Sports Illustrated "Errant 'Indian Wars'"

G. Richard King
Ellen J. Staurowsky
Lawrence Baca
Laurel R. Davis
Cornel Pewewardy

This article offers a collaborative review of the article "The Indian Wars" from the March 4, 2002, issue of Sports Illustrated that purported to present novel scientific findings regarding the attitudes of sports fans and American Indians toward Native American mascots. Despite the claims of the periodical, the authors argue, the article provides a flawed and biased account of pseudo-Indian mascots that misconstrues their history as well as significance to Native and non-Native peoples. The authors begin with a critical reading of the article, analyzing its arguments, interpretive frames, methodology, and evidence. Then, the authors examine the context omitted from the article. In turn, the authors highlight the place of Indian stereotypes within EuroAmerican and Native American communities, the intersections of race and power animating such mascots, and the prejudice and terror encouraged by mascots and media coverage of them. Finally, the authors discuss the implications of "The Indian Wars."

The March 4, 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated (SI) featured a vividly illustrated, sensationally reported, 7-page article about the Native American mascots controversy. "The Indian Wars" by S. L. Price pivoted on views of the use of Indian names and symbols in sports. From a poll of 351 Native Americans and 743 sports fans commissioned from the Peter Harris Research Group, supplemented with 10 interviews with Indian and non-Indian individuals, Price concluded first that the majority of indigenous peoples, like sports fans and citizens generally, supported such mascots, and more, that Native American leaders working against these mascots were out of touch with, even disconnected from, their constituents.

Having studied and worked against Native American mascots for years, we are not surprised by Price's report. We know that some Native Americans not only endorse but also defend the use of Indianness in athletics. We are also familiar with the reactionary backlash that has fostered and fed off efforts to defend the symbols, practices, and privileges associated with Native American mascots. "The Indian Wars" troubles us because of (a) its pronounced bias, seemingly intent to distract from the history and implications of mascots as it derails efforts to challenge them; (b) its use of polling and representations of opinion; (c) its pervasive decontextualization of mascots and the controversy over them; (d) the impression it undoubtedly leaves on its audience that mascots are unproblematic, particularly because indigenous people say so; and (e) the legacies of such inappropriate and inaccurate renderings for public debate and social justice.

In this article, we want to reframe the "Indian Wars." On one hand, we deconstruct the SI article, particularly its interpretive frames and signifying practices. On the other hand, we make sense of the sociocultural context shaping the SI article, public opinion, and indigenous support.

This article began to take shape almost immediately following the publication of "The Indian Wars." Electronic correspondence and telephone conversations about the article soon gave way to a formal mailing list initiated by Davis. Shortly thereafter, King and Staurowsky drafted a letter to the editor of SI, outlining the problems with the Price piece (available online at  Response to The Indian Wars 
March 4, 2002, Editor, Sports Illustrated, Time & Life Building, Rockefeller Center, New York, NY 10020-1393

 A draft was circulated among scholars on a number of listserves, including those sponsored by the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and the Society for American Indian Literature. More than 30 scholars agreed to support the letter submitted to the periodical. SI never published the 7-page letter but instead published excerpts from 6 letters, including one from coauthor Baca. Before and after the submission of the letter, the staff at SI and the Peter Harris Group resisted our efforts to inquire about the article and, importantly, refused to share information from or about the poll.

Angered by the multinational media corporation's efforts to silence inquiry and frustrated with the tone of public discourse about Native American mascots, we came together to author a collective response to the SI article. Initially, King and Staurowsky outlined the article and recruited the participants. Then, individual contributors drafted segments of the final article': Baca authored the hostile environment section; Davis wrote the sections on history and stereotyping; Pewewardy composed the portion on hegemony; Staurowsky began and King finished the discussion about the article and the poll. Once drafted, King collated and edited the piece, drafting the opening and closing, while standardizing style and argument. Collective revision produced the final draft.

In what follows, we expand on our initial commentary in hopes of clarifying both the SI article itself and the broader sociocultural field producing it. To begin, we offer a critical reading of the SI article, reviewing both its content and the manner in which the magazine framed it. Next, we analyze the poll and its problems. On this foundation, we reframe "The Indian Wars," considering in turn the history of mascots, the stereotypes associated with them in EuroAmerican and Native American communities, the intersections of race and power, and the terror fostered by mascots and media coverage such as the SI piece. In conclusion, we explore the legacies and lessons of "The Indian Wars" for scholars and activists.


Arguably, the preferred reading of "The Indian Wars" is that the article offers new insights into the mascot controversy, particularly how Native Americans feel about mascots. In this section, we offer an alternative reading that critically unpacks the structures and meanings of the SI article.

The SI article begins on the cover. To entice readers, a banner in the upper right-hand corner of the magazine poses the question "Are Indian Team Names Offensive?" with the accompanying teaser "Our poll will surprise you." Inside the magazine, the text of one headline reads, "The campaign against Indian nicknames and mascots presumes that they offend Native Americans-but do they? We took a poll, and you won't believe the results." Later in the SI article, a third headline reads, "SI polls Native Americans and sport fans in general on the use of Indian nicknames, and got some surprising answers." This kind of editorial framing of the findings in advance of their introduction can hardly be interpreted as balanced reporting when measured against any journalistic standard (Goldberg, 2002).

The stated purpose of the SI article, to consider whether American Indian team names are offensive, is overwhelmed by selected bits of the pollster's data, the imagery, and the frame in which the report is made. The introduction to the article begins with a 2-page foldout of the Florida State mascot "Chief Osceola," a young man whose face is marked with red war paint, his long black hair bound with a matching red bandana, sitting astride a horse named "Renegade," flaming war lance held aloft in a menacing gesture.

