FAQs about the institutionalized use of "Indian" sports team tokens

Advocates for changing "Indian" mascots, nicknames, and symbols sometimes say this issue is one of racism.  How can that be possible?

What about the idea of "Indian" mascots being an honor or a sign of respect?  

Aren't "Indian" mascots meant to show the good qualities of American Indian people like courage, strength, stamina, and loyalty?

How about teams like "The Fighting Irish," "Spartans," or "The Vikings?"  Why aren't these nicknames in same category as "Indian" mascots, nicknames, and symbols? What's next?  Sports team nicknames associated with animals or cities and states that have American Indian related names?

If the use of "Indian" sports team logos, mascots, and nicknames is done in a "respectful" way, would that be acceptable?

Aren't there more important things to worry about besides "Indian" mascots?

Isn't this a case of American Indian people being overly sensitive or "political correctness run amok?"  Why don't they lighten up?  It's only a game (or nickname).

Some American Indian people don't seem to care about the issue or actually appear to favor "Indian" mascots?  How can that be explained?

What about the principle of "majority rules?"  If most students and citizens favor retaining an "Indian" mascot, shouldn't their wishes be obeyed? 

The use of "Indian" mascots has a long tradition.  Shouldn't the mascots be preserved for that reason?

Schools are always hard pressed for money.  Where is the money going to come from for new sports equipment, stationary, and other changes than need to be made if a school retires its "Indian" sports team token?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  Advocates for changing "Indian" mascots, nicknames, and symbols sometimes say this issue is one of racism.  How can that be possible?

The entire concept of "race" is wrong.  Such a simplistic notion has been erroneously promoted in one form or another for ages but hard science shows that there is only one "race" - the human race.  Although the word used may be incorrect unmistakable bias and prejudice are frequently a big part of this issue.

        While the idea of "racial" vs. ethnic or cultural heritage based prejudice is false it is clear that beliefs of superiority of one group over another are very real and universal phenomena.   This form of  "racism" is called "ethnocentrism.  It is by definition the attitude and resulting behaviors associated with the belief  that one "race" of people is superior to another.  However since there is no such thing as individual races of peoples the biases, attitudes, and behaviors are more accurately rooted in ethnic heritages that can frequently be associated with physical characteristics, the color of one's skin being the most prevalent.
      In the present instance it is evident that because one group of people (those of the predominate Euro-American culture) believes it is their entitled right to use a far less populous and more disadvantaged group (American Indian people) as their mascots or symbols, the relationship is one of superiority vs. subordination. As anyone who has been involved in working to retire institutionalized "Indian" sports tokens can attest, those who favor retention of "Indian" mascots can exhibit an almost pathological sense of proprietary ownership of the symbols, mascots, and nicknames.  The use of "Indian" sports team tokens is therefore not unlike a symbolic slavery that allows those who use the symbols, nicknames, and mascots to control, manipulate, and exploit such things and their meanings in any manner that best suits their purposes.  
      That the use of "Indian" mascots, nicknames, and symbols frequently continues even after many American Indian people and advocacy groups have repeatedly requested a cessation of such uses further illustrates the fundamentally "racist" element embedded in the issue.  
      It should be noted however that "racism," or ethnocentrism, takes at least two different forms.  Sometimes it is overt and willful while at other times it is the result of an innocent lack of awareness and sensitivity often borne from many years of socially and culturally ingrained beliefs and practices.  While both types of "racism" can be seen in conjunction with this issue it is frequently the second type in which most people, at least initially, unwittingly participate.   
     

See:  American Anthropological Association Statement on "Race"; American Anthropological Association Statement on "Race" and Intelligence;   American Anthropological Association Response to OMB Directive 15: Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting

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What about the idea of "Indian" mascots being an honor or a sign of respect?  

Many if not most of these types of ethnic icons were selected at a time when American Indian people were believed to be a romantic "vanishing race" or portrayed by the popular media of the day as unrelenting, sneaky, and especially warlike.  It seems that when many "Indian" sports team tokens were first chosen it wasn't because of "honorable" characteristics but because of qualities that would strike fear into and intimidate opponents on the socialized, ritual "battleground" of the sporting field, court, or arena.  It really wasn't until these practice were questioned that the "honor and respect" argument began to be heard.  The truth is that for many years being of American Indian heritage was considered a shameful thing to be denied or otherwise hidden.

