I'm a card-carrying citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and no, I'm not posting a picture of my citizenship card, AKA my blue card, OR my Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood to prove it to you. You'll just have to take my word that I'm a dual citizen who votes in both U.S. and tribal elections and takes my responsibility to both nations very seriously. I was not raised on tribal lands, but my grandmother was, and she lied about her race (AKA "passed" herself off as white) and age as soon as she was able so she could skedaddle out of Oklahoma for the greener pastures of California. Even in her twilight years, after she had moved back to tribal lands and re-established her membership in the Nation, she still referred to Cherokees as "those people" out of years of habitual deflection to avoid the racism that came along with being a Native American.
My grandmother's deflection and the continued whitewashing of U.S. history is why using Native Americans as team names or mascots is problematic. Note I'm not using the word offensive--that's a word I reserve only for the Washington Redskins, who use a blatant racial epithet as their team name and should have changed it years ago.
I truly believe that most fans of the Cleveland Indians or Atlanta Braves don't understand why those teams, their names, or their imagery are an issue for tribal people. I mean, Chad and Cindy doing the Tomahawk Chop at SunTrust Park have no clue why they look like racially clueless tools to someone like me when I'm sitting at home watching the game.
Wait... the drum means something significant to Native peoples? You don't say?!?
The answer is pretty simple, though--no race of people should be reduced to a mascot. You'd never have a team called the Boston Caucasians with a stereotypical Karen as its mascot, and there's a reason for that--no race is a monolith, nor should any race of people be treated as a summary stereotype. Yet here we are with Native Americans boiled down to "braves" and noble savages and Chief Wahoo staring at us with that stupid grin.
And before you think it, no, the Vikings or Fighting Irish are not the same thing. They are not races of people, but rather geographical groups of people that belong to a certain ethnicity. And if those names bother you, then by all means... let's stop naming teams after stereotypes of ethnic groups as well.
The real harm in reducing native peoples to mascots invented by white people is that it does our entire nation a disservice by continuing our failure to understand the complete history of our country and facilitating the continued sterilization of what we know about its establishment. The history of tribal people in the U.S. is long, rich, deep and complex. It's also not what you see in westerns or even really what you read in your history books in school, and the amount of what most U.S. citizens know about Native American history could probably fit into a thimble compared to what they know about the traditional "heroes" of American history.
For example, did you know that the practice of scalping was most generally a practice used by tribes on other tribes during battles over territory, until white settlers and later the U.S. government began paying tribal allies to scalp their native enemies? Do you really know what Andrew Jackson was up to with Indian Removal when you spend that $20 bill with his face on it? Or how about that the U.S. government was sterilizing Native women involuntarily as recently as the 1970's? Have you heard the story of Wounded Knee? No, not the one from 1890 that your history book might've told you about, but the one from 1973 when members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the site of that famous massacre in protest and traded gunfire with federal agents trying to starve them out while failing to bring the situation to a close for 71 days. Have you ever made a visit to tribal land that didn't involve a casino?
Spoiler alert: it's not pretty
Not to mention that Native Americans aren't homogeneous--there is no one representation that captures all 574 federally represented tribes in the United States. The Cherokee Nation has a different history from the Choctaw, who has a different history from the different divisions of the Sioux, and so on and so forth. Even before Columbus set foot anywhere in North America, tribes had their own identities, traditions, histories and styles of living.
What I'm really saying is that it's time. It's time to let Native Americans live and breathe as human beings, and as residents and citizens within the United States. Rather than telling us what we should look like or what our history means to you or that we should just "deal with it" when it comes to being mascots and team names, it'd be really awesome if people would make an attempt to learn our history and the truth of it. Maybe then we could all understand each other a little better.
And because I can't leave you without a little recommended music...