At a visual level, readers confront stereotype on stereotype before the reporting begins. Of the six photos that appear in the article, three feature college students dressed up as American Indians (a shot of FSU's "Chief Osceola" that takes up two full pages and two one-quarter page photos); one depicts a player for the Washington football franchise with the "Indian" logo on his helmet; and another features two fans at Turner Field participating in the "tomahawk chop" (which takes up one third of a page). Noticeably, the publishers appear averse to acknowledging Native Americans as real people within the visual context of the article. There are no pictures of Native Americans in nonstereotypical dress and roles, nor are there any pictures of those who work against the mascots. In the visual presentation, why were there no pictures of Native Americans being spat on or harassed for protesting against these stereotypes or being handcuffed and thrown in jail for pro-testing? Why were there no pictures of the anonymous flyers posted on college campuses where Native Americans have asked for these images to be retired, flyers threatening harm to critics and invoking racial epithets such as "prairie nigger"? Why were there no pictures of the T-shirts emblazoned with dehumanizing words and images such as "Sioux Suck" and worse in North Dakota? This represents a significant departure for SI or any other sport publication in which feature articles are uniformly supplemented with pictures of people quoted in them. Not even Billy Mills, the great Dakota runner who won the gold medal in the 10,000 meters in the 1968 Olympic Games, had sufficient athletic stature and pedigree to warrant a present day photo despite providing S. L. Price with the opening narrative for the piece.

Against this backdrop of Native American stereotypes and real Native American invisibility, readers learn that a majority of sport fans apparently do not find Native American mascots and nicknames offensive nor do Native Americans. The filter the reader sifts through on the way to the "hard facts" assumes the dimensions of a racialized gauntlet for those who would dare to point to the missing facts associated with the polling method, the bias of the SI article itself, or the more significant "fact" of White supremacy and privilege at the core of these images.

So firm is the magazine's belief in the data gathered that S. L. Price concluded, and the headline editor reinforced the conclusion with red border text set off with arrows, that "there's a total disconnect between Indian activists and the Native American population on this [mascot] issue" (p.72). The message communicated to readers is that they have essentially been duped by a few vocal Native Americans and their allies who have made an issue out of something that is inconsequential not just to sport fans but to the majority of Native Americans as well. Thus, the readers are the victims of a frame-up that has relied on a race card that does not exist.

Let us start, as the magazine did, with "Chief Osceola." The irony of the article's title "The Indian Wars" intersecting with the invocation of the memory of the great Seminole leader, who lost his life resisting U.S. encroachment, is rendered invisible by all the cultural clutter surrounding it. The acceptability of this imagery being used at the very beginning of the article is reinforced when Price noted that "Florida State... uses the name Seminoles for its teams with the express approval of the Seminole nation" (p.72).

Many Americans, particularly those interested in sports, can identify Osceola as the FSU mascot, but far fewer know of the historic figure. Thus, another frame is revealed. As American Indian anthropologist Richard Grounds (2001) observed, "There is a doubleness about these Indian names, remarking the existence of Native Americans while relegating them to the past, appearing to bestow honor on them while cloaking the destructive deeds of Euro-American society" (p.299). Grounds went on to note that "it has long been easy for representatives of the society that has been living off the spoils of brutal conquest, who have not lived the consequences of dispossession, to lay claim to a history that is not theirs" (p.304).

What would the impact have been on readers of SI if Price had related the final fate of Osceola? Just as the U.S. government and its White citizenry engaged in the appropriation of lands from Native Americans during and following the Indian Wars, so too did these citizens believe that they had a right to Osceola's physical body at the time of his imprisonment and eventual death. Consider this passage in Grounds (2001):


The capture and death of Osceola made possible the ensuing orgy of appropriation. After his liberty had been taken, artists took his picture; the military took his two wives and children into captivity and deported them. On Osceola's death physicians took a "death mask" for phrenological purposes, while Army personnel took souvenirs of his personal belongings.... The attending physician took a lock of his hair, and early tourists came and took chips from his grave marker as mementos. Americans took his name to be spread across their evolving American universe.... But ultimately all this was not enough: the head of Osceola had to be taken. Osceola's head was removed at the fifth vertebra shortly after his death. (p.313)


Just as the reader would be unable to discern this history of Osceola from the widespread use of this imagery, so too would they be unable to discern even the slightest hint that the "express approval of the Seminole nation" reported by S. L. Price is a contested issue. As a matter of public record, the Inter-tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma, which includes the governments of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole Nations (the Seminole Nation in Oklahoma, of course, because of removal and dispossession), passed a resolution in July 2001 joining the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in its call to "eliminate the stereotypical use of American Indian names and images as mascots in sports and other events" (available at 

The SI article leaves much out as well. Price makes light of critiques of racially biased language by labeling these critiques a matter of "political correctness" but fails to provide the reasons behind such critiques. And Price does not discuss the life of a single Native American who feels diminished by the Native American mascot in her/his community. Furthermore, in at least one case, a Native American who was interviewed and had relevant information was excluded from the article. Although not reported in the article, David Narcomey, a Floridian and member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, explained in detail the complicated political and economic issues that affect the relationship between the Seminole Nation and Florida State University to an SI research staffer in advance of the publication of the piece (D. Narcomey, personal communication, April 7, 2002; see also King & Springwood, 2001a, pp.75-98). Price opted likewise to neglect the numerous scholarly articles and books written about the history and significance of Native American mascots.

The confidence with which the magazine asserts that a "disconnect" between Native American activists and Native Americans exists on this issue belies the serious errors in logic and accuracy made in the simplistic labeling of Native Americans who oppose mascots as "activists." Some Native American groups that oppose mascots can be thought of as activist, depending on how the word is defined, and some Native Americans who oppose mascots are not activists. There is an enormous amount of evidence in the public domain that demonstrates the widespread disapproval of mascots in Indian Country. A litany of Indian nonactivist groups such as the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the Central New York Native Studies Consortium, the Society of Indian Psychologists, and the Native American Journalists Association, along with dozens of tribes, have all taken a public stand against the stereotyping of Indian people through sport team mascots (see American Indian Sports Team Mascots - The list of Native American and non-Native American educational, religious, and governmental organizations opposing these images numbers well over 100.