      Although there may be defensive psychological reasons why some people believe "Indian" mascots are a tribute or sign of respect, even if the intention behind these mascots, symbols, and nicknames is good and innocent it is clear a sizable number of  American Indian people do not feel "honored" to be used in such ways.  In fact many of the largest organizations that represent American Indian people, individual tribes, and non-Native religious, educational, civil and human rights groups have requested for years that these outdated, ethnicity related practices be ended.  
      There are many good reasons for such requests.  
      Consider, for instance, how modern day Jewish people might feel if Germany named its soccer teams things like the "Munich Jews," "Nuremberg Hebrews," or "Frankford Kikes" as a "sign of respect" for the courage and tenacity of those of that faith who survived the genocide of World War II.   While this comparison to similar practices that do occur in association with American Indian peoples is not perfect neither is it totally inaccurate.  
      Similarly, items of great spiritual significance to many American Indian people such as the feathers found in the headdress of the most common "Indian" icon - the "Plains style Indian chief" - are trivialized when improperly used by non-Native people for secular purposes.  Indeed, eagle feathers are protected by Federal law and can generally only be legally owned by American Indian people who need and use them for religious purposes.  
      Regardless, just knowing that many American Indian people do not feel "honored" by these practices - for whatever reason - should be enough cause for those using the mascots to rethink what they are doing.  To paraphrase what the Superintendent of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction said about this matter in 1994, "How can you be honoring someone when they are telling you that what you are doing is hurtful to them?"  Thought of another way perhaps it might help to consider whether "honor" can be forced on someone and still remain a genuine honor.  
      Instead of ignoring American Indian people and only hearing self-serving rationalizations, as has so often been the case, maybe it's time to make a sincere and meaningful gesture of true respect toward American Indian people by heeding what is being said about this and other issues of importance to the American Indian community. 

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Aren't "Indian" mascots meant to show the good qualities of American Indian people like courage, strength, stamina, and loyalty?

When people name the positive qualities that are often attributed to "Indian" sports team tokens they are still citing stereotypical characteristics.  A stereotype, whether positive or negative, is by its very nature a reductive thought process that over simplifies and limits reality.  Scientific studies have shown that the use of stereotypical "Indian" sports team tokens can have harmful negative impacts on children and young people of American Indian heritage and their peers. 

      In the present instance the stereotype is what has historically come to be known as the "Good Indian" or "Noble Savage."  This stereotype stands in contrast to the "Bad" or "Ignoble Indian" which is represented by personality traits such as laziness, drunkenness, ignorance,  bloodlust, etc.  In either case, whether it's a "good" or "bad" stereotype, the fact that most normal individuals have the potential to possess and exhibit an entire spectrum of human behavioral characteristics is diminished.  Instead, when such stereotypes are propagated and embraced, beliefs about living American Indian people are confined to a very limited and unreal set of behavioral potentialities.  
      To impose such limitations is unfair not only to those affected most by these particular stereotypes but also to all children and others who are encouraged by such reductive thinking to categorize people according to simplistic beliefs rather than considering each person as a unique human being who has the potential to possess any number of varied human characteristics and abilities.

 

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How about teams like "The Fighting Irish" or "The Vikings?"  Why aren't these nicknames in same category as "Indian" mascots, nicknames, and symbols? What's next?  Sports team nicknames associated with animals or cities and states that have American Indian related names?

Comparisons between the profuse number of "Indian" related sports team logos, mascots, and nicknames in use and those infrequent few relating to other ethnic groups are incongruous and like comparing "apples to oranges."   Comparisons made to animals or vocations are even worse.  Here's why.

