By Sam Aden
When the Atlanta Braves take the field to start the 2013 season, they will not wear the “screaming Indian” logo on their caps as they had once planned. The team had announced it was going to resurrect the Indian logo first used during its days in Milwaukee for batting practice caps but dropped the idea in February after public criticism that the logo is racist.
The illustration was of an imaginary Indian who exists only in legend — a caricature with war paint on his face, a feather tucked into the back of his hair and his head tilted back to maximize the force behind the primal battle cry he was to emit. Not surprisingly, many objected to the Braves’ decision to drop the illustration, accusing those who opposed it of being too concerned with political correctness and blind to other teams that use ethnic caricatures with no controversy, such as the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings.
What they don’t understand is that neither cowboys nor Vikings nor any other team mascot were ever the target of genocide, government persecution or race-based debasement. Nor have cowboys, Vikings or any other mascot-related group been demonized as uncivilized savages.
It’s no surprise that so many are unable to appreciate the difference because in so many schools for so many years, what little was taught of the history between white Europeans/Americans and American Indians was nothing more than a fairy tale. Rather than learn about the ways in which indigenous people in this country have been victimized by violence and rape, robbed of their homelands, devastated by disease and penned up on reservations, schoolchildren learned about a shared meal one autumn in Massachusetts where everyone — red and white alike — had the best of times. That false account of our country’s history is precisely what makes it possible for people to so wrongly perceive criticism of the “Screaming Indian” logo as hypersensitive and race-obsessed.
The “Screaming Indian” is just one example of a caricature that prevents people from recognizing that American Indians are real people who are living and breathing today in the United States. Many see American Indians as the “Screaming Indian,” savage warriors frozen in time centuries ago; or lazy drunkards who sit around all day and leech off the government; or the ultrarich casino-operators who get wholly undeserved privileged treatment from the government. All are equally damaging and equally untrue.
That each of those stereotypes is so pervasive helps to explain why so many people are unoffended by the “Screaming Indian.”
The drunkard and casino tycoon stereotypes in particular are not only offensive, but they drive a wedge between American Indians and the rest of society, placing native people on the outside looking in. Rather than being a part of society, native people are a peripheral who are only noticed when they anger or disgust non-Indians. And that separation is another huge reason that things like the “Screaming Indian” are viewed as harmless and inoffensive.
That the Atlanta Braves nearly adopted a logo that ignores the history of subjugation that native people have endured and ignores the fact that real American Indian people continue to live in the United States is unfortunate.
What is equally troubling, though, is that government, media, pop culture and even many schools all help to perpetuate the ignorance that not only makes sports teams think logos like the “Screaming Indian” are acceptable but also causes fans to become outraged when others accurately point out the fact that caricatures of American Indians are insensitive and racist.
Sam Aden is a law student at the University of Iowa College of Law. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org