As a matter of perspective, Suzan Shown Harjo (Muscogee), the executive director of the Morning Star Institute who was the lead plaintiff in the patent and trademark case challenging the Washington football franchise's use of the term "Redskins" as their name, sheds light on the magnitude of support received within the Native American community on this issue relative to others. While speaking at the fourth annual Conference on Racist Imagery in the Popular Culture in Cleveland on April 7,2002, Harjo stated that there are more Indian people working on this issue nationally than on any other topic of concern to Indian people, including repatriation, sacred sites, sovereignty, health issues, economic issues, and so forth (notes taken by Staurowsky, April 7, 2002, Cleveland, Ohio). Thus, even if Harjo overstates the number of individuals working against mascots, to represent disagreement among Native Americans to selected poll questions as a "near total disconnect" is to wholly misunderstand what is going in within the Native American community overall.

By virtue of the SI article's focus on reported disagreement between Native Americans, the reader is invited to amble through the poll data while never confronting the realities of why those polled, Native American and non-Native American alike, may not object to the imagery itself. The insistent and ever-ebbing tides of assimilationism set in motion centuries ago were designed to produce the very result we see here. The reader is not encouraged to consider that it was exactly at the moment when "1'he Indian Wars" ended, roughly 1890, when these stereotypical images of Indians began to take shape and became such a familiar part of advertising. In the end, the polling results are nothing more than a testament to the U.S. invasion and conquest of Indian people.


A poll of public opinion anchors and animates "The Indian Wars." It legitimates the assertions in the SI article and, by extension, makes them less debatable, while fostering a sensational reframing of the mascot issue.

Since the publication of 'The Indian Wars," repeated efforts have been made to obtain information directly from SI and the Peter Harris Research Group about the methodology used and the identification of subjects inter-viewed. SI has taken the position that the survey itself and details regarding the method used in polling are their exclusive property. Sheryl Spain, the director of public relations for SI, has also indicated in response to requests for more details about the study that all the information that readers need to know is contained in the article itself (S. Spain, personal communication, March 11, 2002). This is clearly not the case. In fact, we would assert that SI has failed to abide by accepted journalistic standards and practices for the appropriate reporting of survey results. Consequently, we do not know (a) how participants were recruited, (b) how they were contacted, (c) if they were concentrated in one region, (d) if one ethnic group (Cherokee, Dine, or Ojibwe, for instance) is over-represented, or (e) the exact wording and order of questions. Indeed, because SI failed to secure a full, complete, and unambiguous enumeration of the population, its results are problematic at best and invalid and unreliable at worst. Whether SI ever discloses how the poll was actually conducted or not, there are several major concerns that can be raised.

Based on the SI article, responses were "weighted according to U.S. Census figures for age, race and gender, and for distribution of Native Americans on and off reservations." Having consulted the U.S. 2000 Census of Population and Housing, there is a difference in terminology between that used in the SI article and the census itself.   The census does not use "gender" as a stratification variable. It uses the term "sex." Furthermore, although SI refers to subjects as "Native American," there is no such category in the U.S. Census, which uses American Indian and Alaskan Native. In the census, American Indian and Alaskan Native are listed under "one race" and also under "race alone or in combination with one or more races." Given the terminology used in the article, it is impossible to know exactly what census data were used in shaping the SI study itself

Even if one sets asides these discrepancies, Indianness still remains a fundamental problem. The criteria pollsters use to define Native American identity has a significant impact on poll findings. Native American identity has a long, twisted history in the United States. There has been an ongoing struggle between the U.S. government, Native American societies, and various individuals over who is defined as Native American (Jaimes, 1992; Mihesuah, 1996; Nagel, 1995). Should Native identity be determined by genetic heritage (and if yes, how much?), "tribal" affiliation, place of residence (e.g., reservation versus nonreservation), cultural practices, or self-proclaimed identity? Some people who claim native identity have little contact with (other) Native Americans and little or no relation with an established native society (Mihesuah, 1996; Nagel, 1995). Indeed, not only does the SI article obfuscate the definition of Indian used to select subjects, it fails to indicate the precise recruitment mechanisms. How did the pollsters determine the ethnicity of participants? Did they use tribal rolls? Most likely the SI poll retied on self-identification. This approach is questionable first because over the phone, it is impossible to verify ethnicity, and second because of the manner in which EuroAmericans manipulate claims to Indian descent in mascots debates. Recently, Brenda Farnell (in press) and Charles Springwood (in press) have highlighted the ways supporters invoke and claim Indian heritage to advance their defense of mascots. Moreover, although we cannot discuss the concentration and distribution of participants because SI refused to share its methodology with US, we do wonder how representative the poll can be of indigenous opinion: There are more than 550 recognized tribal groups in the United States, but only 351 individuals registered their sentiments. In addition, although the majority of Native Americans reside away from reservations, 61.8% of the SI indigenous respondents lived on reservations. This difference likely skews the findings and their interpretation.

Doing telephone research is not easy and may account for these problems of representation. The SI article never discusses what many Americans do not know: Many Native Americans do not have reliable telephone service. How did this shape the study's findings? Did the pollsters take this into account? Whether or not they did, they seem to have conducted a terribly successful study of indigenous public opinion. The notion that unknown pollsters could simply telephone Native American respondents, particularly Native American respondents on the reservation, presents several areas of questions. Researchers who work with Native American subjects often report that Native American subjects are reticent about offering their insights and opinions to strangers. The apparent ability of the Peter Harris Research Group to locate so many Native Americans to talk about this issue over the phone is certainly a feat that other researchers would like to know how it was accomplished. In addition, some Native Americans have questioned how the pollsters determined who they were speaking with at the time of the call. whereas the report in SI indicates that special attention was directed toward geographical locations where more Indians resided to locate an appropriate sample, some Native Americans have pointed out that the racial politics in those regions is such that it would not be unusual for whites in those areas, on receiving a call of this kind, to identify as Native Americans for the purpose of skewing results (notes taken by Staurowsky, April 7, 2002, in Cleveland, Ohio, during 'Suzan Shown Harjo's presentation).

