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Arts & Culture

Documentary Calls Foul Against Racist Sports Mascots

UMD Professor Co-Produces Film on Efforts to End Co-opting of Native American Names and Images

By Annie Krakower

protesters with sign that reads, "Game Over for Racism. #ChangetheName"

The group Arizona to Rally Against Native Mascots protests in Phoenix. The documentary “Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting,” co-produced by Professor of the Practice Kevin Blackistone, details similar efforts nationwide to eradicate Indigenous imagery in sports.

Photos courtesy of the Ciesla Foundation

As fans cheer on the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday, another group will also gather at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas to make their voices heard: Not in Our Honor, a Kansas City coalition dedicated to ending the cultural appropriation of Native American people, plans to protest the AFC champions’ name, logo and chants.

The demonstration is part of a larger movement to eradicate Indigenous imagery throughout sports, an effort detailed in the documentary “Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting.” Co-produced by University of Maryland journalism Professor of the Practice and ESPN panelist Kevin Blackistone, it becomes available on Tuesday to stream on Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video.

“I think we served a real educational purpose,” Blackistone said of the film, which explores the origins of Native American stereotypes and the national reckoning about racial injustice in athletics. “(Many sports fans) did not realize the genocide that Indigenous people suffered in this country and the way that they have been used and abused and had their culture misappropriated over the years.”

Blackistone was first inspired to create the documentary in 2014, when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the then-Washington Redskins’ trademark registration, calling the football team’s name and logo disparaging. (The team ultimately stopped using the name in 2020 and was renamed the Commanders in 2022.)

group poses wearing shirts that read, "Not a mascot"
Producer Kevin Blackistone and Director Ben West with Yocha Dehe members at California Native American Day in Sacramento, Calif.

Hoping to tell more of that story, he partnered with Sam Bardley, a producer of the ESPN documentary “Without Bias” about the late UMD basketball star Len Bias. They connected with D.C.-based directors and producers Aviva Kempner, acclaimed for her films about Jewish heroes and social justice, and Ben West, a veteran filmmaker and Cheyenne advocate for Native American rights.

The team, funded by executive producers Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, gathered archival materials and interviewed Native American people and activists—such as Suzan Shown Harjo, an advocate for Native American rights since the 1970s—as well as lawyers, academics and other experts.

The 1-hour, 35-minute documentary opens by showing a montage of cowboys and Indians stereotypes from past movies and TV shows, insulting images that even made their way to cartoons, then highlights the fight against professional teams like the Chiefs, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Blackhawks. It also demonstrates efforts to eliminate Indigenous mascots at lower levels nationwide. One example, Blackistone said, is when a Cooperstown, N.Y. teen, Emily Greenberg, met Native American students at a summer camp and was inspired to encourage her high school to replace its Redskins mascot.

“Every month there’s another story about some school district somewhere in the country that is wrestling with this idea and removing Indigenous imagery and names from their slate,” Blackistone said. “This is documenting an ongoing and winning fight by Indigenous people and their allies.”

The film debuted in April 2022 at California’s American Indian and Indigenous Film Festival and has been an official selection at multiple others, including the Washington, D.C. International Film Festival, the Dallas International Film Festival and the Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival. Among its accolades, it was a 2022 finalist for the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film.

“The movie should fascinate viewers interested in Native American history and culture, and infuriate fans who still cherish their Washington football or Cleveland baseball team paraphernalia,” a Washington Post review read.

Now, as the film becomes widely available, Blackistone hopes it motivates viewers to continue the movement against Native American mascots in their own communities.

“We made this movie not only to tell the story of why this is important,” he said, “but also as a call to action.”

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