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Countering the Assault of Indian Mascots in School

by Dr. Cornel Pewewardy

Children begin to develop racial awareness at an extremely early and tender age, perhaps as early as three or four years. It has been well established by clinical psychologists that the effect on children of negative stereotypes and derogatory images is to engender and perpetuate undemocratic and unhealthy attitudes that will plague our society for years to come. It should come as no surprise that non-Indian children programmed on these stereotypes at early ages grow into adults who may unwittingly or knowingly discriminate against Indians. These children have been prevented from developing authentic, healthy attitudes about Indians. It should also be no surprise that Indian children who constantly see themselves being stereotyped and their cultures belittled grow into adults feeling and acting like they were not as good as other people. This is a sure cause for low self-esteem in Indian children. Because racial stereotypes play an important role in shaping a young person’s consciousness, these inauthentic behaviors makes a mockery of Indian culture and cause many Native American youngsters to feel shame about their cultural identity. Subjective feelings, such as inferiority, are an integral part of consciousness and work together with the objective reality of poverty and deprivation to shape a young person’s worldview. Schools should be places where students come to unlearn negative stereotypes that such mascots represent.

Perhaps some people at these sporting events don’t hear the foul language shouted out in the stands associated with the usage of Indian mascots. The most obvious offense is the usage of the terms, "redskins" and "squaws." For example, the word "redskin" originated in early colonial times as European colonist paid bounties for Indians’ red skins--thereby the name "redskin" was coined. The word "squaw" is a French corruption of the Iroquois word otsiskwa meaning "female sexual parts." Both words are almost always used in negative connotation and derogatory fashion in sporting events. While these terms may be facing increasing social disdain, they certainly are far from dead. Large numbers of Americans continue to utilize these unkind words and negative terms in athletic environments today. These words of power are used to accentuate the differences in appearance, station, culture, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation in people, and to underplay the similarities between people—if not to deny them altogether.

As you can see from the mentioned explanations, words can hurt. Understanding and sharing the definition of these words can heal. We must have more sharing, more understanding, and more healing. It is our professional responsibility as educators—as teachers. It is our ethical duty and professional responsibility to eliminate racism in the classroom.

Given this background, why would anyone, especially teachers, allow his or her students to uncritically adopt a cartoon version of a people's culture as an Indian mascot or logo? Teachers and their students need to be educated about the negative effects of racist Indian mascots and logos portrayed by sports teams, because many students have told me that they don't see the Indian mascot issue as important in the Native American community as those of alcoholism, substance abuse, and poverty. Some even say it's "too much fuss over team names," "we’re just having fun," or "what's the point?" They don't see the connection, simply because they're not close to the issues of Indian education on a daily basis. What a lot of people do not see or hear is the mimicking and protesting that goes on in sporting arenas like the "tomahawk chop" and so-called Indian spirit chants or Hollywood-inspired wardrum beats. They are not going to see or hear these problem acts if they don't think there is a problem. Its hard to take seriously, to empathize with, a group of people portrayed as speaking in broken, old stoic Indian cliché (like "many moons ago") as dressing up in Halloween or Thanksgiving costumes, as acting like a "bunch of wild Indians." These make-believe Indians are not allowed to change in time or in any other way be like real people. They are denied the dignity of their tribal histories, the validity of their major contributions to modern American society, the distinctiveness of their multi-tribal identities.

In 1998, Children Now initiated a study into children’s perceptions of race and class in the media, focusing on the images of Native Americans presented in national news and entertainment. Similar the to perceptions survey conducted by the League of Women Voters in 1975, children’s impressions concludes similar results—that most children in America view Native Americans far removed from their own way of life. Not only do these studies have to be conducted and disseminated, but the misconceptions and stereotypes about Native people which bombard the child from outside of the classroom need to be counteracted.

Even after decades of cultural diversity teacher training and integrating multicultural lesson plans into the school curriculum, there are still too many stories today about children playing "Cowboys and Indians" at school. Undoubtedly, most teachers have seen children running around in turkey feathers and cardboard headbands, carrying homemade bows and arrows, hopping up and down on the playground, patting a hand against their mouth and yelling "woo-woo-woo," or raising one’s hand over their shoulder and saying "how" or "ugh." The perpetuation of these white-created "Indian" behaviors reflects the influence of peer socialization, schooling, and movies. They mock Native American cultural practices and demean people as subhumans, incapable of verbal communication. This manufactured image of something wild and inferior, and their use implies a value judgment of white superiority, namely Hollywood scriptwriters.

