American Indian Imagery and the Miseducation of America

by Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., Associate Professor of Sport Sciences

Ithaca College, Ithaca NY 14850


printed in Quest, Volume 51, No. 4, November 1999, pgs. 382-392.


During the summer of 1998, the New York State Department of Education initiated an inquiry into the use of Native American mascots by schools for the purpose of determining if the practice is offensive and should be stopped. The study undertaken at the direction of the State Education Commissioner Richard Mills was in response to an appeal filed by Robert Eurich, a taxpayer from Orange County (NY). In 1996, Eurich sought to have the ‘Red Raiders’ mascot eliminated from Port Jervis High School because he alleged it violated his civil rights and those of students attending the school (Associated Press, 1998a; Russin, 1998a). Although Commissioner Mills dismissed Eurich’s appeal, he did recognize the "... seriousness of the issue the petitioner raises and that other districts statewide engage in similar practices" (Associated Press, 1998a, p. 1A).

The New York State Department of Education is one among many policy making bodies to address the appropriateness of the use of American Indian mascots, symbols, and iconography in school settings. During the past three years, the issue has manifest itself from border to border and coast to coast in numerous discussions, debates, and disputes (Willman, 1999; "Hearing held...," 1998). Saliently, the issue has even attracted the attention of the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ). The February 1999 investigation by the USDOJ at Erwin High School in North Carolina marks the first occasion when Native American images have been examined by a federal agency for the purpose of determining if the symbols contribute to a racially hostile learning environment (Pressley, 1999).

These incidents reveal the complicated dynamics that are invoked and/or provoked when educators and communities attempt to discuss this issue. Schools throughout the state of Minnesota and institutions such as Cornell, Marquette, Miami University of Ohio, St. John’s, Stanford, and Syracuse (Lapchick, 1996; Staurowsky, 1996), have found reasons to stop the practice of using American Indian imagery for sport teams. However, the potential for discussions on this issue to become volatile is evident as well.

Indicative of the palpable sense of the need for reinforcement when it comes to handling this issue, Superintendent Church of the Afton (NY) School District said she would welcome a directive from the state as a means of avoiding contentiousness at the local level. Church’s prediction that constituencies may register a range of reactions to the prospect of eliminating American Indian mascots can be gauged from the immediacy of response generated when the proposed New York State Department of Education study was made known to the public. The mere announcement of such a study evoked definitive positions by educational decision makers before the investigation ever got under way. Several athletic directors from Section IV in central New York, where 13 school districts are known as Indians, Chiefs, Senecas, Blackhawks, and Warriors, were quick to note that their school names were a "source of pride" and "a reflection of our area" (Russin, 1998a, p. 1A). About the study, one local sportswriter in Ithaca, NY, recognized two years ago as one of the most "Enlightened Cities" in the United States, editorialized:

I guess if I lived on a reservation and a high school was nicknamed the ‘Iroquois Pale Faces’ I would be offended.... But that’s not the perspective I’m working from. Nope, this is the all common-sense channel....There is absolutely nothing wrong with Indian-related names (Russin, 1998b, p. 1A).

For the remainder of this I article will focus on the cultural fallout confronted when addressing the issue of American Indian imagery as it has become infused into and perpetuated by school districts and communities. The complex racialized fabric of attitudes and beliefs fostered in adults and children through the reliance on American Indian mascots as the centerpiece of school, community, and team identities will be unraveled. The end result will be the identification of critical areas of inquiry that educators should address with themselves, their students, their families, and their communities about the continued use of these symbols.

Central to the argument presented in this article is an acknowledgment that few Americans, whether educators or representatives from any other sector of the population, have had the opportunity to acquire the depth of knowledge or understanding about this nation’s history relative to American Indians that allows for a responsible consideration of this issue. A close examination of the dialogue surrounding American Indian imagery in sport reveals that people who we typically think of as the beneficiaries of systematic and complete schooling consistently mistake "common sense" (a set of common understandings that permit consensus based on accurate information) for "nonsense" and yet feel confident and empowered even in their lack of knowledge. This realization is compelling because it raises questions about the very essence of the educational process that good teachers care about the most, that being educational integrity and accountability.

