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Aboriginal sports names should hit the showers

By: David Haas

  |  Posted: Saturday, Mar 02, 2013 06:00 am

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Four days ago a new basketball team in Ottawa unveiled its name, only to quickly discover that its research into probable public reaction had been deficient. The name TomaHawks generated vociferous opposition from the local native community. The team ownership’s initial response was defensive, saying there was no intention to appropriate First Nations culture – that the name came instead from a type of scoring slam dunk in basketball. Uh, sure, but where did that term come from? Same way the U.S. nuclear tipped capable cruise missile was named – from the famed old aboriginal weapon. The owner also said he had consulted aboriginal groups, but as he declined to provide details of his survey, this defence could not be assessed.

This evident weakness in the ownership response was apparently shared by a Sports Illustrated article in 2002, which asserted that 83 per cent of American Indians responding to a poll said professional teams should retain their native names, mascots and symbols. That survey has been challenged. Indications are that the aboriginal community is not united on the issue, and indeed some tribes have granted permission for sports teams to use their names. But as the Ottawa uproar indicated, some are strongly opposed. One member weighing in to discuss the erstwhile TomaHawks nomenclature saw the name as a backwards step at a time when the National Collegiate Athletic Association is on its way to removing such names.

It is hard to explain the huge number of North American teams sporting aboriginal names. Baseball is the most frequent, with hockey in second place. There are also a number of lacrosse teams but this at least is a sport with a known native origin, and some of the teams I have seen listed appear to be from native communities. There are a great many schools which use native names for their teams.

Sports teams probably resort to native names from a desire to project an image of virility (male teams), strength, and combativeness – just as here in St. Albert we have youth football teams with names like Buccaneers and Vikings. It could be argued that as an essentially historical, though more than a little distorted, reference this is not particularly harmful. However, that misses the point that there is a sizable aboriginal community who feel tarred by some of the imagery involved, and particularly by some associated offensively stereotypical mascots and routines grotesquely parodying native appearance and culture.

And it is a filtered presentation – alluding to nothing of how the natives were and are actually treated, or indeed how they are still regarded by many. It is also axiomatic that stamping native terminology onto teams contains nothing that could offend the majority culture. One does not, for instance, see a team named the Little Big Horn Victors with a mascot parody of Custer running for his life ahead of the team as it enters the field or rink.

On the other side of the fence there are comparatively few teams with ethnic names unless they stem in some way from the community involved. So why is it OK to appropriate aboriginal imagery?

The next day the ex-TomaHawks announced the name was being withdrawn. If the team is still looking for a name, might I suggest the Ottawa Auditors, which smacks of aggressive intrusion – perfect for a basketball team. Some local bureaucrats might take offence, but tell them they need to lighten up and get a sense of humour.

Writer David Haas is a long term St. Albert resident.


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