      Besides the fact that there are thousands of mascots, symbols, and nicknames associated with "Indians" and only a relative few relating to other ethnic groups, Irish and Scandinavians for instance, are of European heritage and part of the numerically large, dominate American society.  The same cannot even vaguely be said for American Indian people who belong to a historically persecuted, disenfranchised group whose total numbers compose only about two-percent of the entire national population.  Clearly the historical experiences, status, and political power that can be attributed to American Indian people vs. individuals of European descent are vastly different.  Moreover contemporary American people of the dominate European heritage generally cannot begin to understand the effects of ethnic discrimination and prejudice because it is simply something they have not personally experienced in type, frequency, or degree to which American Indian people and other non-European based peoples may still be confronted. 
      It should also be remembered that Notre Dame, which uses an imaginary character as its mascot (a "leprechaun"), was for years a historically Irish Catholic university whose administration, staff, and student body were largely Irish Catholic.  While the definitive origin of the "Fighting Irish" nickname is unclear it is known to have arisen as a term of self-identification.  In other words this school composed of many people of Irish heritage decided upon a nickname relating to their own ethnicity.  The same cannot even remotely be said for the vast number of schools using "Indian" themed logos, symbols, mascots, and nicknames.  However, by this same logic it follows that schools made up primarily of American Indian people should have the right to call themselves "Indians" or any similar designation of their choosing if that is their desire.
      Interestingly, while some detractors typically suggest that Notre Dame has never had an issue because of  its nickname or its ethnic association, that is not completely true.  Since 1991 the Stanford University marching band has been banned from performing at Notre Dame because an aspect of its performance "mocked members of the Catholic faith.''  Furthermore, in 1997 Stanford did a parody while playing Notre Dame at home that resulted in Stanford's president, its band, and athletic director apologizing  to Notre Dame University for what was labeled the ``uncivil and improper'' conduct of Stanford's marching band toward Irish culture and the Catholic Church.  
      Regrettably, similar demeaning of American Indian cultures, spiritual beliefs and practices routinely continues across the country in thousands of public schools, universities, and professional venues without so much as a second thought.
      While bearing in mind the previously mentioned disparities between American Indian peoples and those of European heritage it should be further noted, as regards "Vikings,"  that as a social phenomenon Vikings were very short-lived. In fact the end of the Viking age was about 900 years ago and the classical era of Spartan Greeks goes back even much further.   Although it might be correct to credit Vikings with having set footfall in the so-called "New World" about a half-millennium before the religious zealot Columbus who has received the lion's share of credit for that feat, the involvement of the Vikings in North American was brief, unsuccessful, and essentially unremarkable.   Likewise, if the Viking involvement in North American was scant it is beyond question that they had absolutely nothing to do with Colonial era America or the United States proper.  American Indian people on the other hand were in the Americas for many, many thousands of years before the Vikings failed adventure and historically have had and continue to have a uniquely important place in the United States as a national entity.  Additionally, despite concerted efforts to eradicate them, many American Indian people continue to practice their traditions and beliefs not only in subtle, private ways but as evidenced by the many public events called pow-wows that are held annually from coast to coast.  When in contrast was the last time a public event was held in California, New York, Oklahoma, New Mexico, etc., where people of Scandinavian heritage dressed in wool, fur, and iron helmets as they gathered to celebrate the seafaring raider exploits of their long gone European forbearers?
      On a related note, comparisons sometimes made between "Indian" sports team tokens and vocations like "Cowboys", "Packers," and "Padres," for instance, are too ridiculously absurd to even warrant serious discussion.  Anyone can theoretically chose their own vocation but no one has a say in their own ethnic heritage.  Similarly, while "Indian" mascots place American Indian people on a par with animals, those who evoke Chicken Little's ludicrous, "the sky is falling" argument by questioning if animal mascots will be the next to be challenged are grasping at straws so desperately that it is pathetically embarrassing.  The same can be said for those who fearfully ask if cities and states bearing American Indian names will be questioned.  Such notions are plainly ridiculous.  
      Except for some geographic place names using the demeaning words "squaw" or "redskins" there does not appear to have been any concerns raised about the many states and cities using American Indian names.  Indeed as long as such names are used there will remain a deep and spiritually meaningful connection between such places and those American Indian peoples who have contributed so much more than just names to our great nation.
      All-in-all this is not a matter of "since the Irish or Scandinavians or Greeks aren't offended by 'Fighting Irish,' 'Vikings,' or 'Spartans' then American Indians shouldn't be offended either." As has been briefly outlined there are vast differences between those groups and American Indian people and if the Irish or Scandinavians or  Greeks aren't offended by the infrequent use of mascots related to their heritage then that's their business.  If they were offended, however, then hopefully those involved in creating the offenses would listen to their concerns and stop the demeaning practices.  American Indian people should expect and deserve no less.  Besides, mere offensiveness is probably the least of the concerns associated with this complex, emotionally volatile educational, social, and civil rights related issue. 

