Mascots Distort the True Meaning of 'Warrior'

By Storm Reyes
May  29, 2000

As I write this, it's almost the end of Memorial Day and my thoughts  linger on the warriors.  Today, as every Memorial Day in my memory, I went to the cemetery to pay my respects.  Today, as every Memorial Day for the last seventeen years, I went to the cemetery to visit my father.  He was a World War II veteran and one of my earliest memories was visiting a cemetery in a town whose name I didn't know and putting flowers on flag-marked graves of strangers.  As we placed the flowers and cleaned the headstones, my father would talk of the warriors he had known and the meaning of the word 'warrior.'

"Stormy, the job of the warrior is to defend and care for the people,"  he'd say.  "A warrior is a peace-maker, and only sometimes is war the price of peace.   War is what happens when all else has failed."

Today, the word 'warrior' seems to be so misunderstood.  Movies portray the Indian warriors as brutal fighters and sports teams adopt a misguided concept of a warrior as a mascot.  The teams tout that they are fierce competitors, savages who won't be denied the win.  Fake war whoops, foam rubber tomahawks, silly face paint and a cartoon character Indian mascot all making mockery of real warriors.  And worse yet, schools teaching their children that Indians are mascots and that warriors are something to be feared.

Last year, I had an opportunity to speak to a school board in a small town about their mascot, The Indians.  I was told that the school board wished to honor the Indians and to teach the children about the integrity and courage of Indians.  The high school was built at the site of a Caddo Apache village, and yet there was no mention of the people whose homes were lost when the Caddo were relocated.  As I looked at the symbols of the school's mascot, I saw sacred eagle feathers hanging from basketballs and a caricature of a warchief whose face was painted purple and yellow, and I thought, where is the honor in this?   Were the children being taught of the Caddo's lives?  Were the children learning of this ancient culture and its beauty?  Were the children learning the art and music of the Caddo?  Were the children learning of the dignity shown by the Caddo as they were forced to leave their ancestral home?  If they were not being taught those things, then they were not being taught about real warriors.  They were not being taught about the strength and courage it took not to fight, and that sometimes the cost of winning means sacrifice and losing everything.

Indians honor our warrior veterans at every gathering and event with an honor song and dance.  We never forget the sacrifices of the past and know there may be sacrifices yet to come.  We know the real cost of peace and its taste is bittersweet in our mouths.

If a sports team or school is looking to emulate warriors, they need look no further than the local military bases or the police car silently passing through their neighborhoods.  A simple smile or word of thanks is a small reward to give to our largely unseen warriors and yet even that is most often denied them.  If a sports team or a school wishes to 'honor'  Indians, then show us the respect of not carelessly abusing those symbols and  ideals sacred to us.  There are real warriors in your midst today.  Honor the memory of our warriors by treating today's warriors with respect.  As they work to defend and care for the people, let them know that the people appreciate it.

Memorial Day will pass and soon the flowers on graves will wither.  But there will always be warriors and Indians will continue to honor them with dance and song.  To the warriors of days long gone and days yet to come, I send my deepest respect and appreciation.

Storm  Reyes, a Puyallup woman, writes a column for The News Tribune (Tacoma, Washington) which appears monthly in the "Perspectives Section" of the editorial page.

American Indian Sports Team Mascots