For decades, certain sports teams – professional, college and high school – have resisted changing their nicknames and branding from Native American terms and imagery.
But with th
e recent climate of change sweeping the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the resulting national protests against racism, a couple of the more prominent – and historically most resistant – professional teams have been pressured by activists and investors to reevaluate the situation.
Locally, Eastern Washington is home to several Native American tribes and Spokane’s two professional teams – the Spokane Indians and Spokane Chiefs – as well as several high schools in the area, use Native American terms and imagery for branding.
“The Spokane Indians Baseball Club is committed to honoring the Spokane Tribe of Indians and Native American culture in the Inland Northwest,” the team said in a statement on Saturday. “We stand together with our friends in the Native American community and will continue to work, listen and be partners against all racial injustice.”
“We have not heard calls from local tribal leaders to change our name, but would certainly consider a name change if requested,” the Chiefs said in a statement. “The Spokane Chiefs stand together with our friends in the Native American community.”
Mark Rypien, a three-sport star at Shadle Park who played at Washington State and earned a Super Bowl MVP, played for the NFL’s Washington Redskins for eight years.
“I saw the article that they’re gonna do their due diligence, the organization, to talk with individuals and leaders to see what the best resolve would be,” Rypien said on Saturday. “I think that’s fair and I think that’s right in this day and time.”
The controversy and history
Early in the day on Friday, the Redskins issued a press release under pressure from investors, saying it began a “thorough review” of its name, a significant step toward moving on from what experts and advocates call a “dictionary-defined racial slur.”
Recently, Washington, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser said the name was an “obstacle” to the team building a stadium in the District, something that owner Dan Snyder has long coveted. The team in late June removed racist founder George Preston Marshall from its Ring of Fame and removed a monument of Marshall from the RFK Stadium site following the Black Lives Matter protests.
Later on Friday, Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians organization made a similar announcement, stating it would be “engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.”
The Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos organization issued a statement Friday evening saying it would “ramp up our ongoing engagement with the Inuit communities,” but keep its nickname following “an extensive yearlong formal research and engagement program with Inuit leaders and community members across Canada.”
Social and economic pressure
Now, social pressure has led investors to consider withdrawing support to those franchises unless a change is made.
Last week, three letters signed by 87 investment firms and shareholders worth a collective $620 billion asked Nike, FedEx, and PepsiCo to end their business relationships with Washington’s NFL team until it changes its name.
Over the past two days, all three of those companies – along with team sponsor Bank of America – have publicly asked Snyder to consider changing the team name.
FedEx CEO Frederik Smith is a minority owner of the team, and the company paid $205 million in 1999 for the naming rights to the football stadium. Nike has pulled all of the organization’s gear from its website.
In 2018, in a mutual decision, the MLB and Cleveland Indians removed the “Chief Wahoo” mascot from the team’s uniforms after years of protest from organizations. At the time, commissioner Rob Manfred said, “… the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball.”
Reaction from local pro teams
The Spokane Indians and Spokane Chiefs are both owned by Brett Sports and have had a long-standing relationship with Native American groups in the area.
“In 2006, when the team was embarking on a logo rebrand, our first meeting was with the team’s namesake, the Spokane Tribe of Indians,” the baseball club said in its statement on Saturday. “In that conversation everything was on the table, including a name change. Through a collaborative process between the team and the Spokane Tribe, the result of that rebrand was a first-in-the-nation partnership that created a team logo and brand specifically designed to symbolize respect and to honor the history and language of the Spokane Tribe.
“The team, in fact, has two logos, one in English and one in Salish, the language of the Spokane Tribe. Extensive efforts have been made at the stadium and through team activities to highlight tribal culture and heritage, including the Salish language on all team uniforms and throughout the stadium.”
“The Spokane Chiefs Hockey Club is committed to honoring Native American culture of the Inland Northwest,” the team’s release stated.
“We are proud to have partnered with local tribes in a variety of past events to highlight tribal heritage in an appropriate, respectful manner. Our team has been proactive in excluding any Native American mascots, chants or characterizations at our events.
“We have received positive, influential feedback from local tribal leaders regarding our representation of Native American culture and will continue to be receptive to any feedback or concern. We will always listen to our community.”
Super Bowl star’s thoughts
Rypien thinks calm heads need to look at the big picture.
“I think now what we really need to do is look to the Native American leaders,” he said. “We don’t need leaders, or people protesters as such, that have nothing in the game, you know, except they use one protest to protest.”
Rypien acknowledged that the discussion needs to take place, but was mindful of what the organization meant to him and his teammates.
“I don’t know what the answer is yet,” he added. “But myself, or all the other players that played for the Redskins organization, we depicted strength, courage, pride, when we wore that uniform, and it never, ever was meant in any derogatory way in any way, shape or form.
“So, I think it’s very imperative that we leave these (discussions) to the Native American community and the leaders of the Native American community that would have more understanding, and more feedback from their community than any of us would. And I think that’s fair. And it’s probably the only way that it needs to be done.”
Rypien researched the nickname and imagery upon signing with the team.
“It’s difficult for me because I learned my history of the Redskins logo,” Rypien said.
Walter Wetzel, a former Blackfeet tribal chairman and National Congress American Indian President, urged the team in 1971 to change their logo from the burgundy and gold “R” to the image it still has today, based upon an image depicted of John “Two Guns” Whitecalf, a Blackfeet Chief whose likeness also appeared on the Buffalo nickel, minted from 1913-38.
“I think it was all done with their blessing and understanding that it was something they thought would be a pride, something that they could have say as a Native American nation that a professional football team could carry their logo and the pride of the native community,” Rypien said.
Rypien sympathizes with generations of fans of the team that fear losing a link to its past glories.
“Well, it’s like my grade school. It went from the Westview Warriors, we had to change it to the Wildcats,” he said.
“There is some initial steam that’ll come from it just because you represented the logo, the brand, the organization with the utmost respect and dignity as we possibly could.”
With major investors threatening to pull out, Rypien understands the writing is on the wall.
“Inevitably, it’s probably going to happen, but let’s talk to the people that really are the ones (involved), and the Native American leaders and community and get their input, before we do anything hasty, hesitant to take away a history of an organization that I so well represented for the years that I was there.”