"There's actually a long tradition in American life of 'playing Indian,' of pretending to be an Indian," Gover said.
In the nation's early years, fraternal organizations were formed around made-up Indian rituals and ceremonies in many Eastern cities, he said. In the 20th century, he said, the focus shifted to the theory that the Indians were on their way to extinction and "we're going to assert the right to represent who they were."
Professional sports teams using Native American names and imagery emerged around that time. The Washington Redskins were originally the Boston Braves, but owner George Preston Marshall changed the name in 1933 to avoid confusion with a local baseball team. The team moved to Washington four years later.
Manley Begay of the Navajo Nation, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona, said many people are surprised the stereotypical imagery is considered derogatory and racist. "It's very hard for someone to come to that realization," he said.
The lead plaintiff in the original case against the Washington Redskins said more team names will change over time. Suzan Shown Harjo, the president of the Washington-based Morning Star Institute, an advocacy group, said it was important to hold this discussion at the Smithsonian.
"The museum we have built is one of the places that these names and the symbology and the mascots and the paraphernalia need to be retired to," she said. "They need to be consigned to the history books and to museums."
Associated Press Writers Ben Nuckols and Joseph White contributed to this report.
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