Another popular character born out of racism in the image of Native American people is the image of the clown--not the traditional clown societies of many tribes whose task is it to make their people laugh during celebrations and ceremonies, but the clown born of American popular culture much like the jester or the fool, as the inferior one who was responsible for making his superior laugh. In popular culture using a person for your clown has always been one of the major ways to assert your dominance over a person or group of people. Mockery becomes one of the more sophisticated forms of humiliation in sporting events. Therefore, clowning and buffoonery during ballgames became one of the primary ways in which Indian mascots are used as clowns while sports fans manipulate and keep in place negative images during school-related events.

For example many of these ethnic "Sambo" clowns were born out of the closed nature of North American slavery, in contrast to Latin American slavery. They were portrayed as docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; infantile silliness and inflated child talk and attachment. The fantasies of Native American backwardness as incapable of technological advancement and characterized by superstitious and humanly regressive acts of savagery were all constructed in Hollywood films, Little Black Sambo images and thousands of other derogatory ideas and illustrations to destroy the African American and Native American person’s self-image and to further the idea of Native incompetence and deficiency.

Moreover, an overwhelming number of popular media presentations involve ethnic images of clowns throughout the years in this country. The clear under-representation of serious aspects of Native American life in the popular media, suggests that even the former slaves prefer to laugh about themselves rather than improve themselves. For example the marshal arts actor Jackie Chan in Shang Hai Noon in 2000 and Disney’s Pocahontas and Columbia’s The Indian in the Cupboard in the 1990s are updates of the 1940’s and 1950’s Stephin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland. Advertising characters such as "Little Black Sambo" and the "Frito Bandito" are no longer acceptable in society because African American (especially the NAACP and the Urban League) and Mexican American and Latino/a populations (LULAC, MALDEF, National Council of LaRaza) have let it be known that such expressions carry racist overtones. But for some reason, many schools continue the usage of Indian mascots in American sporting events. "Joe Camel" was just removed from cigarette companies from using cartoons or human figures in advertisements. But for some reason, many schools continue the usage of Indian mascots in American sporting events. The wide-mouth grin of the Cleveland Indians and Oklahoma’s Eskimo Joes is the equivalent to the blackface representation of the 1920s that overly displayed racist stereotypes of African Americans. The word Inuit has largely replaced "Eskimo" by many First Nations Peoples in Canada. "Chief Wahoo," is still the Cleveland Indians' logo. Despite Indians' protests against using their images as sports mascots, dozens of teams continue to use unflattering, stereotyping symbols.

These ethnic clowns were updates on the slavery buffoon who mastered being funny to survive. The films mentioned were financially rewarding and spawned many commercial products. All these films suffer from the cultural chokehold of Hollywood aesthetic constraints. As one can see, the authentic heritage of Native people is a scholarly frontier worthy of exploration and exploitation. Film and television have inscribed our nation’s memory with so many misconceptions. The system of racism and oppression is designed to foster this type of passive resignation.

Who should decide what is demeaning and racist? Clearly, the affected party determines what is offensive. It is not for unaffected members of society to dictate how the affected party should feel. Moreover, these name changes shouldn’t have to go through ugly alumni and student backlashes that smear grassroots complainants as troublemakers, gadflies, activist, militant, or being "politically correct"—the desire to appease every constituency that finds insult and injustice caused by centuries of racism. Therefore, trying to understand the continuation of such dehumanizing events in schools is challenging to many educators who advocate and affirm cultural diversity. In a struggle to interpret America’s historical frontier, the Native American dimension has been the least defended and therefore, the most vulnerable for distorting ethnic images in films. The result is a very confused and distorted image of Native people. Only a concerted effort to debunk Hollywood’s mythology can alter the situation for the better.

Teachers should examine the biases and stereotypes held by their students. Stereotypes caused by ignorance, hard times, and folk wisdom socialization can be countered by accurate and culturally responsive information about the groups being stereotyped. Two guiding principles should be used when selecting curriculum materials: Does the material present females and underrepresented groups in a realistic, non-stereotypic manner? And, does the material accurately reflect a holistic view of the past in terms of the contributions made by females and underrepresented groups in American history? Removing negative images of society can clearly protect the young children from the influences of stereotypical images. We can protect them from this influence on their thinking, which makes them view themselves in a distorted and unnatural way.

We have hope for promising practices in two large inner-city schools systems. Dallas Public Schools and Los Angeles Public Schools have already eliminated Indian mascots from their school systems as the result of active parent and education advocacy groups working closely together with school officials. The states of Wisconsin and Minnesota have recommended that publicly funded schools eliminate the use of Indian mascots, names, and logos deemed offensive to Native Americans.

