Pro baseball player

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Time for a Change?

Two popular pro sports teams recently changed their names. Many people say it’s about time.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the November 8, 2021, issue of Scholastic News Edition 5/6. 

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Protesters helped convince the Cleveland Indians to change their name.

For more than 100 years, the professional baseball team in Cleveland, Ohio, was called the Indians. But that is no longer the case. The team changed its name to the Guardians in November 2021.

Cleveland isn’t the only major sports team making a switch. Beginning in 2020, the National Football League team in Washington, D.C., said it was changing its name from the Redskins. They are now called the Washington Commanders.

These name changes are part of a trend that has also included teams from colleges, high schools, and elementary schools. More than 40 schools across the country have replaced their Native-themed team names and mascots in recent years.

Teams and schools often defend these names, saying they honor Indigenous people. But for decades, protesters have argued that they are harmful to Native communities.

“Sports teams are supposed to inspire,” says journalist Vincent Schilling, who is Akwesasne (ah-kwuh-SAHS-nee) Mohawk. “But these teams ignore the suffering of Native people even though they have been told over and over the pain the names cause.”

Unfair and Untrue

Indians, Braves, and Chiefs are the most common Native-themed team names. Schilling and countless others argue that these names wrongly give the impression that the hundreds of unique Native nations are just one group and that all Native people are alike.

“It’s like saying all Americans look like Uncle Sam and wear red, white, and blue stripes,” says Schilling.

Other names, experts say, are even more offensive. For example, “redskins” is considered a racist insult against Native people. 

Patrick Green/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images (old helmet); Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images (new helmet)

Washington’s football team got rid of its offensive logo.

Stop the Chop

Critics say Native team names are only part of the problem. Team mascots and logos often show characters wearing war paint or carrying weapons. Native people say these symbols promote a negative stereotype by making them seem violent.

The way that fans dress and behave can also be disrespectful. One of the most controversial traditions is the tomahawk chop. Fans of teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves wave their arms back and forth in a chopping motion while chanting what might sound like a Native song. It’s not, Schilling explains.

“This action has never been done by a Native American nation,” he says. “My ancestors were forced to not speak their own language. A crowd of thousands singing a fake song is more painful than you can imagine.”

What Comes Next?

As some pro sports teams make name changes, many people are calling for others to change too. More than 1,900 teams across the U.S.—from pro leagues to elementary schools—still have Native names.

Leah Salgado, from the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, is the deputy director of IllumiNative. The group works to make sure all Native people are accurately represented. 

“It’s good that some names are changing, but all should be gone,” Salgado says. “We all want to be treated with respect.”