Caricatured and erased: Indigenous voices on racial slurs in sports team names

Indigenous students explain how these racially charged names have impacted them

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the people in this article are their own. They do not speak for their community.

On Sept. 6, Simon Fraser University (SFU) announced their new varsity team name, formerly using both Clansemen and Clan,  after a two-year consultation process, replacing the former names that carried racist connotations. They are just the latest in a long line of sports teams who are distancing themselves from their history.

“The university engaged in a renaming process to find a team name that reflects SFU’s values, inspires unity, and is a source of pride,” a media release by SFU stated, revealing the chosen name to be the “Red Leafs.” The university also “sought feedback on the name from nine Indigenous host nations” and consulted many of its student groups representing visible minorities.

Similarly in April 2019, McGill’s administration formed a Renaming Committee and changed the men’s teams’ name from the Redmen to the “Redbirds,” a symbol famously seen on their coat of arms.

The University’s goal was “to choose a name that could unite the entire University, and that was inclusive, respectful and representative not of one single group, but of everyone within the McGill community,” McGill said in a statement to The Concordian.

While SFU, McGill, and other professional teams like the Cleveland Guardians and the Washington Commanders have changed their names to exclude offensive language, other teams still using racially charged names continue to have immense negative effects on Indigenous communities.

During a First Peoples Studies class at Concordia on contemporary social issues taught by Professor Emily Coon, a few Indigenous students shared their thoughts on sports team names that contain racial slurs.

“It contributes to the erasure and makes people feel like Indigenous peoples aren’t current anymore,” said Iohserì:io Polson, an Anishinaabe and Kanien’keha:ka student.

“It fictionalizes Indigenous peoples and makes it seem like we’re not here, that we’re not real nor civilized people.”

Coon, who is herself Kanien’keha:ka, added “If you think of Indigenous youth, the only representation they see of themselves [in sports] is a savage and cartoony caricature. That’s not an accurate representation.”

Concerns over the normalization of slurs towards Indigenous peoples were also palpable in the room.

“Growing up, I’ve had a lot of these terms used on me. Like the RedSkins, I’ve been called that. It just normalizes the terms as an okay thing to say. It makes people used to hearing these terms and saying these terms,” said Polson.

“It’s like with the Kansas City Chiefs and the ‘tomahawk chop,’” added Coon. “Then, all these fans engage in this super racist gesture. You’re normalizing these things that they shouldn’t be doing.” 

Considering the fact that sports have always played an instrumental role in the history of Indigenous cultures, some Indigenous people feel ostracized from something that is intimately theirs.

“Sports have been something for our communities that’s helped us cope physically, to stay strong,” said Emilio Wawatie, an Anishinaabe student, referring to the historic exclusion of Indigenous peoples from sports they created, such as Lacrosse.

Wawatie continued talking about his personal experience playing hockey, and the racism he endured which eventually made him quit the game he loved. He recalls being taunted and called slurs on and off the ice. He said his long hair also became a target for racist comments.

“It’s almost as if Indigenous peoples are divorced from sports, as if those weren’t built into our creation stories and into our everyday livelihoods,” said Coon. “We’ve always had sports but now it’s being appropriated and racialized.”

Changing a team name is the first step. However, it should be accompanied by concrete actions, like increased accessibility to sports for Indigenous youth. Furthermore, acknowledging the systemic racism that creates obstacles for Indigenous peoples when participating in sports is what Indigenous peoples want to see, on top of these much-needed name changes.

“This is where solidarity has to come in,” Coon added “This is not an Indigenous issue, this has been created through a settler-colonial system.”

Speaking of pathways for solutions, she concluded with the following: “We can point you in the right direction, we can speak up and make space for our voices to be heard, but that labour has to be picked up by white settler allies.”

Graphic by Carleen Loney

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