The very fact that one of the questions sought opinions about team nicknames derived from other ethnic groups is another area fraught with error. The problematic dynamic of representation within the population versus representation within the mascot collection is never addressed within the context of the SI article. At the college level, there is only one Irish mascot. There are 88 mascots with American Indian referents at the college/university level. At the high school level, 1,217 mascots allude to American Indians, only 46 make reference to the Irish (many of these being traced back to the University of Notre Dame). At the same time, the Irish American population is much higher than that of Native Americans by a wide margin. Irish Americans have had access to significant political power within the United States; Native Americans historically have not. Students at the University of Notre Dame, many of whom were of Irish descent, selected Fighting Irish as the team name and mascot The same cannot be said for American Indian mascots, the vast majority of which are White inventions chosen by White schools at the time of their adoption. The inclusion of this type of question represents a serious error within the construction of the instrument itself

Oddly absent from "The Indian Wars" is any mention of how its findings fit with those of other surveys of public opinion about mascots. In fact, at least a half-dozen polls have examined how Native Americans, EuroAmericans, sports fans, students, and/or citizens in general feel about the continued use of Indian symbols in sports.

In July 1997, USA Weekend (dead link at ) asked its readers "what is your opinion about changing a sports team's mascot because it offends Native Americans?" Visitors could vote in support of changing or keeping such mascots and submit a reaction to the ongoing controversy. Of those who came to the site, 2,419 participated in the quick poll, with 42% voting to change and 58% voting to retain such mascots (see King, in press, for a more complete analysis).

In contrast with this rather informal assessment of public sentiment, theNational Spectator Association, an organization serving sports fans, found that 60% of respondents believed that the Cleveland Indians team name should be changed because it is offensive (available at  ).

James Fenelon (1999) found moreover that Native Americans and EuroAmericans exhibited pronounced differences of opinions about the Cleveland mascot Chief Wahoo, with most Whites favoring retention under all circumstances and the majority of Native Americans opposing the mascot. (available at )

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Board obtained a similar finding about the team name of Washington's professional football team. Neither the general public nor Native Americans are of one mind on the subject. Stapleton (2001, pp.26-27) reported that a survey conducted for the case showed that 46% of the general public (n = 301) and 37% of American Indians (n =358) found "Redskin" to be an offensive term. Independently, Stapleton (2001) also studied the opinions of fans (n = 28) and Native Americans (n = 32) with Web sites: although 96% of the fans opposed changing the team name, 72% of indigenous peoples favored the name change (pp.62-64).

In March 2001, Joseph Kolb (2001) reported the findings of a University New Mexico at Gallup poll of 458 Native Americans. The results were similar to those published in SI: 25% felt honored, 21% were not offended, 18% were partially offended, 6% were very offended, and 23% did not care; in turn, 11% found mascots to be very harmful, 27% thought they were partially harmful, 51% believed they were not harmful, and 10% did not care.

Later that same year Indian Country' Today (ICT (2001) published results of its survey of its American Indian Opinion Leaders, a group of self-selected Native Americans who offer feedback: to the newspaper on issues of importance. In contrast with SIís findings, respondents overwhelmingly held critical views of mascots and their implications: 81% found them to be "offensive and deeply disparaging"; 10% thought names and mascots were respectful; 78% believed they fostered a hostile environment; 75% agreed that they were a violation of antidiscrimination laws, and 69% indicated that funds should be withheld from schools with Native American mascots.

A survey of alumni, faculty and staff, and students at the University of North Dakota (UND) further complicates the SI poll (available at ). The survey of 3,169 people (601 alumni, 1,158 employees, 603 students, and 447 minorities, of whom 53% were self-identified American Indians or Alaska Natives) revealed sharp differences. Whereas the vast majority of Whites agreed that the Fighting Sioux mascot honored UND (87% of alumni and 91% of students), only 54% of non-whites concurred. And moreover, whereas most EuroAmericans (82% of alumni and 79% of students) felt the mascot honored the Sioux, fewer than 40% of minorities (39%) agreed. Most non-Whites (61%) wanted the mascot to be changed, compared with 25% of alumni and 30% of students. Finally, a plurality of minorities (43%) believed that the Fighting Sioux perpetuates discrimination against Native Americans; in contrast, only 9% of students and 27% of employees agreed.

This is not the place to analyze these surveys in depth. Still, a few things are clear: (a) EuroAmericans are more likely than Native Americans to support Native American mascots; (b) Native Americans do not agree about mascots, and some endorse them; and (c) population, techniques, questions asked, and so on have a profound affect on the findings-this is surely the case in "The Indian Wars.

Not only do SI's data differ from other surveys, its openness to scrutiny and dialogue does as well. Indeed, SI's hesitancy to divulge exactly what was done in their solicitation of subjects and gathering of poll information contrasts sharply with the willingness of ICT be up front with the context out of which they obtained their poll data. Rather than claiming proprietary interest and possession of their process, Tim Johnson, an editor at ICT explained,

Indian Country Today's American Indian Opinion feature is conducted by polling those people who have signed on voluntarily to our survey group by sending us their name, e-mail [address], and tribal affiliation. The list consists of folks who have an interest in American Indian issues and who may or may not be subscribers to Indian Country Today. Many read our Web edition at It is important to stress that ours is not a scientific survey, but a survey of American Indian people who have voluntarily joined our network and generally stay informed about events and happenings in Indian country;

Approximately 450 American Indian people are in our polling group, and depending on the topic, response rates vary; The polling questions also elicit comments that are often published in our newspaper. This group, I think, is likely to have consistently followed the debate over the mascot issue. (T. Johnson, personal communication, March 6, 2002)


Of course, the greatest error of all may be the idea that polling people on these issues is appropriate from the outset. It suggests that popular opinion can settle troubling questions about prejudice, power, and privilege. Hence, if the majority support mascots (or racial segregation or sexual harassment), then such symbols and practices are acceptable. And worse, the SI article asserts that if members of marginalized and oppressed groups consent to their marginalization and oppression, then everything is OK. If most Blacks supported racial segregation, would it be a justifiable system? If most women saw nothing wrong with sexual harassment, would we not still want to suggest such actions were reprehensible and problematic? Unfortunately, in the end, "The Indian Wars" encourages Americans to avoid thinking critically about the history and significance of race.


