It was one of those picture-worth-a-thousand-words moments. Robert Roche was at the Cleveland Indians’ home opener in April when he confronted a non-Native man in fake feathers, his face painted in grotesque homage to the team’s Chief Wahoo logo. A photo of the real Indian engaging the pretend Indian immediately went viral online.
Jacqueline Keeler wants more of that. Native American activists campaign against Indian team names in sports on multiple fronts — legal, moral and polemical — and now Keeler is urging them to repel “redface,” her term for fans who wear stereotypical Indian costumes to games, commonplace for generations among some fans of teams with Indian-themed names.
“It is not acceptable to wear blackface in this country and never should have been,” Keeler tells USA TODAY Sports. “We need to make the same case about redface. We need people to think of it in the same way and see why it’s wrong in the same way.”
Keeler is a founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry. She says she invented that last word to emphasize it isn’t just Indian names and logos that offend many Native Americans — it’s also the creative license such names provide for fans of those teams to “play Indian” by going to games wearing war paint, feathered headdresses and the like.
Last month, at a San Francisco Giants game on Native American Heritage Night, two American Indians confronted a group of fans passing around a fake headdress; the two Native fans were forcibly detained by police. This month the Giants instituted a policy against fans wearing “culturally insensitive attire,” apparently a first-of-its-kind rule in major-league American team sports.
An open question is how the policy will actually work. Fans who see what they believe is culturally offensive attire or behavior are asked to text the word FOUL to security. But how does a stadium security guard know what is — and isn’t — culturally insensitive?
“We’re going to deal with that on a case-by-case basis,” says Staci Slaughter, Giants senior vice president, communications, and senior advisor to the CEO. “By changing the language in our code of conduct, we wanted to make sure that everyone feels welcome at AT&T Park.”
The rule refers specifically to fans. It doesn’t apply to players — though Keeler believes uniforms worn by the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves are culturally insensitive. Which begs the question: What about fans at Giants’ games wearing official MLB merchandise emblazoned with Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo or Atlanta’s red tomahawk?
“I’m not going to comment on MLB,” Slaughter says. “This is really focused on San Francisco and what works in our community. We’ll have to deal with it case by case.”
Such a case is bound to happen. Kimball Bighorse, Keeler’s cousin and one of the Native Americans detained in the headdress incident, says if he sees fans wearing Chief Wahoo apparel at AT&T Park that he plans to text security.
What would happen next is hard to say. Slaughter says to her knowledge there have been no texts under the new policy in the few home games since it was in force. She says security and guest services staff are trained extensively before each season and they’ve received new instructions to align with the new rule, though she declines to say what those instructions are.
April Negrette, the other Native fan detained that night, says Americans have a free speech right to “play Indian” in public if they so choose, just as she has a free speech right to tell them what she thinks of that. But she also says teams have a right to impose reasonable rules on ticket holders and she hopes more teams will follow the Giants’ lead.
Suzan Shown Harjo, who has been organizing against Indian team names for decades, including trademark cases against the Washington NFL team, believes the Giants’ rule is a first at the big-league level.
“I really don’t know” if that’s so, Slaughter says. “It’s up to the other clubs to do what they think is appropriate.”
USA TODAY Sports asked the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington’s NFL club whether they would consider a similar policy and if they are comfortable with some fans of their teams coming to games dressed as pretend Indians. The Cleveland, Chicago and Washington teams declined comment. The Kansas City team said front office personnel who could comment were on vacation. The Atlanta team provided a statement that it remains “comfortable with our team name and its origin and will continue to honor its history in the same respectful manner as always,” but did not answer the specific questions.
USA TODAY Sports asked the NFL if it is comfortable with fans of the Washington and Kansas City teams attending games in feathers and war paint and if the league favors rules against fans wearing culturally insensitive attire in stadiums where those two teams play.
“Under our Fan Code of Conduct, teams are authorized to appropriately address any conduct that is deemed inappropriate or disruptive,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email that included a 2008 release about the fan code, which prohibits “behavior that is unruly, disruptive, or illegal in nature.” The code makes no mention of culturally insensitive attire, though it says “teams may add additional provisions to the standard code based on local circumstances or preferences.”
