Thursday, November 29, 2007

Indians, Racism and Sports

That's a picture of Charles Bender on the left and Louis Sockalexis on the right. Both of them were Native American ballplayers who played in the major leagues between 1897 and 1915. In the 1890s and early 1900s there were a lot of Indian athletes in college and professional sports. They endured intense racial abuse, most of them were nicknamed "Chief" as in Chief Bender, Chief Meyers and Chief Sockalexis, but unlike blacks, they weren't explicitly banned from the games.

Charlie Bender was an Anishinaabe born and raised in the Brainerd area. He was an outstanding pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, helping them win three World series before World War I. Before Dave Winfield in 2001 and Paul Molitor in 2004 were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Bender was the only native born Minnesotan in the Hall of Fame.

Louis Sockalexis had a much shorter major league career. He was born in Maine, a member of the Penobscot tribe there. Sockalexis was a good-hitting, mediocre outfielder who played three years (1897-99) for the Cleveland team, then known as the "Spiders".

Most Indian athletes blend in easily with the multi-ethnic sports scene today. Twenty-two year old Winnebago, Joba Chamberlain (below), made a big splash as a rookie pitcher with the Yankees this summer. But look closely at the pictures of Charles Bender, Louis Sockalexis, and Joba Chamberlain and consider the dominant images of Indians in sports today: the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins.

For seventy years the professional football team in Washington, D.C. has been called the Redskins. I'm amazed this "mascot" identity has lasted that long. There are positive and even noble meanings associated with "Braves" and "Warriors". I've never heard the word "redskin" spoken in way that didn't imply a prejudice toward Indian people. It's a racial slur. As we followed the tragic story about the Washington pro football player who was shot and killed last Monday, I was reminded how comfortable most sports reporters are using the nickname. A "White, Brown or Black-skins" mascot sounds absurd and no doubt would offend a lot of people. Most ethnic slurs common before 1960 would offend today. So why is "redskins" still OK? Certainly it's not OK with a lot of Indian people. The Indian population is relatively small and widely dispersed around rural America. Perhaps offending Indian people isn't bad for business or politics.

Another take on the same subject: When I was growing up in Missouri in the 1950s, the image white America wanted me to have of African Americans was that of a bright-eyed, big-smiling happy people content with their lives of second class status. That image was shattered in the 1960s, but when I recently saw the Cleveland Indians logo on their caps and publicity material, it was the same happy, buck-toothed image in red face instead of black.

We give lipservice to respect and tolerance, but commercial and political consequences are still the most powerful agents of change, and I guess Native Americans don't have enogh clout in either of those spheres. Are sports reporters as naive and clueless as many of the young athletes they cover? Or do many of them feel the same commercial and/or social and political pressure to not make waves about such flagrant symbols of racism in sports?

1 comment: said...

This is a topic that should be discussed on the radio - on the Sports Page or another venue. It's an important issue b/c it's not just about sports - it reflects the culture at large.