The owner of Washington D.C.’s football team has been fighting to keep the trademark to his team’s name and mascot for decades now. Even President Obama has said he would consider changing the team’s name, which some Native Americans say is offensive.
Now an artist from Oklahoma has come up with his own way to get people to consider how Native Americans feel when they see depictions of themselves as baseball or football team mascots.
In an ongoing series he calls “Sacred Mascot,” artist Matthew Bearden says he’s trying to open people’s eyes by hand-painting respected figures, like former Pope Benedict, on football helmets.
“The intention isn’t to offend Catholics or the Catholic Church. But if the Catholics are offended, maybe they can see the Native perspective and where we’re coming from,” said Bearden, a Citizen Potawatomi Nation member, in a telephone interview Tuesday.
“The clothing the Pope wears is holy, same as chiefs who have to earn the right to wear a feather,” said Bearden, speaking from his home in Tulsa. “I wanted to talk about it in a way where I didn’t get it in people’s face,” he said.
As part of the series, Bearden has also painted his grandfather, and Patrick Swayze in character from the film The Outsiders, which was filmed in Tulsa. He also has more politically minded images of Native Americans. The Pope was the first helmet in the series.
It’s not just NFL teams that have built a brand around images of Native Americans. Cleveland's Major League Baseball team goes by the “Indians” and its logo depicts a smiling cartoon character sporting a feather and red skin. As Bearden notes, many tribes consider feathers to symbolize trust, honor, wisdom, or power.
Bearden, who said he is in his 40s, has been around Native American mascots from an early age. He went to a high school in Hominy, a city in the Osage Nation that actually has a “buck Indian” mascot. But Bearden says the mascot was illustrated respectfully and he’s not offended by it.
“Some mascots are connected to their heritage. I can’t speak for everyone but the ones in Hominy have a sense of pride,” Bearden said.
The Sacred Mascot series has been a huge success for Bearden. He’s been traveling across the country to Native American art festivals to sell his work, and recently he had to cancel an engagement because he sold out of his work.
“I’ve got a ton of helmets in the garage. This could be neverending,” Bearden said.