USA TODAY Sports asked MLB if it would encourage other teams to adopt policies like the Giants’ and asked as well what happens if Native Americans find official MLB merchandise, such as Cleveland’s or Atlanta’s, offensive. MLB did not answer the specific queries, instead issuing a statement that “each club has its own code of conduct that is tailored to its individual circumstances and the general cultural sensitivities that exist in the local market.”
‘SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING’
Bighorse, who is Seneca, Cayuga and Navajo, and Negrette, who is Shoshone and Paiute, did not know each other until they happened to sit in the same section for Native American Heritage Night at AT&T Park in June. When Negrette saw a group of men in a nearby section horsing around with a plastic headdress, she decided to confront them. She asked Bighorse to go with her.
What follows is a pared-down version of their memories of that night: Negrette told the men what they were doing was wrong. They seemed unmoved. She began to cry. One man asked, “What do you want from me?” She asked for the headdress. He gave it to her. Another man said the headdress was his. He wanted it back. Negrette said no. At some point security arrived. San Francisco police retrieved the headdress. Security said it was ejecting Negrette and Bighorse as unruly. Negrette was forced to the ground and handcuffed. Bighorse took cell phone video. Police asked for his phone, forced him to the ground and handcuffed him. Police asked if he was drunk. Bighorse said he’s never had a drink in his life. Bighorse and Negrette were taken to a police van and detained for roughly an hour, then released, with no arrests.
Negrette told her story on Facebook. Bighorse uploaded video to social media. Word spread in Native communities. The Giants invited Bighorse and Negrette to meetings on a possible policy change. “They told us they wanted to make sure nothing like this happens again,” Bighorse says. The resulting policy asks fans not to take matters into their own hands, which Bighorse believes was put in to avoid confrontations like theirs.
For so many years, Negrette says, Native Americans suffered in silence as non-Native fans dressed as “play Indians” for ballgames. That’s why she, like Keeler, believes now is the time to speak up. “It’s like they say at the airport, ‘If you see something, say something,'” Negrette says.
Once, she says, a fan she confronted gave up his headdress and hugged her, thanking her for letting him know. But her experience at the Giants game is giving Negrette second thoughts about the notion of confrontation.
“I don’t want to tell a small woman to confront a group of large men,” Negrette says. “That might not be smart. Passions run high. People get angry when you tell them what they’re doing is racist.”
EDUCATION OVER CONFRONTATION
The history of dress-up Indians for the sake of entertainment is as old as Wild West shows and movie westerns and as new as current sports seasons.
When Roche, who is Chiricahua Apache, confronted the painted Wahoo supporter at the Indians opener he asked the man if he understood he was mocking Native religion with his getup.
“He said to me, ‘I’m honoring you guys,’ ” Roche says. “And I told him, ‘Don’t honor us. You are mocking us.’ ”
The Dominion Hills Warriors are a swim team in Arlington, Va. On a recent sun-splashed Saturday morning, one of the Dominion Hills coaches wore a headdress on the pool deck before a meet as his swimmers performed a “tomahawk chop” cheer in the water. They are as young as 6.
Team representative Brian Hughes says to his knowledge no one has ever objected to team name or headdress or chop cheers. “None of this,” he says, “is directed at other people.”
Keeler says for a long time she believed the practice of fans dressing as “play Indians” was a generational thing and would die out over time. But, she says, in places like Cleveland and Washington, where sports fans love the local teams, young people grow up with traditions that include fans dressing in mock Indian attire.
Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, favors education over confrontation — getting the word out that redface isn’t cool.
Pata remembers a moment of personal epiphany. She was at a July 4 parade in Fairfax City, Va., in 2000 when the Washington team’s marching band appeared. Days earlier she had witnessed a powwow in Pine Ridge, S.D., where she saw real Native regalia worn in a solemn and moving ceremony.
“There was the (Washington) band leader in this fake yellow headdress and I just couldn’t believe how I felt, like this terrible violation,” Pata says. “I wasn’t expecting myself to feel that way. I actually physically had to turn my back. Tears streamed down my face and I left. And I always felt like no one should have to feel that way on Independence Day.”
Or, Keeler says, at a ballpark, stadium or arena.