It’s a question that has been asked for 50 years – again and again.
“Why do these people continue to make a mockery of our culture?”
The question in 1970 was posed by Dennis Banks in reference to the use of Native American heritage being used for names and mascots for American sports teams. Banks was a Native American activist and a longtime leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
Banks devoted much of his life and attention to campaigning for the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins to change its name.
He died in 2017, aged 80, with the team’s name still intact.
The year 2020 put the issue of race front and center of political and societal debate.
The killing of George Floyd also forced many sport teams that utilize Native American heritage to review that association – be it their name or logo.
Washington has changed its logo and is now known as the Washington Football Team. Additionally, the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL, the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves in the MLB, and the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL have all looked inwards and made changes.
Changes also came in Canada. In July, the Edmonton Eskimos football team announced that the team would retire the “Eskimos” name.
The Inuit – Indigenous People of the Canadian Arctic – often take offense at the term “Eskimo.”
“While many fans are deeply committed to keeping the name, others are increasingly uncomfortable with the moniker,” said the club in an official statement.
The club said it had engaged with Inuit communities in recent years to discuss the name and felt now the time was right to change it.
The team has retained its recognizable “EE” logo, but is yet to choose a new name. For the moment, the club is called the Edmonton Football Team or the EE Football Team.
But across the rest of the world, notably in Latin America, there’s arguably been less willingness to engage with the idea of what these associations potentially mean for Indigenous communities.
In Latin America, it isn’t just the sporting world turning its back on Indigenous communities. According to a study prepared for the UN, poverty rates, morbidity rates and infant mortality rates are all higher among Indigenous people in Latin American than the non-Indigenous.
For Native Americans, the use – and abuse – of their images, likenesses and culture in sports is a contemporary form of the marginalization they have historically experienced.
The director of First Peoples Worldwide Carla Fredericks told CNN that a lot of the offense caused is due to false representation and outright racism.
“Of course, in the US, Native Americans have endured a really brutal history of colonization, marginalization, and so on,” she says.
“And one of the kind of end results about that is that Americans really don’t have a good grip on who contemporary Native American people are and so the only representative of us is the representation that we see in sport – for many people.
“And obviously that’s troubling because that’s a caricatured representation and not an accurate representation of living, breathing cultures.”
The use of indigenous culture in sport is, therefore, an act that reminds Native Americans of their historic oppression at the hands of colonizers.
There is also evidence to suggest that caricaturing Indigenous culture in sports causes depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse and even suicide among Native American youth.
Fredericks adds that “the notion of consent and stakeholder engagement” – or lack thereof – is central to the issue too.
She says consent is key when considering the acceptability of the use of Indigenous Peoples’ culture, pointing to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“I think the right approach at this point in time is really to seek counsel from those communities and ask them, you know, ‘Where do you stand on this? Is this something that you appreciate? Is it something that is harmful to you?’”
The issue has long been the focal point of media and activist attention in the US, particularly over professional sports franchises. But it is not a uniquely American issue, and it is not a social phenomenon that affects just Native Americans. It is a global problem, and one that affects Indigenous people around the world.
The story beyond North America
The Exeter Chiefs rugby union team in the UK, the KAA Gent soccer team in Belgium and the Kaizer Chiefs soccer team in South Africa all use a Native American man in headdress as their logos.
While teams in the US are reviewing and removing similar logos and names, these teams have each chosen to keep their logo. This is in spite of public pressure in some cases.
A recent petition, launched by an Exeter fan named Ash Green, asked the Exeter Chiefs to change its “harmful use of Indigenous Peoples’ imagery and branding.” It initially gained 3,700 signatures and the club announced its board would meet to discuss a rebranding.
However, that meeting resulted in only the retirement of the team’s mascot, “Big Chief.” The club released a statement saying that the logo would remain, and that the board took the view that it was “in fact highly respectful.”
As for the “Chiefs” name, the club said that the name “dated back into the early 1900s and had a long history with people in the Devon area,” the English county in which Exeter lies.