 

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How about if the use of "Indian" sports team logos, mascots, and nicknames is done in a "respectful" way?  Would that be acceptable?

Sometimes schools do make an effort to portray their educational institution's ethnic sports team token in what they believe is a "dignified," "respectful" manner.  Regrettably even in such instances there are things beyond the school's control that can get out of hand.  
      While monitoring student behaviors at games and spirit/pep rallies may be tried, there are almost always fans and players - on both sides of the playing field - who insist on wearing "warpaint" or feathered headdresses, shout ethnic related slogans or slurs, display related signs and logos, etc.  
      Then too there is media coverage like newspaper headlines that often feebly try to be clever by using stereotypic clichés referring to such things as scalping or "the warpath."  
      In any event all of these uses have a number of other serious social and educational concerns which suggest that for the greater good they might better be retired and replaced by new,  more contemporary, and universally honorable sports team icons and school identifiers.  
      American Indian related sports team tokens continue to be increasingly troublesome and not only cause schools many unnecessary problems but also limit what they can and cannot do regarding their sports teams and school identity icons.   Even when attempts are made to use "Indian" sports team tokens in a "respectful" way there are many other negative factors involved with such uses that cannot be avoided.

 

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Aren't there more important things to worry about besides "Indian" mascots?

It is certainly true that there are many important and difficult issues facing American Indian people today.   In addition to treaty rights, health, education, and economic issues, a number of studies done by various government agencies, including the Department of Justice, have shown extremely troubling rates of violent crime inflicted on American Indian peoples, most by non-Natives, as well as a suicide incidence among American Indian children and young adults that is several times that of other ethnic groups or the general population.  However, to paraphrase what a number of respected leaders in the American Indian community have said, "How can we ever get people to understand these problems when they only think of us as romanticized beings from the past or as cartoons and mascots to be used for their fun and games?"  Indeed, psychology shows that such portrayals do tend to dehumanize their subjects which is why such practices are often employed in time of war against an enemy.  It is much easier not to genuinely care about someone when they are little more than a cartoon or an otherwise distant, abstract, distorted, and impersonal object.  
      Regardless, people who cite this argument are often the same ones who had never previously attended a school board meeting or expressed interest but suddenly show up en masse to say that this is an "unimportant, non-issue."  If that's the case, then why not simply make a change and move on?  Why resist these changes so strongly if it's really "unimportant?"  This contrast between words and behaviors is a very revealing one that proves the adage about "actions speaking louder than words."  Besides, if such individuals are really concerned about "other" issues facing American Indian people, what are they doing to help?  Are they contributing their time and money to American Indian causes or are they just attempting to confuse and avoid the issue in order to get their own way?
      Finally, it should be said that many people who work on this issue ARE also involved in addressing other concerns of importance to American Indian people.  This is not a case of do either one or the other.  The two aspects are not separate.  They are intertwined and, for some of us at least, it is possible to do more than one thing at the same time. 

 

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Isn't this a case of American Indian people being overly sensitive or "political correctness run amok?"  Why don't they lighten up?  It's only a game (or nickname).

