, we shouldn’t tolerate gross violations of human rights. But there is a real need to lighten up.

A shrug and a little flexibility would surely ease social intercourse. Tolerance is the way we all get through the endless irritations of life and constructively interact with those around us.

 

Louis Lavoie, of Plymouth, is a retired physicist and writer.