In the SI article, Price provided little contextual information to illuminate the emergence of, and current viewpoints about, Native American mascots. To fully understand both the SI article and ongoing controversy about mascots, one must grasp the history of Indian symbols in sports.

Native American mascots emerged (mainly) in the early 1900s, after threat of major rebellion by natives to colonization had been clearly eliminated (Davis, 1993; King & Springwood, 2001a, 2001b; Staurowsky, 1998). These mascots were part of a larger phenomena of increased prevalence of Native American images in U.S. popular culture, including Western movies, symbols for beer and butter, and art in homes (Bird, 1996; Coombe, 1998; Deloria, 1998). One of the reasons why most Americans find the mascots unremarkable and do not turn a critical eye toward the mascots is because of the prevalence of similar images throughout U.S. popular culture (Green, 1988; Pewewardy, 2001; Spindel, 2000).

Historically, the most popular sport mascots have been animals associated with aggression (e.g., Tigers) and Native Americans (e.g., Indians, Chiefs, Braves, and so forth) (Davis, 1993; King & Springwood, 2001a). Although other ethnic groups have been occasionally used as mascots, these mascots differ from Native American mascots in several ways. The mascots named after other ethnicities are often (a) a people that do not exist today (e.g., Spartans); (b) less associated with aggression (e.g., Scots); (c) selected by people from the same ethnicity (e.g., Irish Americans at Notre Dame); and (d) not mimicked to nearly the same degree.

Native American mascots emerged in a context in which many non-Native Americans were "playing Indian" (Deloria, 1998; King, 2001; Spindel, 2000). Still today, children don "Indian" costumes at Halloween, "act like Indians" during "Cowboy and Indian" games, "become Indian Princesses" at the YMCA, and perform "Indian rituals" at summer camps. Adults belong to organizations that involve learning "Indian ways" and performing "Indian rituals" (Deloria, 1998; Mihesuah, 1996; Slapin & Seale, 1998). Non-Native Americans have created an imaginary version of Indianess that they sometimes enact, and they expect real Native Americans to either ignore, affirm, or validate such myths and practices (Deloria, 1998; Spindel, 2000). Similar practices applied to other races/ethnicities, such as "playing Black" or "playing Jewish," would not be accepted in our society today. Although non-Native Americans learn about a mythical "Native American culture," or occasionally about real Native American cultural practices, they often ignore most of the realities of contemporary Native American lives (King & Springwood, 2001b; Mihesuah, 1996; Slapin & Seale, 1998).

Activism against Native American mascots has been evident for more than 30 years. Since the early 1990s, this activism has become more widespread (Davis, 1993; King & Springwood, 2001b). Such activism emerged from Native American individuals, groups, and communities that work on a variety of other issues, such as treaty, economic, cultural, environmental, health, and educational issues. Although many U.S. citizens see the mascot issue as emerging "out of the blue," many Native American organizations see the elimination of such mascots as part of a larger agenda of reducing societal stereotyping about Native Americans (in the media, school curriculums, and so forth) and informing the public about the realities of Native American lives. An increase in accurate information about Native Americans is viewed as necessary for the achievement of other goals such as poverty reduction, educational advancements, and securing treaty rights (Davis, 1993; King & Springwood, 2001b; Spindel, 2000).

Anti-mascot activists articulate many different arguments against the mascots. First, they assert that the mascots stereotype Native Americans as only existing in the past, having a single culture, and being aggressive fighters. Second, they hold that these stereotypes influence the way people perceive and treat Native Americans. Such imagery is seen as affecting Native American images of themselves, creating a hostile climate for many Native Americans, and preventing people from understanding current Native American realities, which affects public policy relative to Native Americans. Third, the activists state that no racial cultural group should be mimicked (especially in regard to sacred items/practices), even if such mimicking is "culturally accurate." And fourth, they argue that Native Americans should have control over how they are represented (Davis, 1993,2002; King & Springwood, 2001a, 2001b; Pewewardy, 1991; Spindel, 2000; Staurowsky, 2000).

Along with the movement to eliminate the mascots has come resistance to this movement. There are two main arguments made by those who wish to retain Native American mascots: Such mascots represent important school or community traditions, and such mascots are meant to honor Native Americans (Davis, 1993; Davis & Rau, 2001; King, 2002; Spindel, 2000). These arguments have been thoroughly critiqued by both activists and scholars (Davis, 1993; King & Springwood, 2001b; Staurowsky, 1998).


To understand the mascot controversy, one must comprehend stereotypes of Native Americans. Two main stereotypes of Native Americans have been present throughout U.S. history: the bloodthirsty savage and the noble savage (Berkhofer; 1978; Bird, 1996; Mihesuah, 1996). The bloodthirsty savage stereotype is that Native Americans are aggressive, ruthless, and vicious fighters. Historically, this stereotype was used to justify wars and other forms of violence against native people. The noble savage stereotype is that Native Americans are childlike, primitive, and part of the natural world. Historically, this stereotype was used to justify outside rule (by the U.S. government or appointed agents) and forced acculturation-for example, many efforts of religious conversion and banning native religious practices; imposition of a system of individual land allotments in societies with communal land systems; and requiring Native children to attend boarding schools that rejected native culture (Berkhofer, 1978; Bird, 1996; Mihesuah, 1996). The noble savage stereotype is quite evident today, as many U.S. citizens seek and consume images of Native Americans that are based on notions that Native people possess a childlike innocence and are deeply connected to nature and spirituality (Bird, 1996; Deloria, 1998; Mihesuah, 1996).

These two stereotypes convey several problematic notions, including that Native Americans (a) are mainly a people who lived in the past; (b) have not adopted contemporary lifestyles; (c) have a single culture (rather than coming from many different native societies with many different cultures); (d) all were and are involved in fighting, are especially spiritual, and are deeply connected to nature; and (e) that non-Native Americans were and are less involved in fighting (Berkhofer, 1978; Davis, 2002; Mihesuah, 1996). The latter notion is especially problematic, given that it was Europeans and European Americans who used force to colonize Native people (Davis, 1993; King & Springwood, 2001a).