American Indian Mascots As Symptomatic of Cultural Illiteracy

At a theoretical level, school systems in the United States are vested with the responsibility of cultivating the intellectual skills in citizens essential for functioning productively and meaningfully within a human and humane society. A critical tool in realizing this goal is cultural literacy, a means by which the vast differences in individual and group experiences and knowledge can be bridged and accommodated in a democratic, pluralistic society. Although the central importance of cultural literacy in education is undisputed, how cultural literacy is conceptualized and achieved is very much up for debate. In his treatise on the failure of schools to create a literate society, Hirsch (1987) urged a return to commonly shared content areas as the basis for mutual understanding and societal stability. He argued that there is a need for the identification and implementation of a core curriculum that would be delivered uniformly to students throughout the United States so as to insure that all students received a baseline level of knowledge.

One need only watch a "Jaywalking" segment on the Tonight Show as interviewees struggle to correctly identify the number of states in the Union or testify to the small number of Americans who vote to appreciate at some level the argument Hirsch (1987) makes. His fundamental premise is particularly relevant to the issue of understanding the dialogue that emerges surrounding American Indian imagery, however, for two reasons. First, Hirsch’s conceptualization of cultural literacy and how to achieve it is reflective of a dominant value system that has been operating in education for a considerable portion of this century. As a corollary, because his conceptualization is anchored in an ethnocentric perspective that fails to adequately provide for American Indians, an examination of his approach explains the gaps that occur between Native American parents and their allies who advocate for change within schools and those who actively or passively resist change when it comes to the matter of mascots.

To elaborate, Hirsch (1987) contends, perhaps rightfully so, that the "civic importance of cultural literacy lies in the fact that true enfranchisement depends upon cultural literacy" (p. 92). He continues by suggesting that the illiterate and semi-literate (the poor and the marginal) will be doomed to poverty and to the powerlessness of incomprehension if they are not taught the markers, such as certain areas of literature and standard English, that would otherwise connect those disadvantaged groups to the power structure of the dominant society.

Inasmuch as Hirsch’s (1987) perspective on this matter reveals how power structures may work and how access to power is achieved through education (ideas that are contested in and of themselves), his position also discloses the kind of cultural blind spots that discussions surrounding American Indian mascots ought to illuminate but consistently do not. Illustrative of this point is Hirsch’s response to concerns about how nationwide requirements would be identified and defined. Referencing an American tradition of pluralism, Hirsch observes that "Because our country started out with a powerful commitment to religious toleration, we developed habits of cultural toleration" (p. 94).

Hirsch’s (1987) logic, although sustainable when linked to the dominant culture, falls apart when placed in the context of White-Indian relations. The United States has not historically afforded American Indians any degree of religious freedom and genocide can hardly be thought of as cultural toleration.

As a departure gate for expounding on what is needed with regard to cultural literacy, an American tradition of pluralism offers a model which simply does not work when it comes to either the historic or present day treatment of American Indians by educational systems. This notion of the American Melting Pot, however, structurally undergirds much of public education and educational theory as seen in Hirsch’s (1987) work and others like it. As Pewewardy (1997) explains, "American schools have been designed to either destroy Indian culture and tribal language or graduate Indian students with a Eurocentric value system which is individualistic, competitive, and materialistic" (p. 17A). In the process, schools have often destroyed the possibility of non-Indians appreciating the influences and forces that have shaped their own lives.

Confronting the myth of the American Melting Pot and its integration into approaches to cultural literacy sheds new light on discussions about the practice of schools using American Indian imagery. It highlights the fact that these images emanate out of communities that have, for the most part, been woefully undereducated about the stereotypes they have chosen to represent their schools.

