The Unwavering Racism Of Native American Sports Logos

The Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Chicago Blackhawks have a branding problem: racism.

Antagonism over Native American mascots has stirred up again, thanks to the recent “de-chiefing” movement. Cleveland Indians fan Dennis Brown took a stand against the team’s racist logo by posting a picture on Twitter of his jersey, sans the Chief Wahoo emblem. A flood of #DeChief tweets followed in support, and along with it came backlash–aimed at Brown–from diehard fans.


The logo, not Brown, is at the center of the imbroglio. This year, the Ohio team began to phase out the clown-like visage of Chief Wahoo, in favor of the letter “C,” in a blocky red type. The use of Native American mascots for professional sports teams is one of the industry’s most controversial talking points, on par with steroid use and football helmets.

The Cleveland Indians’ move tacitly responded to its critics while it also recreated its logo as a throwback to the Indian’s blue “C” logo from 1915 to 1927. All five teams that appropriate the Native American image for their mascot (the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Chicago Blackhawks) have in fact adjusted their logos over time. In light of the #DeChief movement, USA Today recently ran graphics with all the logos, used by all five teams, over the years.

The chart makes it glaringly evident that these teams have a major branding problem: Their storied icons are offensive, but they can’t veer too far from them or they risk abandoning traditions that fans hold dear. You can see where they often toe the line: Look at the Brave’s logo from 1953 to present. In the 1950s (when the Braves were still in Boston), the baseball team had a cartoon chieftan, with tomato-red skin, as their logo. In 1957, they introduced the new Native American logo, the “screaming Indian,” again, with red skin. In 1966, the mascot got a more realistic brown skin tone. By 1990, the face was gone, replaced by the tomahawk still used today.

By hedging around the issue, with less blatant imagery, the Braves held on to their name. Does it suffice? Last year, the National Congress of American Indians issued a report on racism in sports (and 10 years prior, they launched a campaign that cast other cultural stereotypes in a similar light). When asked for comment, NCAI deputy director Robert Holden points out that the supposed neutrality of the newer logos–even just the letters–is actually subjective.

“The team still owns the mascot or logo. Without a meaningful dialogue with Native peoples that includes tribal officials, Native educators, and others, these ‘changes’ are disingenuous at best,” Holden tells Co.Design. “They certainly have not communicated a willingness to broach the subject with Native peoples. That gives reason to think that they are not voluntarily going to change, and believe that their PR and branding team can get away with what they may think is a more benign form of racism and stereotyping.”

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.