“Multiple times over the past few years, I’ve read stories about teams facing opponents with Indian mascots making signs like Get Ready for Another Trail of Tears.

 

“Imagine this sign read, instead: Get ready for a Holocaust! or Our team’s so hot, we are going to make you leap from the Twin Towers! or We’re going to make your school look like Sandy Hook!”

The Problem With Native American Mascots  

by John Gram

In light of the breaking news that Cleveland’s baseball team is going to drop their longtime mascot, I thought I would share again what I shared back when the Washington Football Team made the same decision.

The issue of Native American mascots is not simply PC run amok:

1) MOST NON-NATIVE AMERICANS HAVE LITTLE TO NO EXPOSURE TO AMERICAN INDIANS ON A REGULAR BASIS.

Most Americans do not have the face or name of an indigenous person come to mind when they hear the phrase “American Indian.” They do not have memories of shared lives, shared conversations, shared meals, etc, to draw upon.

Because so many Americans do not (knowingly) interact with American Indians, their impressions of American Indians are disproportionately affected by how they ARE portrayed in popular culture and media. This isn’t speculation, by the way; it’s backed up from a multitude of studies done on the impact of Indian mascots.

When I told my friends in China that I was from Texas, they immediately began asking me questions about guns, horses, and big hats. Why? Because that’s what Texas was to them. They had no exposure to Texas outside of certain images in their national media and popular culture. This is precisely what happens to many American Indians on a regular basis.

Did you notice how I put “knowingly” in parentheses in the previous paragraph? Yeah, that was because you probably have interacted with American Indians on many occasions; they just didn’t fit the expectations conditioned by things like Indian mascots put in your brain, so you didn’t realize it.

And because the average non-native American has little to no opportunity to humanize their perception of indigenous people, those dehumanizing popular images–whether the savage charging John Wayne, the Disney princess painting with the colors of the wind, the sci-fi character having a vision quest, or the stoic warrior decorating the side of a football helmet–do far more damage than one might imagine because of the disproportionate amount of influence they wield. Again, not speculation.

Wait, “dehumanizing”? Stay with me …

2) INDIAN MASCOTS CONTINUE THE LONG HISTORICAL PRACTICE OF DEHUMANIZING AND APPROPRIATING IMAGES OF AMERICAN INDIANS IN THE UNITED STATES.

There’s a crapton (official scholarly term) to unpack there, but as groups of people that Americans conquered, colonized, and even tried to wipe out at times, Native American images have a tremendously problematic past and present–different than, say, using a Viking or a Cowboy.

From colonial times (e.g. Boston Tea Party), national popular culture and media has portrayed indigenous people as exotic–a foil to help non-natives better understand themselves.

Sometimes indigenous peoples have been vicious savages, reassuring white Americans of their own civilized status. Other times, indigenous peoples have been noble savages, reminding white Americans of all they have lost, or risk losing, as they trudge toward modernity and away from the paradisaical past of native caricatures (e.g. Boy Scouts).

But both the vicious savage and the noble savage are dehumanizing, in the end. Reducing any group of people to a set of traits that helps you better understand yourself–even if you do it for the purpose of “honoring” them for something you feel you lack–is always dehumanizing. Even using Native Americans as symbols of good qualities–strength, bravery, courage, wisdom, love of the earth, etc–still leaves them as symbols, rather than human beings.

(Anyone wanting to better understand the long history of native symbolism and the purposes it has served in American history could start with Philip Deloria’s “Playing Indian.”)

And speaking of mascots “honoring” American Indians …

3) THE “TRADITIONS” THAT SURROUND INDIAN MASCOTS ARE OFTEN NOT ONLY STEREOTYPICAL, BUT ALSO HISTORICALLY INACCURATE – AND THEY OFTEN GROSSLY MISTREAT THINGS THAT ARE SACRED TO AMERICAN INDIANS.

Even when teams feel like they are “honoring” American Indians by trying to be “authentic,” they are often getting the “traditions” quite wrong.