This can be tested using a modification of Hirsch’s (1987) model of a common list of things that all Americans should know. Would Americans’ view the stereotypical fierce and fighting male Indian warrior in the same light if they were fully aware of how the characterization of American Indians as "savages" in the Declaration of Independence affected the shaping of the policies the United States government adopted relative to the nation’s First People? How might those images be viewed differently if thought was given to the connection between the actions of the principal writer of that document, Thomas Jefferson, who is credited with setting the framework for Indian removal in motion in 1803 and the fate of American Indians since that decision was made (Ellis, 1997)? How curious that the foe most feared and hated has been transformed by the dominant culture into the ultimate symbol of victory. To valorize the image of the "fighting Indian" without soberly recognizing the degree to which the United States sought to summarily conquer and control that very entity has created what Pewewardy labels "dysconscious racism" (as reported in Schroeter, 1998).

White Assumptions And Cultural Literacy

The distortions in logic that permeate justifications for American Indian imagery reflect what feminist researchers Mahr and Tetreault (1997) call "White assumptions" which influence and mold the construction of knowledge as it is produced and resisted in classroom and school settings. Assumptions of whiteness circulate undetected throughout discussions and debates about the continued use of American Indian imagery. For example, rarely do educators preface discussions about this topic with an acknowledgment that these images are white inventions adopted by white educational power structures.

Despite public opposition by almost every Native American organization in the United States, some of which include the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, Advocates for American Indian Children, the National Coalition for Racism in Sport and the Media, and the Society of Indian Psychologists, patterns of non-Native American responses to formal requests by Native Americans for the elimination of mascots and imagery have frequently taken the form of denial, defensiveness, or dismissiveness (Brady, 1999; Pressley, 1999; Staurowsky, 1998). It is not uncommon that appeals for the eradication of stereotypical images, on the grounds that their elimination would abate forces that undermine the self-esteem and self-image of Native Americans, are met with allegations that these appeals are shallow attempts at "political correctness" ("Hearing held...", 1998; Russin, 1998b; Yarbrough, 1998). As Colgan (1997) wrote in a letter to the editor of JOPERD about the issue of eliminating the use of American Indian mascots, "It is sad the way groups of citizens search so diligently to find something to be disgruntled about" (p. 4). Yarbrough (1998) extends this one step further by equating all examinations of these issues to exercises in "political correctness," as if to suggest that there is no value in revisiting old assumptions with renewed insight or seriously assessing the educational welfare of all students.

What some educators and citizens appear unable and/or unwilling to grasp at a macro-level is the fact that this dynamic of American Indians explaining why something is offensive while non-Indians actively or passively choose not to respond or respond contrarily is the most persistent theme underscoring Indian-non-Indian relations. Locust (1988) argues that the fundamental differences between American Indians and non-Indians foster the discriminatory treatment American Indian students experience in school through a lack of appreciation for their belief and value systems. This is seen in the continuing use of eagle feathers, dancing, music, and chanting in association with American Indian mascots. On repeated occasions, attempts have been made to educate the public about the sacredness of these symbols and ceremonial practices (Rosenstein, 1997). And yet, a large portion of the public appear to believe that their right to use these symbols in frivolous, casual ways at the ballpark or an athletic contest is a matter of personal opinion. In this instance, the sanctity of a culture is not sufficient cause to protect certain revered symbols from being worn inappropriately, merchandised, or desecrated in some other manner. This practice cuts in two directions by violating Indian taboos and customs while also contributing to the collective ignorance of masses of Americans at the same time.

In his work on cultural literacy, Ferdman (1990) explored the process of becoming and being literate in a multi-ethnic society. According to Ferdman, literacy is culturally framed and variable. As a consequence, literate behavior may be defined differently from culture to culture. This conception offers a way for educators to rethink the issue of American Indian mascots, which has become so deeply imbedded in the average American’s psyche due to the official sanction of institutional authority, collective ownership, and mass identification.

