In the 1930s, the good burghers of Pekin, Illinois, decided on a mascot for their high school sports teams. Pekin sounded like “Peking,” so they chose a related nickname: the Chinks. Offensive? How is it worse than the Redskin, the feather-clad mascot of the Washington, D.C., pro football franchise that lost to the Eagles last night?
In the 1930s, the good burghers of Pekin, Illinois, decided they needed a mascot for their high school sports teams. Pekin sounded like “Peking,” in China, so they gave their teams a related nickname: the Chinks. At the start of every basketball game, a Chink and Chinklet — that is, a boy and girl dressed in “Chinese” attire — would walk into the center of the court and bow.
If that sounds offensive, I’ve got a question for you: How is it worse than the Redskin, the feather-clad mascot of the Washington, D.C., pro football franchise that lost to the Eagles last night?
It isn’t. The only difference is that the Redskin purports to be Indian, not Chinese. And unlike any other ethnic group, Native Americans remain fair game for bigotry on game day.
The longstanding controversy over the Redskins’ nickname flared again earlier this year, when Washington Mayor Vincent C. Gray suggested that the name would have to be reconsidered if the team wished to move into the District from its current home in suburban Maryland.
The Redskins’ response was simple: Forget about it. “We’ll never change the name,” owner Daniel Snyder said. “NEVER — you can use caps.”
On its website, meanwhile, the team posted a list of 70 high schools in 25 states that still use the Redskin mascot. The list includes two schools in Pennsylvania — Neshaminy High School in Langhorne and Sayre High School, in the center of the state — plus one in Delaware: Wilmington’s Conrad Science High School.
But all that proved is that Native American mascots have staying power, which we knew already. The real question is why, and what it says about the rest of us.
Recapturing that warlike spirit
Most Indian mascots date to the early 20th century, when white Americans worried that modern industrial life was eroding traditional masculine virtues: strength, stoicism, and aggression. So college and professional sports teams named themselves after Native Americans, who seemed to embody precisely the qualities that white men had forsaken.
At the same time, though, the mascots confirmed whites’ essential superiority. With their headdresses and beads, their tomahawks and war whoops, the Indian mascots were throwbacks to another time and place. And white people had outpaced them.
Consider Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois mascot, who made his first appearance at a 1926 football game with the University of Pennsylvania. A white guy dressed in feathers, Chief Illiniwek performed an “Indian” dance and then shared a peace pipe with a drum major playing William Penn, the opponents’ mascot.
But Illiniwek was a warrior at heart. The second man to play him traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where he bought new regalia for the chief from “an old Indian woman” who had allegedly helped mutilate Custer after the battle of Little Bighorn.
“It was appropriate that Chief Illiniwek, the embodiment of the Red Men who had vanished before the overwhelming waves of White Men, should return to the land of their fathers,” a University of Illinois booster wrote in 1952. “It was proper and pleasing that the Chief should strut his stuff and perform his ancient ritualistic dances … before the packed Stadium of contemporary palefaces.”
There was only one problem: Chief Illiniwek never existed. Nor did Florida State’s Chief Fullabull, or Marquette’s Willie Wampum. They were figments of the white imagination, bearing no connection or resemblance to actual Indians.
Signs of rethinking team names
That’s why Native Americans in the 1960s and 1970s protested Indian mascots. Since then, about 1,500 institutions — including Stanford, Dartmouth, St. John’s, and Miami — have altered or dropped their Native American team names and mascots. Marquette’s Willie Wampum was replaced by the Golden Eagle, and the University of Illinois retired Chief Illiniwek. And two states, Wisconsin and Oregon, have barred high schools from using Indian mascots.
But in the professional sports world, the mascots are still going strong. Fans of the Atlanta Braves continue to do the “tomahawk chop,” even after Jane Fonda — the owner’s wife at the time — pledged to give it up. (News cameras showed her doing it several nights later.) The Cleveland Indians retain their hideous cartoon logo, Chief Wahoo. The Chicago Blackhawks wear a profile of a Native American on their jerseys.
And the nation’s capital is still home to the Redskins, the most offensive mascot of all. The term dates to the colonial era, when bounties were offered for killing Native Americans. Bounty hunters presented bloody red skins and scalps as evidence of an Indian kill.
But don’t tell that to the owners of Washington’s football team or to their rabid fans, many of whom have vowed to stand by their mascot. So did many people in Pekin, Illinois, where students staged a walkout in 1980 to protest the replacement of the Chink with a new symbol: the Dragon.
“Pekin Chinks, Dragon Stinks,” one protester’s sign read. “Chinks is Tradition,” said another. But it was a hateful tradition, just like Indian mascots, manufactured by whites to caracature others. We made the Redskin, so we can un-make him as well. Let’s hope we find the courage to do so.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).