It’s an older documentary, but check out “In Whose Honor?” It follows the fight to get the University of Illinois to stop using Chief Illiniwek as a mascot. The university defended the Chief in large part because of his authenticity. But as the documentary points out, there were multiple issues – inappropriate use of Eagle feathers, patterning the Chief’s outfit after the traditional clothing of tribal nations from a different part of the continent, and an “authentic” dance that was pure nonsense.

But inaccuracy isn’t the only concern here. There’s also the matter of profaning the sacred (like the example of the Eagle feathers above).

Imagine a football team calling themselves the Marauding Christians who held a wet t-shirt contest for the cheerleaders at halftime each game and called it “Holy Baptism.” Then, they had a special one week on beers and hot dogs, and called it “Lord’s Supper Sunday.” People snickered when they saw a fan who had too much to drink, and said to each other things like “Looks like someone has the Holy Spirits!” We’re talking about that level of disrespect of sacred things.

Now take that shock and horror and add centuries of attempts to demonize, criminalize, and destroy your spiritual practices …

4) INDIAN MASCOTS MAKE THE HISTORY AND TRADITIONS OF LIVING PEOPLES THE TARGETS OF RIDICULE AND BELITTLEMENT BY OPPOSING TEAMS.

Multiple times over the past few years, I’ve read stories about teams facing opponents with Indian mascots making signs like “Get Ready for Another Trail of Tears.”

Imagine this sign read, instead: “Get ready for a Holocaust!” or “Our team’s so hot, we are going to make you leap from the Twin Towers!” or “We’re going to make your school look like Sandy Hook!”

I can’t fathom any of those signs ever being made! Can you? So, why would high school kids feel like it is appropriate to create signs that reference a horrific event in which some tribal nations lost between 20-25% of their entire population?

One explanation is that these cheerleaders and everyone up the chain of command who had to approve this poster are evil, hateful people. They are monsters in human skin purposely celebrating an act of unspeakable injustice, violence, and genocide.

But, c’mon, I seriously doubt it. Don’t you? Honestly, the situation would be easier to address if they were just genuinely evil people. More likely, though, they simply never had any warning lights go off in their heads when they decided to use this slogan on a sign.

Why not? Because of the reasons we’ve been discussing so far.

5) STUDIES HAVE SHOWN THAT THE USE OF INDIAN MASCOTS DOES REAL PSYCHOLOGICAL DAMAGE TO AMERICAN INDIAN YOUTH.

Again, this is documented, not merely hypothetical. If you want to review the research, the best place to start would probably be “Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots.” 

6) AMERICAN INDIANS ARE STILL SUFFERING FROM THE CONSEQUENCES OF UNITED STATES COLONIALISM TO THIS DAY.

Did you know that Indigenous women are most likely to suffer sexual assault or be sexually trafficked?

(You can check out Sarah Deer’s “The Beginning and End of Rape” for more information on this).

Did you know that, per capita, American Indians are the demographic group most likely to suffer from police brutality?

Do you know which treaties between tribal nations and the United States are still being violated by our government? Did you realize that the current administration has probably been the worst one for Indian Country since the 1950s?

Indian mascots help relegate American Indians to the past – and relegate their unjust treatment and betrayal only to the past, as well. And the delusion that we are “honoring” or “remembering” our American Indians neighbors through making them into mascots can excuse and distract us from actual advocacy on their behalf.
————————
One thing I did not touch on here is the use of Indian mascots by American Indian schools, or by schools/teams that have the permission of the relevant tribal nation. I believe that such instances fall under the umbrella of tribal sovereignty. As a non-native claimed by none of the nearly 600 indigenous sovereign nations within the current bounds of the United States, my opinion on this issue is not relevant.
————————
Want more starting places besides the book titles and links shared above? Try the following:

More than a Word” – documentary by John and Ken Little

The Harmful Psychological Effects of the Washington Football Mascot” – research study by Michael A. Friedman