Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
Since sports were first organized in the U.S., athletes have worn offensive team names across their chests. The vast majority of those turned the survivors of this country’s founding genocide into mascots — mascots that, in some cases, have endured into the present. That allows the 1,232 American high schools that have mascots based on some bastardization of Indigenous people and culture according to a 2020 survey from FiveThirtyEight to cry “But, tradition!” or “But, honor!” to anyone who might be hurt by their team names and imagery. This column has tackled this issue before and probably will have to again, since the battle to rid the sports world of these offensive relics is an agonizingly slow one.
But the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun is different. In 2003, it became the first professional sports team owned by a Native American tribe: the Mohegan tribe purchased the then-Orlando Miracle to play at its Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino. In the intervening years, the tribe has made sure to emphasize Indigenous culture in a way that contrasts dramatically with more familiar caricatures.
Improbably, that effort is getting a new, bigger platform thanks in part to one of the WNBA’s biggest corporate sponsors, Nike, which released three new uniform designs for each team earlier this week. The redesign ostensibly commemorates the league’s 25th season, but really it is just a much needed overhaul. The previous uniforms weren’t retro enough to be cool or modern enough to be hip; many of them were drowning in ads, which were extra unappealing if you were thinking of, say, purchasing one. The new designs generally look much better, and center the same progressive, social justice-oriented messaging that the league has recently embraced — like “female empowerment” (sigh), the theme of the new “Rebel Edition” jerseys.
Each team’s “Rebel Edition” jersey purports to connect with a local activist or history of protest. Some do this better than others: the “Rebel Edition” jersey for my Seattle Storm, for example, is just black with silver letters and “symbolizes female empowerment” with a female gender symbol. Sure, unless you’re thinking about how the gender binary it symbolizes is a social construct.
The Connecticut Sun’s “Rebel Edition” uniform, though, is actually illuminating. In conjunction with the Mohegan tribal council, Nike created a uniform dedicated to late Mohegan elder and medicine woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who died in 2005 at 106 years old. Tantaquidgeon’s story is a remarkable one that’s likely unknown to most WNBA fans. She spent her life advocating for Indigenous people’s rights across the United States, defying whatever gendered expectations might have been placed on her along the way as a matter of course.
The uniform is designed to echo her traditional regalia, and has the word “sun” in Mohegan — Keesusk — emblazoned across the chest. All the details of the uniform, the trim and the logos, have specific significance to the Mohegan tradition. They also just look cool, too.
“Anytime you can share your message with your Indigenous voice, it’s meaningful, and it’s not someone else telling your story, right?” Beth Regan, vice chairwoman and justice of the Mohegan Tribal Council of Elders, told the Hartford Courant. “We have seen the misappropriation of our images for so long, especially through sports. It feels so good, it feels so right, to finally have a team that is owned by a Native American tribe. To be able to display who we are, with our voice.”
Unfortunately, there’s still a concerning variable: whether fans will hear and understand the uniforms’ meaning, or if they will exploit the entrée they’ve been given into learning about this important tradition. But it’s rare to feel like a professional sports organization has done something good, without an asterisk. These uniforms and the overlooked history they are designed to amplify seem not only asterisk-free, but a necessary reclamation of a space that has for so long been a source of pain and oppression for Indigenous people.