Far from being "overly sensitive," if anything, after enduring hundreds of years of deceit, cruelty, and any number of hardships, many American Indian people have developed very "thick skin" when compared to other groups or the general population.  Even in relatively recent times there have been certain establishments in far flung rural areas that display signs like, "No Indians or dogs allowed." Likewise, for a long time American Indian men, even to this day, have been routinely referred to with not always subtle derision as "chief."  But instead of getting angry and saying something, there was frequently no response or the impression of  good naturedly "going along" with the nickname.  
      However, over time this has started to change and not only are non-Natives less likely to make such references but American Indian people may not accept such names as passively as once was the case.  Words like "squaw" referring to women or "papoose" in association with an American Indian child also fall into this category.
      As regards the tired, negatively charged "politically correct" buzzwords, it is clear that this overworked phrase only came into common usage many years after concerns had first been raised about American Indian sports team icons. How could these matters possibly be about "political correctness" when they were going on for years before that phrase became the essentially meaningless cliché it is today?   Furthermore, the "politically correct" slogan is more of an ambiguous, overly broad catchphrase designed to evoke a simplistic, emotional response than it is a distinct and meaningful concept.  In short, "political correctness" is something people often just don't like.  They may not know why they don't like it and can't really define what it means but, given the context in which it's typically used, they just feel it can't be something good for their self interests.
      In truth, this issue involves very important educational and civil rights issues as well as those related to ethical, moral, and social concerns.  It is really about just plain correctness.  Period. 
      Using taxpayer dollars to perpetuate institutionalized ethnic stereotypes in thousands of publicly funded schools, for instance, is serious business.  For those who are willing to set aside preconceived notions and selfish motivations in order to learn and reflect upon the many reasonable concerns associated with these issues, the fact that this involves much more than just a sports game, nickname, or "political correctness" becomes unmistakably clear. Besides, why would someone deliberately choose to do something that another person does not like and has repeatedly asked to be stopped?  Isn't respecting another's wishes in this sense just common courtesy?

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Some American Indian people don't seem to care about the issue or actually appear to favor "Indian" mascots?  How can that be explained?

It is true that some people of legitimate American Indian heritage, as well as others whose similar claims have less validity, do not seem to have much interest in this issue or actually say they support the use of ethnic icons associated with Native Peoples.  In some instances, it may be a case of saying something or presenting one's self in a manner that may be perceived as favorable to the person doing the asking.  It is certainly true that people of all backgrounds may behave in different ways depending on who they're with or what circumstances dictate.  It is also true that what a person says publicly but thinks privately may be two different things.
      In other cases, people with a credible claim to American Indian heritage who favor these uses may have lost touch with their own traditions and  have instead come to adopt the beliefs and practices of the dominate non-Native culture.  Some sports team nicknames used by schools located on reservations, for example, are known to have been initially chosen by non-American Indian administrators.   Similarly, at times it can be something as simple as a lack of good understanding and education about these matters.
      Another possibility is that there are other factors at work such as a fear of backlash, rejection, or even underlying economic or political issues.  For example, if an American Indian tribe was negotiating some important policy with a State's elected officials it might not be in their best interest to potentially cause disruption to that process by arguing at the same time in favor of changes to ethnic sports team tokens used by their State's public schools.  Some people involved in this issue have suggested that this might apply to the Seminole Tribe of Florida who live in a State where a significant number of its legislators are graduates of Florida State University.  The Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina, who are believed to have had, at least one time or another, economic ties to the Atlanta "Braves" baseball team which involved selling trinkets and other items to tourists, might also fall into this scenario.
      Regardless, even if some American Indian people really and truly do not mind being used as sports team tokens or having their heritage and spiritual beliefs trivialized, a significant number of Native peoples as well as virtually every major, responsible organization in the country that represents American Indian people and their interests have repeatedly  for many years expressed opposition to these practices.  
      To expect total consensus on this issue, or for that matter any other issue, is unrealistic.  For just as some people of Africa heritage had reservations about integration and some women were reluctant to embrace changes posed to their traditional roles as a result of "women's liberation," so too will some individuals of American Indian background not agree with changes associated with this issue.  It is nevertheless unfortunate that some people who oppose these changes elect to believe those Native people they occasionally find who do not take exception to being used as mascots and simultaneously disregard any number of related resolutions, scholarly papers, and well-reasoned concerns voiced about this matter by numerous respected American Indian organizations and individuals.