The Exeter Chiefs for Change, a group campaigning for the club to change its name and remove references to Native American culture, released a statement labeling the decision as “incredibly disappointing,” and that the club had “thrown away an opportunity to show itself as an inclusive club.”
“We accept that the intention of the club for the branding was originally positive and not derogatory,” they continued. “But now they know it is not perceived in that way, they are making a conscious decision to be intentionally offensive by continuing to use it.”
The group concluded its statement saying that they were “horrified” and that “the decision will not age well.”
In their statement, the Chiefs said the club will be making no further comment on the matter.
KAA Gent has an extensive section on its website that speaks to the historic oppression and present-day struggle of Native Americans.
It also explains the history of the club’s logo, and that the cultural context was “a positive one.”
It says that the club represents “respect, courage and honor. Values that they attributed to the Native Americans rather than to their White oppressor.”
Despite acknowledging the potential offense that its logo may cause, the club explains that it chooses to retain the logo as it “draws attention throughout Europe to the social situation facing the Native American population today.”
In addition, the club says through its foundation, it is “willing to investigate, along with representatives of the Native American population, if and how KAA Gent can organize a social partnership with an initiative in the United States that aims to bring about an improvement in the standard of living experienced by Native Americans, using football as a powerful instrument.”
CNN was told by the club that it reached out to “some [Native American] organizations/representatives” via Facebook in 2018 but received no rejection or acceptance of an “exchange of views.”
The club says if a Native American organization did reach out, representatives “would listen respectfully and try to establish such a partnership for the future.”
CNN contacted Kaizer Chiefs but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
The Latin American story
In Latin America, there is a case to be made that not only do the clubs not engage with Indigenous communities, but actively ignore scrutiny of practices. Only two of the five Latin American clubs contacted for this story responded to CNN.
Guarani people are indigenous to South America, and live in Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia.
The Guarani people represent the largest indigenous group in Brazil with a population of 51,000.
They are one of the most vulnerable Indigenous groups in the world. In 2013, it was found that Guarani people suffer a murder rate four times higher than the national homicide rate in Brazil, according to the Brazilian non-governmental organization CIMI.
Most of their land was taken from them during the twentieth century, and they have an unequaled suicide rate in South America.
In the world of soccer, there are numerous Brazilian teams named after the Guarani people.
Second division side Guarani FC last played in the top division in 2010 and won the Serie A title in 1978.
In Paraguay, the fourth most successful team is Club Guarani.
These two sides represent the best known “Guarani” soccer clubs and it is unclear whether the clubs ever obtained the consent of the Guarani people.
CNN reached out to both clubs to seek comment but didn’t receive a response from either.
Guarani FC is based in Campinas, and is named in homage to the opera Il Guarany by Campinas-born composer Carlos Gomes. While the name is born out of an opera, it still marks an appropriation of an Indigenous peoples’ identity.
Fans of Guarani sometimes use an ethnic slur for an Indigenous Brazilian when referring to the club.
There are numerous other examples across the continent where Indigenous culture is used by clubs without affiliation to Indigenous groups.
Chapecoense made global headlines after a 2016 plane crash killed the vast majority of players and staff at the club.
The club’s stadium was formerly known as Estadio Indio Conda.
Brazilian football historian and podcaster Matias Pinto says that in Latin America, Indio is often a word regularly utilized as a racial slur that connotes indigenous people.
“In Brazil and other parts of Latin America, it depends how you say it. But when you chant ‘Indio’ it’s derogatory,” he says.
He also adds that the club has no link to native people.
“Conda is an Indigenous leader from the past, so they honor this native hero in the West of Santa Catarina. But the Chapecoense fans are not native. They are mostly European descendants from the 19th century.”
The club’s mascot is an indigenous person – in reality, a person wearing Chapecoense kit alongside a mask of an indigenous person.
One can also download a cartoon image of the mascot from the club’s website, which is entitled “Indio.”
Chapecoense was contacted by CNN but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
“They were barbarians, they looked like the Xavantes.”