Native American mascots are rooted in the bloodthirsty savage stereotype, as it is this stereotype that is linked to desirable athletic qualities such as having a fighting spirit and being aggressive, brave, stoic, proud, and per-severing (Davis, 1993; King & Springwood, 2001a, 2001B). Prior to conquest of Native Americans, the bloodthirsty savage stereotype was rarely viewed as appealing (Bird, 1996; Deloria, 1998; Spindel, 2000).

In areas of the United States in which Native Americans reside in large(r) numbers and assert their agency, there are both negative and positive stereotypes about Native Americans. For example, in some areas in which Natives have fishing rights granted them through treaties, there is much vicious anti-Native attitude and behavior (Bird, 1996; Jaimes, 1992; Mihesuah, 1996) alongside "positive" stereotypes such as the notion that Native Americans are ideally connected to nature. On the other hand, in areas of the United States in which real Native Americans are few and largely unnoticed, it seems that Native Americans are primarily viewed through a "positive" stereotypical lens learned through fictional images (e.g., the Disney film Pocahontas) (Bird, 1996; Spindel, 2000). In these areas, Native Americans are often perceived as more principled, connected to nature, and in touch with their spirituality than other Americans.


Of course, even so-called positive stereotypes are ultimately negative. First all stereotypes fail to recognize diversity among the people who are being stereotyped. Second, so-called positive stereotypes often justify problematic practices. For example, the stereotype of Asian Americans as a model minority ultimately suggests that there should be no actions undertaken to reduce racial inequality and other people of color should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Most people deny that they believe any racial stereotypes, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. When we do notice our own stereotyping, it is often because our beliefs are very negative (e.g., believing that African Americans are criminal or Puerto Ricans are lazy). When our stereotypes are "positive" (e.g., Jews as good at business or Asians as smart), we tend to think that these beliefs are not stereotypical and thus not racist.

Sport mascots are based on what is today perceived as "positive" ideas about Native Americans: that they are brave, principled, persevering, good fighters. This "positive cast" to the mascot stereotype leads most to conclude that the mascots are not racist. In fact, it is this "positive cast" to the mascot stereotype that leads many mascot supporters to think that the mascots actually counter racism by "honoring" Native Americans (King, 2002; Sigelman, 1998; Spindel, 2000).

We surmise that members of a stereotyped group are much more apt to embrace a positive stereotype than a negative one. Thus, some African Americans embrace the stereotypes that African Americans are good at singing, dancing, and sport but rarely embrace the stereotypes that African Americans are lazy and immoral. Some Asian Americans embrace the stereotypes that Asian Americans are more intelligent and hardworking than other groups but rarely embrace the stereotypes that Asians are conniving and evil.

It is not surprising that some Native Americans embrace "positive" stereotypes of Native Americans, and thus that some are not critical of Native American mascots (Springwood, 2001). There are several factors that encourage Native Americans to accept, internalize, celebrate, and even capitalize on, "positive" stereotypes of Native Americans. First, as just mentioned, many people do not define so-called positive stereotypes as stereotypes or racist. In fact, a group that experiences a great deal of inequality may be especially attracted to any imagery that is positive, as such imagery might be a relief from the negative. Second, throughout much of U.S. history Native people have faced intense pressures to acculturate and have been exposed to many of the same stereotypical images' of Native Americans as non-Natives have (Shively, 1992; Slapin & Seale, 1998). These pressures have certainly resulted in some Natives adopting "dominant"/white/outsider views" of Native Americans. Third, given the destruction of native economies and the resulting economic destitution, some Native people have turned to the marketing of their ethnicity, or an acceptable Hollywood version of their ethnicity to survive, including teaching "Native spirituality" to non-Native Americans; selling Native jewelry and art; and managing Native tourist establishments (Bird, 1996; Deloria, 1998; Spindel, 2000; Springwood, 2001).

In conclusion, to understand the Native American mascot issue, and the SI article, one needs to understand the social context surrounding the mascots. Most important, one must understand the historically rooted, but contemporarily alive, stereotypes of Native Americans. Native American mascots emerged from these stereotypes1 and these mascots continue to reinforce these stereotypes. The continued prevalence of these stereotypes inhibits social changes that would better contemporary Native American lives.


The use of Indian names and symbols in American sports culture is about hegemony: Native American mascots fit within a broader context of control and consent in which the dominant (a) invalidate and silence the histories and perspectives of indigenous peoples and other subaltern groups, (b) undermine and appropriate their cultures, (c) teach systematically the ideology of White supremacy, and (d) prevent Native Americans and other Americans from understanding the heritage, legacies, and significance of indigenous peoples. As a consequence of such processes of miseducation and marginalization, many people in the United States resist the idea that ethnic images have ideological effects. This is equally true of indigenous peoples as well. Fierce critical examination is sometimes necessary to pierce the wall of denial that consumers of images construct so as not to face the reality that image making is political-the politics of domination inform the way the vast majority of images we consume are constructed and marketed. Still, many indigenous peoples do not want to think critically about how or why they find pleasure in watching cinematic images that misrepresent or even mock indigenous peoples (i.e., Peter Pan, Pocahontas, Indian in the Cupboard, Dances With Wolves, Shanghai Noon). Witnessing First Nations children root for and cheer on the cowboys in "Cowboy and Indian" western movies and television is a classic example of "cultural schizophrenia," an affect of European colonization.

For some time now, the critical challenge for educators has been to expand the discussion of Indian mascots beyond debates around the binary of good and bad imagery Often what are thought to be good and honorable Indian mascots used in American sports culture are merely representations manufactured by White people that are blatantly stereotypical. Today,

mainstream Americans think that indigenous peoples should be very proud and honored to be portrayed in everyday sports culture. Even some First Nations peoples have endorsed this image, enabling mainstream America to continue with their so-called honoring of Indians in sports culture.