What this examination of race and cultural literacy reveals is an significant flaw in the way cultural literacy has traditionally been conceptualized by many influential educators and internalized by the majority of Americans throughout most of the twentieth century. Whereas Hirsch (1987) cautions that cultural illiteracy may impoverish and relegate certain groups to the "powerlessness of incomprehension", cultural illiteracy is not located solely or entirely among the marginalized. Impoverishment, in turn, need not be thought of only in economic or class terms. To grasp this point is to become aware that the non-Indian power structure has acquired its privileged status through its own intellectual impoverishment, selective incomprehension, and moral compromise. In order for genuine understanding to occur, one needs to consider that the culturally illiterate group in these discussions about American Indian imagery are non-Indians. Hirsch’s tenet that true societal enfranchisement is achievable only when one is culturally literate needs to be modified. For the majority, being culturally illiterate is sometimes acceptable, expedient, and profitable, particularly when it comes to American Indians.

As educators, if we begin to conceptualize the use of American Indian imagery as a form of cultural illiteracy that has historically benefitted the dominant group to the detriment of American Indians, the path is cleared to more fully appreciate the impact this long-standing practice has had in the shaping of a hostile cultural and classroom climate for American Indians and an intellectually numbing environment for both Indians and non-Indians alike.

A Hostile Culture and Classroom Climate for American Indians

In 1997, President Clinton established a Race Initiative Advisory Board for the purpose of promoting a national dialogue on race issues, to increase an understanding of the history and future of race relations, to identify and create plans to calm racial tension, and promote increased opportunity for all Americans to address crime and the administration of justice (Gray, 1998). The findings from a presidential report entitled "One America: The President’s Initiative on Race," showed that Native Americans experience more pronounced levels of racism in the form of economic and physical abuse than any other identified group. Further, Native Americans were found to manifest the highest instances of suicide, the lowest life expectancy, highest levels of infant mortality and the highest rates of unemployment nationwide" (Gray, 1998). Despite acknowledging that the United States’ record of mistreatment of Native Americans required acts that would ameliorate the neglect and isolation that Indians feel, the President did not appoint a Native American to his team of advisors (Associated Press, 1998c). President Clinton’s omission or oversight in naming a Native American to the advisory board caused considerable consternation within the Native American community.

In a meeting with nine tribal leaders in Denver in March of 1998 to discuss the absence of a Native American on the board, the tribal leaders called the omission unconscionable and unacceptable (Greigo, 1998, p. 1). Appreciation for the sentiment felt is revealed in Scott’s (1998) response to the lack of awareness demonstrated by the White House when she wrote:

How can this government hope to address a problem as deep and pervasive as racism without providing an opportunity for equal representation to the people most directly affected by racism for over 200 years.... No face more directly reflects the evils of racism, institutionalized and otherwise, than the face of Native peoples.... This country has only to look at its own history if it wishes to see where racism, unchecked, leads. Is it possible that this government fears to look too deeply into the mirror of its own beginnings? (p. 2).

It is possible that what is at work here is a clash between the fantasy, fictionalized Indians many non-Indians pretend to be during Halloween and while they are masquerading as Warriors and Indians and Renegades and Chiefs at the local level and the dilemmas encountered when real Indians raise issues that demand something that goes beyond pretense. Pewewardy (1994, 1997) connects the dots between the failure of American institutions (education, government, religion, the criminal justice system, health care, media, entertainment, sport) in general to comprehend lived American Indian experience and the reduction of American Indian life to little more than a singular stereotype of a mythical be-feathered fighting figure.