Professional organizations dedicated to the unique problems of Native Americans also must take forthright positions on this issue as well. As a teacher educator, I show future teachers why Indian mascots are one cause for low self-esteem in Indian children. Throughout my practitioner experience working in K-8 schools, I have learned that the generator of academic performance is self-esteem. This is the main point for educators to know that this issue becomes detrimental to the academic achievement of all students.

To illuminate my point, I refer to the mental health organizations who have rushed to support the elimination of negative Indian mascots used in schools by drafting statements (i.e., American Indian Mental Health Association of Minnesota in 1992 and Society of Indian Psychologists of the Americas in 1999). These statements condemned the presence of ethnic images as psychologically destructive to the minds of Native American children. Professional organizations that have passed resolutions in support of eliminating negative Indian mascots used in schools include the National Indian Education Association, Kansas Association for Native American Education, United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, Governor’s Interstate Indian Council, Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, National Congress of American Indians, NAACP, and NCAA. Basically, this represents the critical mass of Indian educational associations and tribal governments have either passed resolution or gone on record wanting to eliminate Indian mascots and logos from school-related activities and events.

Although many resolutions exists today, many states (like Oklahoma) who have hundreds of Indian mascots and logos being used in school-related events, are unconcerned with this national issue; uneducated about the issues; or have no educational leadership to initiate transformation change toward truly "honoring" Native American people. Consequently, there is a critical need for experts to monitor more carefully the destructive influences in our physical, mental, social, and spiritual environments. We must begin to build coalitions, which preserve the reality of our own experiences. We must begin to develop educational materials, artistic productions, economic structures, fashions and concepts that deny the implications of our inferiority.

The recognition of racism in the English language is an important first step. Consciousness of the influence of language on our perceptions can help to negate much of that influence. But it is not enough to simply become aware of the effects of racism in conditioning attitudes. While we may not be able to change the language, we can definitely change our usage of the language. We can avoid using words that degrade and dehumanize people. We can make a conscious effort to use terminology that reflects a progressive perspective, as opposed to a distorting perspective. It is important for educators to provide students with opportunities to explore racism in language and to increase their cultural awareness of it, as well as teach terminology that is culturally responsive and does not perpetuate negative human values and experiences.

If indeed, you know something needs to be done to correct these negative stereotypes, consult your local school Title IX Indian Education Coordinator, curriculum specialist, cultural resource librarian, university professor, or the National Indian Education Association to assist you in the elimination of negative ethnic images and materials from the academic curriculum and school-related activities. One of the finest award-winning reference books on this topic is American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children by Hirschfelder, Fairbanks, and Wakim published in 1999 by Scarecrow Press. For those that have internet connectivity, go to the following website dedicated to educating individuals about Indian mascots: http://earnestman/

At the beginning of yet another school year, we must continue the hard work to re-educate our young people and ourselves by seeking and studying new information about ourselves. We must find every opportunity to celebrate ourselves and we must challenge the fear that causes us to hesitate in taking control of our own images. We must work together and we must have faith that our struggle will be successful, regardless of the opposition.

The exploitation of Indian mascots in school sponsored events becomes an issue of educational equity. Therefore, my professional challenge is to classroom teachers and administrators. As long as such mascots remain within the arena of school activities, both Indian and non-Indian children are learning to tolerate racism in schools. That’s what children see at school and on television. As a result, schools only reinforce the negative images projected by popular culture. This is precisely what sport teams with negative Indian mascots teach them—that it is acceptable racism to demean a race or group of people through American sports culture. Therefore, for teachers this serves as a powerful teaching moment that could help to counter the fabricated images and manufactured pictures of Indian people that most school-age children have burned into their psyche by 50 years of mass media. Finally, I challenge administrators to provide the intellectual school leadership that will teach a critical perspective of multicultural education and help eliminate the cultural violence associated with Indian mascots used in schools.

Having been a kindergarten teacher and principal myself, I have a profound respect and admiration for teachers and administrators. The work they do is honorable, although rarely cherished. At the same time, I recognize that many teachers and administrators have not been given the time or support to help them teach in the most culturally responsive way. I hope this explanation in countering the Indian mascot issue is one tool both teachers and administrators can use in helping children think critically about multicultural issues in another school year.

Dr. Cornel Pewewardy (Comanche-Kiowa) is assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Leadership, School of Education at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He teaches multicultural education at the undergraduate and graduate level at KU.


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