Washington Redskins’ name, Native mascots offend more than previously reported

A group protests the Washington Redskins name across from Levi's Stadium before an NFL football game between the Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers.

A group protests the Washington Redskins name across from Levi’s Stadium before a 2014 NFL football game between the Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers. (AP Photo by Tony Avelar)

Contrary to polls showing that relatively few Native Americans take offense at the Washington Redskins’ name, a new UC Berkeley study has found that at least half of more than 1,000 Native Americans surveyed are offended by the football team’s 87-year-old moniker and Native mascots in general.

The results are particularly timely in the face of Native American protests against caricatures of their culture, including the tomahawk chop — performed by fans of the Kansas City Chiefs, who won Sunday’s Super Bowl — and other sports teams with Native American monikers.

The study’s findings, to be published this month in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, show that the degree to which those surveyed identified as Native American influenced how offensive they found Native mascots.

Of those polled for the study, 57% who strongly identify with being Native American and 67% of those who frequently engage in tribal cultural practices were found to be deeply insulted by caricatures of Native American culture.

Overall, the results suggest the controversy over the use of Native representations, such as chief headdresses, war cries and the tomahawk chop, is far from over.

“We keep seeing clear examples of Native people speaking up and protesting these problematic team names and mascots. Yet, public opinion polls, with little methodological transparency, say that Native people are not offended. Things just don’t add up,” said study co-lead author Arianne Eason, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology.

Eason and University of Michigan psychologist Stephanie Fryberg launched the study last fall in response to what they deemed as “yet another questionable opinion survey” about the Redskins’ name.

For example, a 2019 web-based survey of 500 self-identified Native Americans that was reported in The Washington Post found that 68% of those polled were not offended by the Washington Redskins’ name.  Among other things, it asked respondents to identify whether the Redskins’ name made them feel proud, disappointed, empowered, embarrassed, appreciative or hopeless.

Moreover, a 2016 Washington Post survey found that nine in 10 Native Americans polled claimed not to be bothered by the moniker. It was a telephone survey of 504 self-identified Native Americans, and the results are said to have influenced the decision of team owner Daniel Snyder to retain the Redskins’ name.

“The data from previous opinion polls is often used to silence Native people,” said Fryberg, a member of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, in Washington state. “But our study, which captures a broad diversity of Native peoples and experiences, shows high rates of opposition. As researchers and consumers of information, we need to be very careful about whose voices we claim to be representing.”

Eason and Fryberg’s study is estimated to be the most large-scale investigation to date of the relationship between Native American identity and attitudes towards Native mascots.

Arianne Eason

Arianne Eason

It examined variations in Native Americans’ attitudes based on several demographic factors and dimensions, including legal status, behavioral engagement with Native communities and psychological identification with being Native American.

Eason, who is African American, said she is proud of the racial and ethnic diversity of the research team, whose members’ backgrounds range from Native American (Tulalip Tribes and Amah Mutsun Tribal Band) to Afro-Caribbean to white.

How they conducted the study

The researchers recruited more than 1,000 self-identified adult Native Americans representing 50 states and 148 tribes using the Qualtrics online survey platform. The cohort varied widely in age, gender, socio-economic status, level of education, political ideology, tribal affiliation and Native American political and cultural involvement.

On a scale of 1 to 7, study participants were asked to disagree or agree with a selection of statements, some of which were adapted from the 2016 Washington Post poll.

For example, they were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as, “I think the term ‘redskin’ is respectful to Native Americans,” “I find it offensive when sports fans wear chief headdresses at sporting events” and “When sports fans chant the tomahawk chop, it bothers me.”

Overall, 49% of participants in the UC Berkeley study were found to strongly agree or agree that the Washington Redskins’ name is offensive, while 38% were not bothered by it. The remainder were undecided or indifferent.

However, the number of those offended rose for study participants who were heavily engaged in their native or tribal cultures (67%), young people (60%) and people with tribal affiliations such as members of federally recognized tribes (52%).

As for ideological standpoints, progressive liberals were more likely to oppose the Redskins’ name, compared to their more conservative counterparts.

“Ultimately, our study demonstrates that people who identify most with being Native American are the ones most likely to feel harmed by the continued use of stereotypical Native American team names and mascots,” Eason said. “This suggests that the debate over the continued use of Native mascots should be more closely attuned to Native American voices, particularly the voices of those who are most highly identified.”

Other co-authors of the study are Laura Brady, a co-lead author, and Nadia Jessop and Julisa Lopez, all from the University of Michigan.