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  • Writer's pictureCarimah Townes

Q&A: The Fight To Change Racist Team Names & Mascots

(Originally published on November 3, 2022)

(Credit: Fibonacci Blue)

Advocate Mary Phillips has been fighting against racist team names and mascots for more than two decades. For Native American Heritage Month, the Washington D.C. resident spoke to us about what it takes to change a name based on her experiences as a fan and organizer.

The Inclusion Playbook: How long have you been involved in this movement?

Mary Phillips: I got involved with the movement around 2000, when a coworker introduced me to a local group in the San Francisco/Bay Area challenging a school that had been using a Native American mascot. The protest was during a school board meeting and they were determining if they were going to change the name. The opposing parents that wanted to keep the name were absolutely mortified that any Native person would think that having tomahawks and headdresses were bad for Native American identity. How upset they got at the protest was what really shocked me. The anger, their vitriol of Native people speaking to an all-white crowd saying “This is a racial slur,” or “This is a mascot for entertainment, not something symbolic to Native Americans’ way of life.” They were so angered and would yell out racial slurs at the Native people present. They [couldn’t] grasp that Native Americans are actually people and not these non-Native identified mascots for them to use and cheer at ball games.

IP: Why do these team names and mascots matter?

(Credit: Fibonacci Blue)

MP: The bottom line is that if we can’t be seen as intelligent, contributing members of society, as equals, then there’s no way we can continue to get rights and to be heard in the most important places. Like here in Washington, D.C.— in Congress.

If that’s where we are in society, solely being represented in the mainstream as a mascot, then how can we expect to achieve anything else in this country as equals, as citizens who can help determine things like elections or our own sovereignty as tribal nations? We’ll never be able to compete if the person across the table doesn’t see you as anything more than a “woo woo Indian” who rides on horses. That’s what this fight is all about: just being seen as someone with authority or someone with knowledge [who] can self-identify.

IP: As a Native woman, has this issue impacted you personally?

MP: My grade school was the Washington Warriors. Our mascot was a Native with a headdress on. They had an artist come and paint a huge mural in the gym that stood about 12 feet tall and had two Native American warriors from the Christopher Columbus “discovery”. They painted their heads partially red and they had feathers coming out. I had to walk by that every day, and every day during lunch someone would make fun of me. They would see me next to the mural and give me the “woo woo woo” or call me names. That gave me the understanding for the kids now who have to deal with this in schools.They definitely do feel that impact for a lifetime.

IP: What’s needed for a “Change the Name” campaign to be successful?

MP: If you're going to challenge something, having that support of community leaders who can help you gain expanded trust is always good. Because Native communities are small in urban areas, it’s often hard to find that support. We have to find allies, and they have come to our support many times—churches and other groups like the Black Lives Matter Movement. That’s something that can help build your community: creating this coalition of people who understand the issue but also come to you and ask you questions to get a better understanding, versus people who come to an issue and try to speak for you.

As an organization, the issue is also about education. As Natives, we’re always educators. That goes back to storytelling. In the current day, we are able to share stories online and through other means. As an organization or group trying to get the word out, [we make sure] that we self-identify and say for ourselves who we want to be and how we want to be in society.

IP: In your experience, what is difficult about organizing?

(Credit: Fibonacci Blue)

MP: The hardest part is speaking to fans. Fans have been inculcated in a way that runs deep in their families or everyday associations. Here in D.C. with the name, there was no getting outside of that bubble where the [the old team name] stands and nobody can question it. That was the challenge: trying to speak to people who were so hardened to believe that they could speak about something they really knew nothing about. If you’re a fan of a team, you have coded in your mind that you must prevail as a spokesperson for that team.

IP: What do you say to fans or critics who are deeply tied to a specific team and worry that the spirit of the team will be lost if a name or tradition is changed?

(Credit: Fibonacci Blue)

MP: We have to be mindful of where they’re coming from. I’m a fan of football. I’m from Nebraska; my whole life I've been rooting for the Cornhuskers. I know what it’s like to wear a jersey and be there for every game. If we take into account that that’s just what they want to be—a supporter versus someone who is racist and wants to fight you—that helps to try to create a connection.

IP: Are there any stories that you’re following closely?

MP: There are these smaller groups in all these high schools and grade schools who have been taking this on. Being in a local community can be harder. It’s more of a challenge because they have to face the people who are shouting the racial slurs; they have to live amongst the people who are angry. And you’re facing people who are in charge of school boards [that] can be very vicious if you have children. Things happen in small communities and counties. This is a widespread issue. It’s not just the national teams or professional teams. It’s the smaller schools.

IP: And what about stories at the national level?

(Credit: Fibonacci Blue)

MP: The team that I’m trying to watch closer is the Kansas City Football Team and the group that’s doing the work out there has been getting a lot more attention since the change in the name in D.C. The owner is almost like a Dan Snyder; he’s just never said the word “NEVER” in all caps. They’ve been fighting for a long time. Amanda Blackhorse started a group there. That’s a team that I think needs to look out beyond their stadium and see that this world has changed and we're no longer gonna stand for it. Now we have the understanding from a lot more groups and people who would sign on to petitions. It’s clear that we don’t have to put up with fussy owners making a stand and having temper tantrums about the name.

IP: Do you feel optimistic about the future of this movement?

MP: Yes, I do. I think there was a culture change, a society shift. Now we have something to reference, with the Washington Football Team changing the name. I think the line has been etched in stone that Native people can be represented in a positive way and it has nothing to do with mascoting them. It still befuddles me that teams that still have the R-word as their mascot or moniker don’t look to see everything it took for us to change the team name.

The movement is in a safer place because we have all these resources now. We can turn to facts and figures and more research on Native American mascoting. It’s irrefutable on the impact it has on the self-esteem of Native children in society, in their schools and community. The movement is hopefully going to get over these obstacles—the ignorance, the racism. [We] can take all of this and make change happen at a faster rate than what we’ve been able to do in the past. I give credit to our leaders of the movement, like Suzan Harjo, Amanda Blackhorse, Rhonda LeValdo, and many other people who have been fighting Native mascoting for decades.

Mary Phillips is a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, as well as an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe in New Mexico. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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