Pewewardy (1994, 1997) describes the practice of using Indian mascots as symbolic representations of teams and anchors for community identity as "cultural violence" which serves to distort the perceptions of both Indian and non-Indian children. The end result has been three-fold. Indian children have been left with "deep emotional scars" and what Locust (1988) refers to as "wounds of the spirit" as evidenced in Native American children having the highest dropout rates, the highest suicide rates, and the lowest academic achievement levels of any minority group (Ambler, 1997; Harjo, 1996; James, Chavez, Beauvais, Edwards, & Oetting, 1995; Lee, 1992; Wood & Clay, 1996). Non-Indian children have been raised as what I would call cultural narcoleptics, permitted to sleep the sleep of the uninformed and unknowing. For all children, Indian and non-Indian alike, the use of American Indian imagery introduced and replicated over and over in lieu of a comprehensive and extensive examination of the historical and social antecedents of Indian and non-Indian relations contributes to the miseducation of masses of Americans and a generalized level of ignorance. This realization signals a need for educators to struggle with areas of inquiry that frequently go unaddressed or unexamined.


In any given time period, an analysis of various meanings associated with familiar institutional practices reflects the changes that cultures undergo as they evolve. The orchestration of major societal reversals on perspectives regarding women’s right to vote (Sherr, 1994), slavery (Coakley, 1998), and the capability of older citizens as seen most recently in John Glenn’s flight into space (Jackson, 1998) attest to the contested nature of seemingly intractable ideas and the potential for change. The educational importance of examining Native American mascots stems from the fact that such topics allow for a similar revisitation of the power of words, symbols, and images. By subjecting these terms to critical analysis, three areas of inquiry that educators might do well to explore become apparent: the prevalence of American Indian imagery, the cultivation of an educational facade, and the progressive miseducation of Americans.

The Prevalence of American Indian Imagery

Within the mass produced and commodified world of American capitalism, images associated with American Indians have long been the choice of twentieth century advertisers seeking to contrast the primitive ways of the unsophisticated and uneducated with the civilized fortunes of the well-to-do (Staurowsky, 1998). One need only span the shelves of grocery stores to find "Land o’ Lakes" butter with an ‘Indian’ maiden on the label; survey vehicles in an auto mall to discover that ‘Cherokees’, ‘Winnebagos’, and ‘Pontiacs’ are routinely available to buy or lease; or rifle through the Liz Claiborne collection to come upon the "Crazy Horse" line of women’s clothing (Bordewich, 1996; Brouse, 1998; Coombes, 1996). The disproportionate degree to which American Indian imagery has been used in promoting the interests of corporate America is replicated in schools as well.

According to Pressley (1999), more than 2500 schools in total still employ these images. As an identifiable category, images that depend on some aspect of perceived American Indian culture and tradition are more popular by a wide-margin than any other single group of ethnic symbols selected to represent athletic teams and educational institutions. Despite this remarkably high level of representation, there is little if any genuine curiosity expressed by educators regarding the disparity between the prevalent use of this imagery and the small percentage of American Indians within the population.

Whereas the average American tends to view these images as benign or innocuous, scholars suggest that this imagery taps into deep-seated Eurocentric cultural forms that enact and replay old conflicts between Indians and non-Indians. It is the case that the prevailing stereotypes of warring, wild Indians in paint, feathers, and buckskins or loin clothes replicate images popularized by Wild West Shows and Worlds Fair Exhibitions from nearly a century ago and the more recent Western film genre of the latter part of the 20th Century (Churchill, 1992; Coombes, 1996). As signifiers of the superior level of sophistication and accomplishment achieved by the "colonizers" then and now, the "primitive" images of American Indians have marked the growth of a capitalist consumer culture and in the process have created a degree of "cultural saturation" that does not encourage racial sensitivity. As Bordewich (1996) notes, Americans are more comfortable with fictional Indians than with real Indians.

In addressing the alarming level of unquestioning acceptance of these images by Americans, Kenneth S. Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s expert on anti-Semitism and extremism remarked that "The use of mascots is a reflection of the limits of dehumanization our culture will allow ... It deeply concerns me that many people of goodwill find these dehumanizing portraits unremarkable" (as reported in "American Jewish Committee...," 1998, p. 11).

