A lot has been written about Kansas City’s use of the Chiefs as a mascot, with its various forms of “playing Indian”– tomahawk chops, the chant, etc. For more on the mascot issue– in fact, for a comprehensive review of the mascot issue and a summary of all the academic literature on it– see this blog post here:
But let’s move on to the 49ers. It’s a historical reference to the Gold Rush, which largely created the city of San Francisco. The US took California from Mexico in 1848, just as gold was discovered by John Sutter’s employees. Sutter himself, based on the testimony of his contemporaries, was a crazed individual comparable to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. He sex trafficked Native slaves and posted their severed heads on the gates of his fort in what is now downtown Sacramento. Today, streets, town, counties, even the governor’s dog, are named in his honor.
Within a few years, 300,000 white Americans, along with 60,000 Chinese immigrants, 7,000 Mexicans (who were mostly already in California), and others poured into California. The Natives were in the way, especially the ones in the hills, the Miwok, Maidu, Yana, Wintu, and others, who had avoided the Spanish missions (themselves a kind of theocratic terror state I can only compare to ISIS’s pseudo state in northern Syria of recent years).
The historic 49ers unleashed a reign of anarchy and terror on both the people and land of California. First, they mined mercury from the Coast Ranges and carted it to the Sierra to process the gold. To this day most of California’s rivers and lakes, and San Francisco Bay, are contaminated from this effort. Fish consumption advisories, especially in the lower elevations, are ubiquitous. Thru hydraulic mining they diverted streams, turned them into fire hoses, and washed away mountain sides. The ensuing mud wiped out most of the salmon in the Sierra.
And, finally, the 49ers engaged in one of the most systematic and thorough genocides ever documented. Thanks to the Gold Rush, California quickly became a state in 1850, the “Golden State”. It’s first act was to legalize Native child slavery. Girls sold for twice the cost of boys. Native sex trafficking was so pervasive that entire communities died of syphilis. In the hills, miners baited food for Natives with cyanide while the State of California reimbursed vigilante groups for their killing sprees. At times, it was a house to house affair, calling out Natives by name and slaughtering them in the yard, like in Rwanda.
California’s first governor addressed the state legislature in 1851, saying, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.”
When the federal government tried to establish reservations to protect Natives from the miners’ depredations, the state rejected them. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when the state realized they didn’t have legal title to the land, that they found the genocide’s survivors, moved them to “rancherias”, and got them to sign off on the rest of the state.
So that’s the 49ers that we are celebrating and honoring.
Taken together, the two Super Bowl mascots illustrate how white America deals with its past. It relegates Natives to nothing more than an old arrowhead found in the backyard, or just completely erases them from history.