"The Indian Wars" cannot be dismissed as trivial or unscientific because so many people that read the SI article will actually believe what it is trying to say Instead, it must be understood as a war of maneuver; in a Gramscian sense, aimed at misleading and miseducating SI readers about the issue of Indian mascots. Indeed, the assumptions underlying Price's article derive from and reinforce recent conservative shifts in American culture characterized not only by economic restructuring but also by a realignment of social values around issues of race, class, and gender (see King & Springwood, 2000).

In the context of the so-called "culture wars," SI's article, buttressed as it is by the air of science, has had a noticeable affect on public sentiment as reflected in everyday conversation and opinion columns. Matthew Celia, writing in The Washington Times, for example, in the context of efforts in Maryland to eliminate Indian mascots, referred to the SI effort as "a scientific survey of Americans with Indian ancestry" Locating research as "scientific" while naming opponents of Indian mascots "activists" enabled Celia in a publication aimed at conservative readers to dismiss meaningful dialogue on the matter Similarly, the unnamed editors of the Grand Forks Herald insisted, in their paternalistic words, "[that activists can't ignore and must change their strategy in responses to SI's stunning survey" (quoted in Clark, 2002). Sadly, the SI poll deflects attention away from the real issues underlying the ongoing struggles for control of ethnic images.

The role of "scientific" research in "The Indian Wars" also reminds us of the uneasy relationships between indigenous communities and EuroAmerican researchers. In fact, for much of the 20th century, the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge has been an important tool through which EuroAmerican institutions have exercised power over Native Americans. The role of polling and quantitative methods in SI directs attention to more dubious research conducted in the first quarter of the 20th century. During this period, psychological studies, informed by theories of racial hygiene and social evolution, purported to demonstrate the limited intellectual capacities of indigenous peoples. In both the earlier research of educational psychologists and the recent article in SI, research shaped by bias has advanced troubling agendas for Native Americans.

The power to miseducate and kill or educate and let live comes with whoever does the teaching. Those people who know their cultural histories know that the future is grounded in the past, and hyperreality is loaded with strategically placed political landmines and cultural contradictions. Efforts to eliminate Indian mascots, which seek to raise consciousness and to transform race relations, are part of a broader counterhegemonic movement to link resistance to critical learning (Pewewardy, 2002) not just for indigenous peoples but also for other marginalized groups in the United States.


Mascots create spaces of terror, and articles such as "The Indian Wars" contribute to the intensity and invisibility of such spaces. One way to look at the negative effects that stereotyped images of American Indians have, then, is to apply a racially hostile environment analysis. The essential core of this analysis is in the term hostile environment that was first developed in the context of the workplace. The analysis readily flows over into the educational arena. Although I am offended by the image of Chief Wahoo and the name of the Washington Redskins, I do not have to go to the stadium and subject myself to them. And although that image and name prevent me from attending a game or truly enjoying one if J did, I ascribe a lesser importance to that than the same imagery at an elementary or secondary school or college. Education is more important than my right to partake of a place of public accommodation. As an adult, I can choose to not go. The choices of a child or even a college-age student are not so clear. Although the images and names of some sports teams do, from our perspective, violate my right to full and equal enjoyment at the baseball or football stadium, we have greater concerns about the effects of negative Indian imagery on our children in schools.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that


no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.


Every federal agency writes regulations that the fund recipient must agree to abide by or lose their funds. The Department of Education has written regulations that provide that no recipient can cause or allow a racially hostile environment. A racially hostile environment exists when there is harassing conduct (whether physical, verbal, graphic, or written) that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to interfere with or limit a student's ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges the school provides. A school may not effectively cause, encourage, accept, tolerate, or fail to correct a racially hostile environment of which it has actual or constructive notice.

To establish a violation, there must be a finding, based on the totality of the circumstances, that (a) a racially hostile environment existed, (b) the school had actual or constructive notice of the racially hostile environment, and (c) the school failed to respond adequately to redress the racially hostile environment. The hostile environment analysis as defined and outlined by the regulations of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) provides that there is a sliding scale. A single event of an extreme racially harassing nature can create a racially hostile environment. Likewise, a series of lesser racially harassing events can accumulate into the creation of a racially hostile environment (see Trainor, 1995). The most famous, or infamous, of the OCR's Indian mascot investigations is of the University of Illinois. Charlene Teters, a Spokane woman, was recruited to come to the university. When she arrived, Teters found that she and her young children were assaulted by the persistent presence of what she calls "the severed head" of Chief Illiniwik known locally as "the chief" Likewise, she found the antics and faux Indian dance of the student who portrays "the chief" at school events to be insulting and offensive to Indian people and Indian cultures. Teters began a multiyear-long protest of the denigration of Indian cultures. During her many protests about "the chief Teters was called vile names, had trash and other objects thrown at her, and has even been spit on by supporters of "the chief" (Rosenstein, 1996).

Teters filed a complaint with the OCR at the U.S. Department of Education. The OCR accepted her complaint and conducted an investigation. The eventual finding was in favor of the university. The OCR stated in its letter of finding that the incidents of hostility were not severe enough or pervasive enough to rise to the level of a hostile environment. They also found that the incidents of physical and verbal assaults were not necessarily associated with the mascot but may have been a result of the protest.

In the OCR analysis, there seemed to be an over reliance on incidents of physical hostility associated with the mascot. Therefore, we ask the question, what about the hostility against the mind? The Indian child who attends a school with a Native American mascot theme is constantly confronted with false and offensive images. Let us assume that a severe event of a racially harassing nature, though itself is not a physical confrontation, can be likened to a punch in the nose-a blow that knocks someone to the ground. Now let us assume that the false image of your race is a racially harassing event no more severe than a touch of a finger on someone's shoulder Imagine that you go to work and a coworker touches you on the shoulder as you get out of your vehicle. Another touches you on the shoulder as you get to the front door of your building, and another touches you as you get into the elevator Your office-mate touches you as you arrive at your desk and when you go to the coffee room and again when you return. Imagine that this behavior is done only to members of your race. No single touching is itself severe, but the cumulative touchings would drive most people to strike out or stop coming to work. Most of us would reach the point at which we would not be capable of fully participating in or enjoying the benefits of our workplace very quickly in this environment even though they may be mere touches.