American Indians As The "Face" of Education: The Cultivation of an Educational Facade

For those who seek to defend American Indian mascots, notions that these images are rooted in conscious decisions to celebrate virtues of Indian character, to honor an admirable people, and to memorialize a forgotten people are recurrent themes. In defending the representation of an Indian as a mascot for Menomonie (WI) High School, a 16 year old football player told the Wisconsin Senate Education Committee that "We incorporate words like dignity, strength, honor, pride, and we really give a lot of respect to the tradition..." (as reported in "Hearing held...," 1998, p. 2). Similarly, advocates for the "Braves" mascot at Birmingham (CA) High School reported taking pride in the logo, regarding it as a positive symbol because it best represented "...the land of the free and the home of the brave" (as reported in Willman, 1997). The incongruity in these statements deserve to be challenged at several levels.

Whereas the perspectives expressed are moving, they are nonetheless rhetorically and contextually empty. To project dignity, honor, respect, strength, and pride onto a manufactured image while simultaneously displaying an inability to accord those very same things to living Indians seeking to be heard speaks volumes about just how great the level of miseducation is on this topic. To comfortably assert that the symbol of the American Indian is a logical and consistent image with "the land of the free and the home of the brave" ignores the legacy of genocide, forced assimilation and acculturation, and repeated mistreatment to which American Indians have been, and continue to be subjected to today (Brown, 1991; Churchill, 1997).

From a Native American perspective, Pewewardy (1997) asks, "Where is the honor in being introduced as the "savages" at football games?" (p. 17A). As educational institutions and educators come to grips with the issue of American Indian mascots, recognizing that there is an untidy and prickly thicket of contradictions that must be removed becomes part of the task of reeducation this requires.

American Indian Imagery As Tools for Teaching Racism

In articulating a reason why Indian schools choose Indian people as mascots, Veilleux (1993) observed that the preference is "...based upon their misinformed stereotypical notion that our Indian ancestors were warlike, bloodthirsty, wild savages" (p. 6). If American Indians harbor these misperceptions, how pronounced are the effects of these images on non-Indians?

There can be little doubt that the racism reflected in the pages of the Naperville (IL) High School yearbook in 1987, which chronicled "87 Uses For A Dead Redskin" demonstrate that a school mascot can be a powerful tool in the miseducation of students on matters of race (as reported in Veilleux, 1993). The process through which distorted "race logic" (Coakley, 1998) becomes learned is outlined by Veilleux who notes:

The purpose of a mascot in an athletic competition is to serve as a focal point or ‘target’ for competing teams and their fans to express allegiance to the home team or opposition to the visiting team. When the ‘target’ or mascot is representative of a race of people such as American Indians, it becomes a racial issue (p. 7).

Although frequently acknowledged within educational circles in general that stereotypes form the bedrock of prejudice and racism, schools have been extremely slow to accept responsibility for miseducating students through the continued use of American Indian imagery as the most visible symbols of their enterprise.


In an age when schools are making concerted efforts to teach tolerance and to grapple with issues of diversity, it behooves educators to accept the challenge posed by President Clinton upon meeting American Indian leaders in the summer of 1998, when he remarked that Americans need to "fess up" to the mistreatment of American Indians. For physical educators, coaches, athletic administrators, and sport scientists, part of "fessing up" involves the prospect of confronting and owning our shortcomings. This is never an easy undertaking but it is the thing that is most necessary if our students are to be best served. For many of us, myself included, we’ve grown up with our own community and personal identities linked to these images. This issue asks for our introspection, our courage, and our insight in facing the flaws and faults in our own education. If the students who we care about are to have the best chance of apprehending the complex history which contributes to their world view, we, as their teachers, must be as culturally literate as possible.

In conclusion, professionals from the allied fields of sport science and physical education are perhaps positioned better than anyone else to provide leadership on this issue, given the integral role we play in facilitating athletic opportunities for students. By calling for the elimination of stereotypes in the form of American Indian images, we can contribute positively to the education of all of our children, Indian and non-Indian alike.


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This article appears here with the expressed permission of the author.
Many thanks to Dr. Staurowsky for her gracious contributions to these pages.

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