It isn’t just appropriation that can cause problems for Indigenous People, as Fredericks says: “Unfortunately, because of the nature of sport, not only home team fans might behave in a way that’s very disparaging and appropriative. But the opposing team fans might engage in behavior that’s very insulting towards people.”
The Xavante are an Indigenous People in Brazil numbering approximately 22,000, according to Povos Indigenas no Brasil. Fans of the football club Gremio Esportivo Brasil, also known as Brasil de Pelotas – which is based in the south of Brazil – have been nicknamed Xavantes since 1946.
According to an official statement made to CNN by the club, the nickname came about following a 1946 match against its main rivals Esporte Clube Pelotas. Down 3-1 at half time, Brasil de Pelotas came back in the second half to win 5-3. After the final whistle, fans of Brasil de Pelotas destroyed the fence separating the field from the stands and broke onto the field to celebrate.
Following the game and the subsequent field invasion, an Esporte Clube Pelotas official gave a statement to the press, saying: “They were barbarians, they looked like the Xavantes.”
The name was soon adopted by Brasil de Pelotas fans with pride and the club says that “despite the pejorative” meaning behind the name, it sees the name as “an honor.”
“It relates to the bravery of the indigenous tribe with the team. In our history, we have as main characteristics the guts, the fight for every ball and not to give up any play.
“The fans and the club adhered to the nickname and the likeable figure of the Indian, and today we are known in the country as Xavante, the red-black gaucho. And we won’t change it.”
Sao Paolo-based Pinto says that it goes further than that: “It started with a slur but nowadays Brasil de Pelotas fans are very proud [to be] Xavantes,” as fans perceive themselves similarly to the Xavante people: warlike, brave and tough.
“Pelotas is a city that is facing an exodus,” he says. “People are moving to other parts of Brazil. So they have a lot of supporters’ clubs around Brazil and they always merge the name of the state/city with Xavantes.”
Pinto says that racist slurs against Indigenous People are most common in intercontinental football matches in South America.
“In the continental competitions it happens too. Here in Sao Paulo, we do not have a lot of Indigenous, in Buenos Aires and Montevideo too. In Sao Paulo we are more Black or White, not Indigenous.
“So when a club from Bolivia or Peru or Ecuador [visits], countries in the middle [of the continent] are closer to indigenous traces, the supporters from Brazilian clubs, Argentinian clubs, Uruguayan clubs reference these people as ‘Indios.’”
While racism against Indigenous People through sport continues across the continent, in Brazil Pinto offers that, “they have more urgent issues [with which] to struggle.”
“It was a promise that [Bolsonaro] made in his campaign,” Pinto says. “He will not concede any land to the communities, that he will explore the surface for miners, and the environmental minister is very close to the farmers and miners. So the Indigenous, since the first day of this government, are very scared about these promises.”
CNN contacted the Brazilian government but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
Positive steps in Latin America
Chile’s most successful club Colo-Colo was founded by a White Chilean footballer but is named after Colocolo, a Mapuche tribal leader during the Arauco War fought against the Spanish colonizers.
The club’s badge also features the likeness of Colocolo.
In a statement, the club told CNN it believes there are “essential differences” from other teams around the globe which “have a negative or derogatory charge.”
According to Pinto, the club was founded by “rebels and workers”, so it acts as a symbol of an oppressed people fighting against oppressive powers.
The club told CNN that the “Mapuche identity is present and diluted in the Chilean population in a patent and documented way” and as such the club has taken steps to recognize that.
Colo-Colo flies the Mapuche flag alongside the Chilean flag at its stadium, and signage around the ground is written in both Spanish and Mapuche.
The club said it was making efforts “to seek an understanding and solution of the demands of the Mapuche people,” along with “performing ceremonies such as the the Mapuche June Solstice celebration in the stadium together with partners, fans, Mapuche communities and club authorities.”
Pinto is less optimistic that real change will happen soon. Speaking of indigenous communities in his local Rio state, he said: “They are very threatened by the Rio state … they [Indigenous People] march and make demos but the majority of society doesn’t give a sh*t.”
There is still a long way to go in Latin America for Indigenous People, let alone their representation in sports.