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 asChief 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.