Advocates for changing
"Indian" mascots, nicknames, and symbols sometimes say this
issue is one of racism. How can that be possible?
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.
"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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
Return to FAQs index
Aren't "Indian" mascots meant to
show the good qualities of American Indian people like courage,
strength, stamina, and loyalty?
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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.
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,
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
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?
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
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
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?
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).
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.
Return to FAQs index
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.
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
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?
Some American Indian people don't seem to care about
the issue or actually appear to favor "Indian"
mascots? How can that be explained?
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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
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
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The use of "Indian" mascots has a long
tradition. Shouldn't the mascots be preserved for that reason?
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
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.
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
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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?
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
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.