Between 1776 and the present, the United States dispossessed Indians of more than 1.5 billion acres, nearly an eighth of the habitable world. For most of that same period, the native population was in a free fall, dropping from perhaps 1.5 million people when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to a low of 237,000 in 1900. After the native population and its land base bottomed out, American sports teams began adopting Indian-themed names.
Today, the Braves, Indians, Blackhawks, Seminoles, Chiefs, and the Washington NFL team claim to honor native peoples with iconography such as Chief Wahoo, arrowheads, and tomahawks. It is easy to assert that the name of your favorite team expresses solidarity with the survivors of the long, sordid history of Indian dispossession. But what if sports lore included the specifics of how the U.S. acquired the land below your team’s home field?
Atlanta Braves fans can recite Jason Heyward’s batting average and on-base percentage. Perhaps they should also know that Turner Field sits on land ceded in 1821 by William McIntosh, the son of a Scottish trader and a Creek Indian woman. McIntosh was irredeemably corrupt, and he had a hand in selling almost 20,000 square miles—fully one-third of the state of Georgia—to the U.S. against the will of most Creek leaders.
When the Braves leave Turner Field behind in a few years for Cobb County’s greener pastures, they will settle on land again ceded by McIntosh in another duplicitous treaty. In 1825, as punishment for McIntosh’s treasonous role in the land cessions, Creek braves set fire to his house and executed him when he emerged from the flames. Nonetheless, Creek title in Georgia was almost entirely extinguished, and the state then turned its attention to the Cherokees, forcing them in 1838 to walk the infamous Trail of Tears west to join the Creeks in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
When the Cleveland Indians acquired their native nickname in 1915, fans delighted in the racist caricatures that came along with it—see this cartoon from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. A century later, Cleveland’s stadium sits on territory that once belonged to Algonquin peoples.
In 1791, an Algonquin confederacy handed the U.S. Army one of its worst defeats ever by surprising Gen. Arthur St. Clair and killing more than 800 of his 1,300 badly trained soldiers. The victory was short-lived. Three years later, President Washington sent “Mad” Anthony Wayne to Ohio to conquer the region’s native peoples. After the Algonquins’ defeat, they signed the Treaty of Greenville, relinquishing two-thirds of the state of Ohio and ushering in an era of despair for many Indians in the region.
The history behind the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks is no more heartening. The team sports a cartoon-like image of the resolute Sauk leader who fought unsuccessfully against his people’s removal from western Illinois in the 1830s. (Compare Black Hawk’s 1833 portrait to his profile on Blackhawks jerseys.) But the hockey team doesn’t play on Sauk land.
The United States acquired the territory that became downtown Chicago from Wyandots, Delawares, Shawnees, and others in the same 1795 treaty that gave the U.S. most of Ohio. At the time, the Illinois part of the cession was limited to six square miles at the mouth of the Chicago River, but it did not bode well that the treaty granted U.S. citizens free passage through Sauk lands to the Mississippi River. Within a decade, a small group of Sauks would cede their remaining territory in Illinois.
The Florida State University Seminoles have earned the official endorsement of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The team’s mascot, Osceola, thrusts a flaming spear into the ground at every home game.
Two centuries ago, after Andrew Jackson launched the first Seminole War in 1817-1818, the Seminole people were fighting for their lives. The U.S. military campaign was the first in a decades-long conflict, waged in part on behalf of Southern planters who wished to eliminate the threat that Seminoles posed to the slave economy. Fought in malarial swamps and deeply unpopular in the Northeast, the quagmire became America’s first Vietnam. In 1823, the Seminoles ceded the land that Florida State’s Doak Campbell Stadium sits on and retreated down the Florida peninsula, where the fighting continued until 1858.
In the NFL, two teams retain Indian-themed names. The Kansas City Chiefs play on land that once belonged to the Osage Indians. “The truth is,” Thomas Jefferson admitted to the secretary of the Navy in 1804, the Osages “are the great nation South of the Missouri.” Along with the Sioux, he explained, “we must stand well, because in their quarter we are miserably weak.” By 1825, however, a demographic tidal wave had rolled in from the East, and the tables had turned. The Osages were “weak and pitiful,” one Osage leader admitted. That year, the Osages ceded 4,650 square miles, an area slightly smaller than Connecticut, in exchange for 1,200 cattle and hogs, 1,000 chickens, and goods totaling $140,000. That’s roughly $3.4 million in today’s dollars, or a little more than a dollar per acre.
Of all Indian-themed sports teams, the Washington NFL franchise has come under the heaviest criticism, and has asserted most vociferously that its name honors Native Americans. The team’s official history page includes a description of Darrell Green’s goal-line stop in the 1987 NFC Championship Game and a feature on the franchise’s 80 greatest players but not a word about the native peoples who lived where the team plays today.
The website could describe the epidemic disease, dispossession, dispersal, and survival of Maryland’s Piscataway people. In 1623, Virginia colonists invaded Piscataway country and, in the words of the colony’s governor, “putt many to the swoorde,” despite the Indians’ best efforts to appease the newcomers. A generation later, the Piscataway were forced onto reservations and subjected to colonial law. Disease and alcoholism became widespread, and at least a few individuals were forced into slavery to toil on one of the Chesapeake’s many tobacco plantations. In 1701, the surviving Piscataway abandoned the region altogether, settling on a reservation in Pennsylvania. Yet, a core identity persisted among Piscataway families, and in 2012, the state of Maryland formally recognized two Piscataway bands. Their history, like that of other indigenous Americans, is complex and belies the stereotyped, featureless warrior that appears on the Washington team’s helmets.
American Indian history is neither romantic nor simplistically tragic. Native peoples suffered from virulent diseases and struggled to cope with the swarms of colonists who invaded their lands. They sent diplomats to Washington, D.C., hired lawyers and lobbyists, and waged PR campaigns, as they still do today. Some succumbed to the bribes offered by U.S. Indian agents. Others took up arms.
The current debate about the Washington team and its obstinate owner, Dan Snyder, has focused on determining whether its nickname is racist. Team management has presented poll results, cited expert linguists, and sought out supportive Indians. Take a step back, though, and it’s clear that the problem goes beyond one specific racial slur. In light of the manifold struggles that America’s first inhabitants have faced, attaching any Indian name to a multimillion-dollar sports franchise seems the most incongruous of honors.