The following post first appeared on the blog Picked Last: Fan perspectives on sports and politics.
In September Peter King of Sports Illustrated made the decision to stop using the Washington, D.C. NFL team’s racist name. His explanation did not demonstrate understanding of why the name is problematic and didn’t oppose the use of the team name by others but still he became one of the highest profile sports figures to reject the name’s continued use. A stronger decision by the San Francisco Chronicle noted that the team name is “a racial slur and if we don’t have to use it, we’re not going to use it” while former Washington players and Hall-of-Famers Art Monk and Darrell Green have voiced their support for a name change. Their decisions are the result of longstandingindigenous activism against racist representations of native nations and peoples (Change the Mascot and Native Appropriations are two of many voices to support organizing around this today).
Washington’s team name is an exotified image of an unspecific, noble, stoic warrior from a faraway time and place who is unrelated to the native population the American settler colony continues to massacre, expel and otherwise eliminate. A faraway time in that we in the settler society – reductively: those who are not natives and who do not articulate to indigenous sovereignty – misunderstand Indian removal policies to be something that happened way back when and not an organization of power that is happening. A faraway place in that native nations are sovereignties the settler society imagines quashed, no longer existent, not really places at all. These erasures are part of settler normativity and are why the San Francisco 49ers are not yet critiqued in the way Washington is, why is has taken so long for criticism of Washington’s mascot to consistently break into the mainstream, and why so many will sit down on 28 November for the settler holy day Thanksgiving and enjoy one of the three NFL games with no mind to settler colonialism and genocide.
Settler normativity is the discursive normalization of indigenous removal. In other words, it is how five centuries of genocide, colonization, gendered violence and exploitation – and indigenous resistance to all of the above – are rendered ‘normal’ and ‘invisible’ to the settler society. Settler normativity is the denial that, in Gabriel Piterberg’s phrasing, “the interaction with the dispossessed is the history of who the settlers collectively are” (emphasis mine). Thus the 49ers football team is discursively separated from the historical ‘forty-niners and seen as unproblematic when the name is contextualized at all.
The ‘forty-niner invasion began after a gold discovery in 1848 when Mexico’s California province was under U.S. military occupation (since this article is about U.S. settler normativity I’m leaving out the anti-native crimes and narratives of the Spanish colonizers and independent Mexican government, catastrophic though they were). The military governor, Richard Mason (after whom Fort Mason and San Francisco’s Mason Street are named) quashed both Mexican law and native title. The 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians refined Mexican law on bound native labor so the settlers could enslave natives (over 4,000 stolen native children were enslaved during the Gold Rush). Between 1850-1864 in what settlers declared Colusa County the native population was reduced from “not less than ten thousand” to 424 through homicide, expulsion, disease and other consequences of settler invasion.
In California as a whole for this period the native population was reduced from 150,000 to 31,000. Key with regard to the ‘forty-niners is Jack Forbes’ observation that “The bulk of California’s Indians were conquered, and died, in innumerable little episodes rather than in large campaign” indicting, “in effect, an entire people; for the conquest of the Native Californian was above all else a popular, mass, enterprise.” The white ‘forty-niners were also responsible for the subordinate racialization of their Chinese colleagues including both white supremacist attacks during the Gold Rush and later the systemic oppression of Asians under the White California policies, the legacy of which included Chinese Exclusion and Japanese Internment. Washington’s mascot is a racialization of the genocided population. The 49ers is an erasure of that population in celebration of the génocidaires themselves as they built settler rule. The original 49ers logo of an angry white miner firing pistols points to this.
The 49ers do not play on Thursday, 28 November this year but six other teams do. Football fans will gather with friends and family to watch the Lions beat the Packers (obviously) or the other two games and in doing so will take part in the Thanksgiving settler ritual that – just as with the 49ers – celebrates settler colonialism and genocide against the native population. Thanksgiving celebrates the successful establishment of the settler colony and the start of conquest. The details of how the early settlers quashed native sovereignty and killed or drove out the indigenous populace differ from the California Gold Rush but are broadly analogous and need not be reproduced here.
Apologists will say that, for them, Thanksgiving and the 49ers are not part of the U.S. settler colony’s genocide but mean something else entirely. Thanksgiving, they’ll say, is just a time to get together for a meal and some football and that the 49ers (and Pioneers, Frontiersman, Trail Blazers – in the context of Oregon at any rate, etc.) were more than just génocidaires but working class dreamers, some of whom may have been involved of the dirty business of genocide but who are not defined by it. It is a repurposing made possible only by the discursive normalization of indigenous removal in the U.S. settler colony. One cannot participate in the Thanksgiving ritual feast with friends and family and not have it be about settler colonialism and conquest any more than a man can call another man ‘bitch‘ and not mean it misogynistically. Modifying the settler ritual to obscure its roots does nothing to mitigate or subvert settler colonialism. In the grand tradition of settler normativity, such modifications seek to discursively erase indigenous folks from the narrative much as those who made the first Thanksgiving sought to erase indigenous folks and sovereignty from the land.
With the high profile of the campaign to change Washington’s name it seems only a matter of time (and continued effort!) before it is added to the list of successful efforts against the fetishizing of native people as mascots and costumes for settler sport and leisure. It is just one corner of indigenous activism today but given the massive footprint of football in the settler society it has the potential to measurably adjust discourse towards decolonization and indigenous sovereignty. It’s not just football. The 49ers weren’t just miners. And just as it is vital to shine a light on racist mascots, it’s also important to critique the mascot racists.