Now think about the reality for the Indian child who attends school in which there is a Native American mascot. The child arrives at school, and when she gets off of the bus, she is confronted with the 22-foot-tall statue of an Indian, usually in some form of warrior dress such as a loincloth and nothing more. The warrior will wear one or more feathers and most likely hold a spear, club, or tomahawk. The Indian child walks into the school and sees a painting of this same image on the wall outside the principal's office or perhaps a caricature with a large belly and over-exaggerated nose, often with a bent feather in a headband. The child goes to class and sees the faux image on the classroom wall and on schoolbook covers. When she goes to the gym, the same ubiquitous, but not real, Indian is painted on the floor and non-Indian students run back and forth over the face bouncing a basketball. If the child attends a school sporting event, it is likely that a white student will dress up in some form of Indian costume and perform fake ritualistic dances for the fans. These events occur daily, weekly, hourly. These images are omnipresent in the life of the Indian child while she attends school. She does not see any other race singled out for this kind of caricature treatment. And these images are all done with the acquiescence, and the imprimatur, of the state. In Brown V. Board of Education (1954) the Court specifically noted that the nature of separation of the races itself, which was a badge of inferiority of the Black race, was made all the more severe because it was done with the sanction of the state. Here, the characterizations, the faux imagery, the secular use of religious iconography are only those of American Indians. The Indian child internalizes that her race is treated differently and that she is looked on by her classmates as different. That difference is not a uniqueness that causes others to want to be your friend or to learn from your cultural worldview but is rather more often a point of mockery and perhaps open ridicule. The stereotypes that trap Indian people and culture in pre-Columbian amber also represent the failure to recognize the continued existence of Indians as living cultures and peoples. The Indian child recognizes that the mascoting of her race is a badge of inferiority. And, equally important, is the ease with which one people becomes safe to mock and caricature when others are not. The non-Indian child also receives a subtle message. My culture is not caricatured. My religious heritage is held with respect such that our iconography will not be used in a secular manner at my school. No person of another race will paint their face white and engage in imitations of what they associate with my race. My culture is superior. These may be subtle messages, but they are powerful messages.

According to statistics generated by the U.S. Department of justice, an American Indian is 4 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime by a person not of their race than a Black victim and 3 times more likely than a white victim (Greenfeld & Smith, 1999). Likewise, Indians are victims of hate crimes at a rate out of proportion to their numbers in the population at large.

The prevalence of fake, stereotypical, and negative images of American Indians is a contributing factor to these crime rates. The ability to objectify an entire race of people and to amalgamate them under the singular false image of the dancing, prancing, tomahawk-chopping, savage warrior contains within it the foundation for physically assaulting the individuals to whom one ascribes these characteristics. When a people are only stereotypes they are not real.

Whether it is getting a seat at the restaurant of our choice or obtaining a loan at the bank, what the American population at large has failed to accept and what SI helped to further screen from view is that the stereotypes created by school and professional sports mascots carry over into the everyday lives of American Indians every day.



"The Indian Wars" has much to teach about public culture, critical scholarship, and the future of Native American mascots. To close this article, we turn our attention to the legacies and lessons of the SI article.

Perhaps most immediately, it has profound implications for the unfolding debate over mascots. It legitimates the backlash against progressive efforts to challenge the continued use of Indian symbols and names in sports. As discussed above, it has already fostered dismissive commentaries in local and national newspapers. These editorials combined with the original SI article have begun to reframe the debate over mascots, shifting both the tone and terms of public discourse. Worse, we fear, it reinforces the defense of mascots, expanding the arguments that might be offered in such efforts.

Moreover, our encounters with SI suggest some fundamental truths about public culture today. Despite good intentions, passion, and knowledge, we have not been able to communicate our message to a broader public, particularly the audience of SI. We circulated our sentiments among other scholars and activists via the Internet and here offer a fuller review for an almost exclusively academic readership, who compose a fairly bounded and rather small set of people. Thus, we have been disheartened by the reminder that the role and impact of the intellectual is increasingly circumscribed in the United States, and furthermore that the commercialized mass media tend to control both the content and form of public debates. Those concerned with mascots, no less than the sociology of sport, must be mindful of and creatively responsive to these constraints.

SI got one thing right. The Indian wars have not ended. They continue in the ongoing struggles over mascots and other issues that affect Native American sovereignty. Consequently, the issue of Native American mascots is not just a question of critiquing the status quo but also about formulating anti-imperial projects: asking ourselves questions about what types of images subvert, posing critical alternatives, and transforming our worldviews to move us away from dualistic thinking about good and bad. Because decolonization as a political process is always a struggle to define ourselves in and beyond the act of resistance to domination, we are always in the process of remembering the past even as we create new ways to imagine and make the future (hooks, 1992).


C. Richard King is an associate professor of comparative American cultures at Washington State University. His publications include Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy and Beyond the Cheers:Race as Spectacle in College Sport. 
Ellen J. Staurowsky
is a professor of sport sociology and chair of the Department of Sport Studies at Ithaca College. She is co-author with Allen L. Sack of College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA's Amateur Myth. 
Lawrence Baca
(Pawnee) is past president of the National Native American Bar Association. 
R. Davis, associate professor of sociology at Springfield College, is author of
The Swimsuit Issue and Sport: Hegemonic Masculinity and Sports Illustrated. 
Cornel Pewewardy
(Comanche and Kiowa) is an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Leadership, School of Education at the University of Kansas.



This article has benefited from the comments and insights of a number of individuals. In particular, we would like to thank James Fenelon, Suzan Shown Harjo, Lee Sigelman, and Charles F. Springwood, who offered invaluable perspectives on the Sports Illustrated article and struggles over mascots generally


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Journal of Sport & Social Issues, Volume 26, No.4, November 2002, pp. 381-402

DOI: 10.1177/0193732502238255

© 2002 Sage Publication

Republished by in its entirety October 2005 with the expressed consent and permission of Sage Publication.    Many thanks to those authors of this important piece whose further generosity helped make this reprint possible. homepage

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