In a recent ESPN piece, Paul Lukas, “sports’ only full-time uniform reporter,” refers to the issue of Native American imagery in sports as an issue of the appropriation of intellectual property rights:
“I don’t think we have the right to use images of headdresses, tomahawks, tribe names, and so on. It’s not a question of whether such symbols are offensive, or whether they perpetuate outdated stereotypes; it’s that they don’t belong to us.”
Lukas is right to criticize the misuse of power by American sports institutions and to disapprove of the appropriation of Native American cultural “artifacts” for economic and other gains.
They do not belong to US.
But if we look for it—and we should look for it—there is something critical and necessary in Lukas’ treatment of this issue that perhaps he did not intend:
There is yet an unnamed, underlying assumption in this language of property rights that just as Native imagery does not belong to “us,” neither do our sports belong to “them.”
We must confront the fact that American sports are neither owned by nor created for the American Indian in the first place—and this is fundamentally why it can be described as a violation of intellectual property when predominantly and historically white-owned institutions appropriate Native imagery in sports. Because if sports truly granted the same full access and control to Native Americans as they do to white Americans, then it would not be stealing when any American used this imagery in sports.
But by the racial order and through the racial lens of our America today, Native Americans are denied full access and participation in sports—not by law, but by history and custom. This is made all the more obvious by our long overdue revelation that to use this imagery and to use it illegally suggests quite clearly that we never intended them to play with us in the first place.
When Notre Dame takes any field as the Fighting Irish this event is not contested with the same racially-and-politically charged intellectual property language. Why? It isn’t because hundreds of independent, sovereign communities of Irish Americans convened, voted on, and contractually gave permission in any way to the French-influenced Holy Cross founders to use the Irish name and imagery for its sports teams.
When the Minnesota footballers take the field as the Vikings this event is not contested. Why? It isn’t because Minnesota football executives sent delegations to Norway and Sweden and Denmark to purchase the rights to the name and authentic purple helmets of the historic Viking nations.
Further, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish opened their football season this year against Navy in front of 50,000 people in a soccer stadium in Ireland. There is a very specific and dire socio-economic reason—as well as a general fear—that you will not see the Redskins, Chiefs, Braves, Indians, or Blackhawks organizing a friendly preseason or regular season match-up on a Native reservation any time soon.
Because that kind of relationship between American sports institutions and the Native American communities they purport to recognize and honor doesn’t actually exist—and to claim it does is silliness.
If we look critically at what we have in front of us, it doesn’t make sense to compare Native imagery in sports to Irish or Viking imagery in sports. These are not the same thing.
Rather, I think it makes far more sense to observe that the difference in the situations involving the Fighting Irish and the Vikings from the one involving Native American imagery is that today, in America, any folk of Irish or Scandinavian descent will claim “White” on the U.S. Census. They don’t check the box that says Irish. They don’t check the box that says Scandinavian or Viking or Descendant of any one of the historic Viking tribes of North Atlantic Europe prior to 1400 C.E.
They check “White.”
Using the name Irish and Vikings is not stealing. We already own the rights to these names, by virtue of our ownership in whiteness. Native Americans, American Indians: They are not included as owners of this whiteness. And so they do not participate equally and fully in the ownership of our sports.
And so, as Lukas rightly claims, we do not have the right to use their imagery.
Whiteness is very often an uncomfortable thing to talk about in public discourse. In discussions about whiteness especially among white people there is very often guilt, anger, defensiveness, and helplessness. I understand. But this discomfort does not mean we don’t try to think about these things more critically and honestly. And it certainly does not mean that we passively accept this status quo–especially if our moral sensibilities remind us that segregated sports ownership is wrong.
Because although folks sometimes have called sports the “opiate of the masses” in contemporary America, I disagree. Sports do not exist outside of social issues and conversations. In fact, one of the things I have grown over recent years to truly love about American sports is that they offer—for better and worse—a “playing field” (pun intended) in which to engage sensitive social topics such as race.
This is a larger conversation. Are American sports really only for white people? We could probably take it that far. But for now maybe we reexamine not only Native American participation in American sports, but Native ownership of sports. Because if we continue to deny Native ownership and full participation and access to American sports, then our sports will remain segregated and our use of this imagery will continue to be troubling and, probably, illegal.
See also Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness as Property.”