 

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What about the principle of "majority rules?"  If most students and citizens favor retaining an "Indian" mascot, shouldn't their wishes be obeyed? 

In a country such as ours where ideals like equality and justice are highly valued, we understand that some individuals and groups who lack social standing or political clout can be taken advantage of or disregarded when the less noble side of human nature prevails.  
      It is for this reason, for instance, why the creation of civil rights laws has been necessary.  Were it otherwise, the rights and concerns of those in the minority position would be forever suppressed.  One need only consider where civil rights might be in this country today, for example,  if left solely to the political equivalent of a popularity contest.  
      When it comes to making hard decisions on complex and emotionally volatile issues like this one outcomes cannot fairly be dependent only on the same process that's used to choose a prom queen and that is why those in a position of authority are charged with the responsibility of protecting those who stand to suffer at the hands of larger and more powerful groups.  
      Sometimes this principle has been described as the "tyranny of the majority" and, in an extreme form,  its process is little different than the "justice" that is meted out by a lynch mob.  
      Although it is hard at times to set aside the type of self-centered interests that causes some people to think only of themselves, while ignoring the legitimate concerns of those who are most negatively impacted by detrimental practices like the use of American Indian sports team tokens, in the long run it is a path to the moral high ground that best serves us, our nation, and the world for the greater good.

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The use of "Indian" mascots has a long tradition.  Shouldn't the mascots be preserved for that reason?

Change and fear of the unknown can be stressful and is one reason why people often feel more comfortable with and prefer that which is familiar.  Traditions fall within this category as practices or beliefs to which we have become accustomed.  However, as the way we look at and understand things evolves, so too do our traditions sometimes change.  
      For hundreds of years, for instance, human slavery was an accepted "traditional" practice.  The same holds true for denying women and others the right to vote or even basic civil rights.  Today, most of us look back upon these former "traditions" with disbelief.  
      The pervasive institutionalized use of American Indian sports team tokens in publicly funded schools is not unlike a form of symbolic slavery which has more negative aspects than positive and is increasingly being seen as a practice that is no longer appropriate in the twenty-first century for a richly diverse,  forward looking country like our own.  Although change is sometimes hard and may come slowly, it is nonetheless inevitable.  It is therefore not a question of  "if" these practices will end but only of "when."  Whether the changes occur in a structured, reasoned, and enlightened manner or through controversy, shame, and possibly even lawsuits, remains a matter of choice. One way or another, however, change will surely come as will the day when we look back upon these practices and also shake our heads in disbelief at how we could have been so shortsighted and selfish.   

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Schools are always hard pressed for money.  Where are funds going to come from for new sports equipment, stationary, and other changes than need to be made if a school retires its "Indian" sports team token? 

Money, of lack thereof, is a legitimate concern.  However, it often seems that this argument is heard most loudly when a school is faced with retirement of its American Indian sports team token.  School board members have frequently been amazed by how many people start attending meetings when this issue is raised but who otherwise express little interest in issues like teaching staff,  policy, or other matters of routine importance.  
       As money for replacement of sports equipment as well as for stationary and other logo bearing items is a typical part of school budgets, one needs to wonder why, other than to create a distraction or unnecessary worry, this point is even raised.  No one has ever suggested that all sports team equipment be immediately replaced all at once when a school retires its ethnic mascot and, in fact, there is no reason why items cannot just be replaced over a period of years through natural attrition, just as they would have been even if there was no icon change.  Moreover, while this argument and threats by alumni to withhold contributions if changes to a school's "Indian" symbol occurred have been made, there is not one instance where a school suffered unusual economic difficulty after  a change.  
       Hard as it may be for some people to accept, life after a change occurs goes on quite normally and terrible consequences do not result.  In fact, studies done by some college level schools that did retire "Indian" mascots actually showed an increase in donor contributions.  In short, alleged money problems that "might" cause financial stress for schools that retire "Indian" sports team symbols has more to do with fear mongering and the preservation of selfish interests than it does with reality or common sense problem solving. 

 

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