49ers at Redskins 10/15/17
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Super Bowl Sunday is a uniquely American celebration of guts and grit, cash and commercialism. It’s our annual ritual and favored sport. Thanksgiving is the only other American holiday that Super Sunday rivals.

This year it’s San Francisco versus Kansas City in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, the 54th championship gladiator event.

But before there was the NFL, there were real 49ers who fought against actual chiefs. It was history’s Version 1.0 of a non-gridiron battle where native sons fought Native Americans. This partly forgotten fight remains a shameful part of U.S. history. That long-ago chapter is relevant today, at a time when racism and foreign immigration remain hot-button political issues.

So let’s take a minute, hit the TV remote and pause the action to think about the meaning and history of this Super Bowl’s team names.

Most NFL and other sports teams have benevolent names and mascots: Giants, Titans, Marlins, Jets, Sox, Rays, Rockets. Some, however, are stuck with a dehumanizing naming tradition. Their stadiums feature tomahawk-chopping costumed fans wearing war paint and feathered headdresses.

Heated national debates about Native American mascots have occurred over many years and will continue as long as there are Redskins, Braves, Blackhawks and Chiefs. I went to San Francisco’s Lowell High School, where our 60-year-old mascot, the Indian, was reluctantly changed to a Cardinal in 1983. I currently work at Stanford University, where the Indian was retired in 1981 and the unofficial mascot became the uncontroversial Tree.

But let’s face it. It’s time to dump dated and demeaning symbols. Keep any parts that might honor and elevate American Indian history and culture and use the Seminole tribe’s accommodation with Florida State University as a positive example of how to figure out workable solutions.

In contrast to the ongoing controversies surrounding Native American mascots, the ‘Niners’ mascot escapes scrutiny. They are represented by a seemingly benign, if ornery, gold prospector in well-worn clothes. The 19th century scruffy old coot in the turned-up hat represents the thousands upon thousands of Americans who flooded into California for the Gold Rush. Arriving in droves in 1849, they made up America’s biggest mass migration, which is why they are called 49ers.

Simultaneously, the rest of the world flocked to California, too. The Gold Rush also became the world’s most diverse migration. Altogether, California saw 300,000 new arrivals from home and abroad during the Gold Rush.

It was a wild time, when gold fever ran hot, and gold was there for the taking in the nation’s westernmost and least governed territory. Lawless, aggressive, criminal acts ruled the day. Those heading West brought few provisions and less understanding of non-Caucasians. Most Americans arriving at the mining fields and gold panning banks of the American River had never before encountered Chileans, Polynesians, Australians and Russians, It was the first time they had seen a Chinese person.

In 1852, more 20,000 Chinese came through San Francisco, a city they had called “Gold Mountain” in China. By the end of the 1850s, the Chinese who crossed the Pacific to seek their fortune made up one in five people scouring California’s rich Sierra foothills and fabled gold fields. Such a massive Asian presence fed prejudice. Racism ran rampant, and new California whites wanted native Indians gone and servile Chinese.

An Indian genocide that began in other parts of America followed the populations rapidly flowing West. In the end, Native Americans were decimated. As the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper put it at the time: “It is a painful necessity of advancing civilization that the Indians should gradually disappear.” And they nearly did. By the turn of the century, a population of tribal California natives went from 300,000 down to 16,000. The 49ers did their part to kill off Indian chiefs and their tribes.

Nowadays, when we think about the original 49ers, we imagine hardscrabble, risk-taking men expressing radical individualism, showing fortitude and pluck by braving travel west across rough and dangerous territory to hunt for gold nuggets and flakes of fortune. Today’s football team is named after those romanticized 49ers of yore who fought tough odds and hard conditions to survive and, just maybe, hit the jackpot. That’s an acceptable image for a team mascot.

When it came to Indians and Chinese, however, these very same 49ers were often a ruthless bunch of thieves, claim jumpers, and race baiters. Their actions and beliefs led to the near extermination of California natives and stoked support for Congressional passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—which is eerily reminiscent of today’s Muslim ban.

Super Bowl fans can appreciate the astounding athletic prowess and power of both remarkable teams, despite the fact that their mascots are bad marketing choices.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).