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Sports From Indians to Eskimos: A brief history of controversial team names

A brief history of controversial team names

With the Toronto Blue Jays playing the Cleveland Indians in the American League Championship Series, Tu Thanh Ha takes a look at the contentious logos and names of sports teams past and present

Cleveland Indians

Once known as the Cleveland Naps after its star player-manager, Napoleon Lajoie, the team became the Indians in 1915 after "Nap" left and owner Charles Somers polled local sportswriters for a new name.

According to the Cleveland magazine Belt, the now-controversial logo of Chief Wahoo, with its hooked nose and toothy grin, was commissioned in 1947 by the owner of the time, Bill Veeck.

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The team has gradually been phasing out the Chief Wahoo logo. It disappeared from caps and helmets, to be replaced by a block C.

"We do have empathy for those who take issue with it," team owner Paul Dolan told the Cleveland Plain Dealer last spring, explaining how the image is no longer the team's primary logo.

Still, top sellers on the the team's online shop include several hats, shirts and hoodies with the logo. The Indians website also provides printable stencils of Chief Wahoo for Halloween pumpkin carvers.


Washington Redskins

There had been complaints about the football team's name since the 1960s. The Oneida, an Iroquois nation that operates a casino near Syracuse, N.Y., had the economic muscle to launch a national "Change the Mascot" campaign against the team in 2013. The campaign bought radio ads. It got a clinical psychologist to write a report on the harmful impact on natives of the continued use of the "R-word."

Since then, some prominent sports journalists, such Peter King and Bob Costas, have agreed the name is inappropriate. President Barack Obama publicly suggested it was time to change it. Acting on an earlier complaint, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelled the Redskins' trademark registration because the team's name and logo were disparaging to natives when it was filed in the 1970s.

Team owner Daniel Snyder said that, as a lifelong fan, he will not yield. "We'll never change the name," he told USA Today in 2013. "It's that simple. NEVER – you can use caps."

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Baltimore Bullets/Washington Bullets

For 10 seasons, the team played in Baltimore, Maryland's largest city, with the slogan "Faster than a speeding Bullet." In 1973, owner Abe Pollin moved the franchise to Landover, near the District of Columbia, where it became the Capital Bullets, then a year later the Washington Bullets.

By the mid-1990s, Mr. Pollin said he wanted to change the team name because he didn't like its association with Washington's high rate of gun violence. The team was renamed the Washington Wizards when it moved to a new arena in 1997.

The name, which was selected from a contest short list that also included the Sea Dogs, Express, Stallions and Dragons, caused some controversy because Wizard is a rank in the Ku Klux Klan.


McGill University Redmen/St. John's University Redmen

McGill University Redmen

In New York, varsity teams at St. John's University were known as the Redmen, originally because of the colour of their uniforms. However, students adopted as team mascot a cigar store Indian statue and the team logo eventually featured a caricature of a native man in feather headdress. In 1994, the school changed the team name to the Red Storm and fans voted for a new mascot, Thunderbird.

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In Montreal, McGill University, which had a similar name for its male varsity teams, took a different approach, removing native-themed logos but keeping the name because it did not originally allude to aboriginal people.


Atlanta Braves

Once a Boston-based team called the Red Stockings, the franchise became the Braves in 1912, a name it kept except for a five-year period in the 1930s when it was known as the Bees. The club moved to Milwaukee in 1953, then to Atlanta in 1966.

While in Milwaukee, the team introduced a mascot called Chief Noc-A-Homa (knock a homer). At Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Noc-A-Homa had a tepee in the left-field seats and would come out to dance every time a team member hit a home run. The tepee was removed in 1983 to make room for more seats

From 1969 till Noc-A-Homa was retired in 1986, the character was played by Levi Walker, an Odawa native. The team has also phased out its old logo featured a screaming native head.

However, in 1991, a new controversial custom started with the Tomahawk Chop, a nod to outfielder Deion Sanders, who had played college ball for the Florida State Seminoles, where the fans also made such a gesture.


Florida State Seminoles

Since a student vote in 1947, Florida State University's athletic teams have been called the Seminoles, after the local native people who survived in the Everglades region.

After the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association decided in 2005 to prohibit colleges from using "abusive" native imagery, FSU got a waiver because the school had permission from the Seminoles to use their name, having established a long partnership with them and consulted them in the past. "The Seminole Tribe of Florida wishes to go on record that it has not opposed, and, in fact, supports the continued use of the name 'Seminole,'" a tribal council resolution said.

The relationship between the school and the Seminoles ranges from retiring a team mascot at the request of the tribe, offering scholarships for Seminole students and changing the name of a booster club from Lady Scalp Hunters to Lady Spirit Hunters.


Edmonton Eskimos

At the start of the 20th century, several teams in Edmonton were known as the Esquimaux or Eskimos. Reportedly the moniker was adopted as a defiant embrace of a Calgary sportswriter who had mocked the Edmonton rugby team. The modern-day franchise carrying the name joined the Canadian Football League in 1948.

There was little debate about the name until the fall of 2015, when a yoga class was cancelled at the University of Ottawa amid concerns over cultural appropriation. The Ottawa Citizen argued in an editorial that the Eskimos, who had an upcoming game in town, were a more significant example of cultural appropriation.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national Inuit organization, agreed. "The word Eskimo is not only outdated, it is now largely considered a derogatory term," he said in a comment piece in The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Obed had a meeting with team officials earlier this year. It was described as cordial, but no changes followed.


Chicago Blackhawks

The club acquired its name when it was founded in 1926 by the coffee merchant Frederic McLaughlin, a former army major who had served in the 86th Infantry Division. The military unit was nicknamed the Black Hawk division because many of its soldiers were originally from Illinois, a territory once inhabited by the Sauk natives led by Chief Black Hawk.

The team's name was spelled Black Hawks until 1986.

Mr. McLaughlin's wife, dancer and actress Irene Castle, is credited with the original design for the Blackhawks logo.

In 2013, the National Congress of American Indians cited the Blackhawks as one of the sports teams that "continue to profit from harmful stereotypes originated during a time when white superiority and segregation were commonplace."


Ottawa TomaHawks

After Ottawa was awarded a franchise in the National Basketball League of Canada, its ownership group, spearheaded by local businessman Gus Takkale, decided to keep the team name under wraps until the official launch.

The group didn't conduct any focus-group testing. "We wanted to trust our instincts," team consultant Ken Evraire told the Ottawa Citizen. "We didn't want to fall into the trap of having a great name and then focus-group it to death to the point where you go, 'Ah, it doesn't work, let's go with something safe.'"

The name they picked was the TomaHawks, which, Mr. Takkale said, alluded to a powerful slam dunk.

Within a day after that 2013 unveiling, the ensuing uproar forced the team to change its name. Rebranded the SkyHawks, the team played one season, then was kicked out of the NBLC because of financial problems.


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