Late November, Luis Aguiar’s Sociology of Sport class received a guest lecture from Dr. Rich King, author of Redskins, a novel discussing racist sports team names. As the Opinions writer, I had the opportunity to attend the lecture and discuss with the class afterwards. The class, inspired by Dr. King’s work, wrote a letter calling for the Kelowna Chiefs, a local hockey team to change their name, citing racist connotations and historical meanings behind the name. The letter, sent to local media outlets, has been published by The Phoenix News.

Students take notes at guest lecture from Dr. Rich King
Students take notes at guest lecture from Dr. Rich King

Racist sports team names have been received with interest in the media. There have been campaigns against them as well as vehement arguments for keeping names such as the Redskins, the Indians, and the Blackhawks. Recently, the Chicago Indians chose to eliminate their mascot, “Chief Wahoo”, stating that by 2019, the team will no longer use the logo. This has sparked positive and negative responses, as well as people questioning whether dropping the logo is enough of a statement.

Ultimately, the issue behind names such as those mentioned above is their caricaturing of Indigenous peoples and culture. As one student mentioned, the usage of such names takes an aspect of a culture with a rich history, and boils it down to one comedic stereotype. This is certainly the case with Chief Wahoo, or names like Chief. It can not be argued that these team names come with a negative connotation towards Indigenous peoples.

There’s a much deeper, and more nuanced culture at play, however. First, sports are very clearly a method of entertainment and escape. Oftentimes when there is an attempt at politicization of certain aspects of sports, a huge uprising occurs. This can be seen with Colin Kaepernick, with racist names, with criticism of the pay disparity between men and women, and so on.

Despite that, the names of sports teams are inherently political, stemming from a culture that associates savagery with Indigenous peoples, and still continues an arguable cultural genocide against its Indigenous population (I’m talking about America).

The names don’t honor Indigenous people; they reduce them to a stereotype that almost resulted in their extermination upon European invasion into their land.

There’s also the interconnection between the aggressiveness or violence of sports, and the war waged on Indigenous nations during colonization. America had a particularly brutal method of mass extermination resulting in genocide, and this is mirrored in the usage of Indigenous names for violent sports – a micro issue representing a macro issue.

A perfect example of this is the ongoing rivalry between the Cowboys and the Redskins. As mentioned by a student in the class, the rivalry can’t be a coincidence. It remains that the genocide and ongoing discrimination faced by Indigenous Americans isn’t a sport.

Students partake in discussion at guest lecture from Dr. Rich King
Students partake in discussion at guest lecture from Dr. Rich King

Ultimately, racist sports team names speak to a larger issue of respect and identity. It’s not up to white Americans, or Canadians to define Indigenous identity, nor to essentialize them to basic stereotypes. It is up to us to recognize our history, and our ongoing mistreatment of Indigenous communities, and thus to use our voices as allies to ensure that these caricatures are no longer used to represent teams.

Luis Aguiar’s sociology class, although composed of mostly non-Indigenous individuals, is taking the first step to starting a larger conversation about our relationship with local Indigenous nations. The class has realized their ability to be heard as a collective of university students (and indeed, they’ve already been contacted by radio stations for interviews), and have attempted to be allies to the local Indigenous population. Although there is questionable aspects to a non-Indigenous group speaking on an Indigenous issue (which can come across as paternal and silencing), the class’s hope is for the larger conversation to include local Indigenous groups.

The next step is the conversation, which will hopefully include Indigenous peoples from Kelowna and nearby, as this is an issue that directly affects them. The first step is done; now it’s up to the wider community to engage with our own racist team name.