By Denise Balkissoon
Today on Twitter, the Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner asked why sports teams named after aboriginal tribes/artifacts are problematic when the Minnesota Vikings et al. are not. I’ve been thinking about this ever since the Atlanta Braves announced the return of its “Screaming Savage” logo in December, so here's my answer.
The only team that I could think of that’s named after a symbol of privilege is the Ottawa Senators. So first off, why don’t we name teams after actual symbols of power, rather than just weird caricatures of power? The Toronto F.C. Derivatives! The Georgian Bay Docks! It's worth thinking about why some groups are allowed to be caricatured (like the Senate, am I right?) and some are not.
Team names are meant to be mythologizing. As such, they are kind of dumb (who else is still mad our NBA team is named after a Spielberg movie? BAH). Rooting for the Toronto Maple Leafs doesn’t mean being kinder to urban trees or considering the effect of climate change on maple syrup. Yes, this is a tangent (but no, I shouldn’t lighten up): my point is that team names aren’t connected to their namesake in any meaningful way.
This disconnect allows a group that is now privileged to mythologize its history. The Vikings are the ultimate example, because the history of Swedes in Minnesota is now celebrated. In the United States, the Vikings are 100% history. So go for it, wear a foam spiked helmet and consider yourself badass.
One name I’ve been mulling over is the Fighting Irish. There’s no good record of how the team was named in the late 19th century: various stories on Wikipedia say the name could be attributed to Irish school officials or alumni. If that’s the case, then the name falls into the “Vikings” category—it’s celebratory.
However, the original naming of the Fighting Irish could also have racialized and classist elements. Wikipedia also says the name might have been appropriated by Notre Dame after taunts by opposing teams. If that’s the case, I don’t think it’s impossible that ideas about working class roughness played a part in the Fighting Irish moniker. “Tenacity” is the word on Wikipedia; “likes to fight” is a stereotype we’ve all seen in movies and books.
Let’s assume these prejudicial beginnings are true: a century later, the Irish in the U.S. have access to every level of public life. I’d still like to know the real history of the Fighting Irish, but because overt prejudice against Irish-Americans is no longer a daily issue, I think the name can safely become part of sports mythology regardless of its origins. This applies to other names Gardner brought up (such as the Canadiens, or the Axemen) drawn from white-skinned ethnic groups who have overcome most of the prejudice against them. Then again, perhaps people have issues with some of these names. I wouldn’t blame them, and I wouldn’t be surprised.
Aboriginal people face extreme prejudice and marginalization right now. The disconnection of sports mythologies from their namesakes continues the age-old misappropriation and abuse of aboriginal culture and symbols, which is far from over (see: that stupid No Doubt video).
The Seminoles and the Indians and the Braves don't represent some poetic, mythologized history, but the racism against aboriginals that exists today. I don’t know if Irish people opposed the Notre Dame name 120 years ago, but I do know that many, many aboriginal people hate sports teams objectifying them in 2012: torrents of outrage led Atlanta to cancel its relaunch of the Screaming Savage logo, although no word yet on that idiotic tomahawk chop. The reason it's not cool is because the people whose culture you're using say it's not cool. Don’t show respect for aboriginal history by naming your team the Dream Catchers—respect it by listening to what aboriginals have to say today.