The negligence of our nation’s history has allowed for the continued racist representation of Native Americans, specifically when discussing their representation as mascots in amateur and professional sports. Several scholars have chosen to raise awareness to the ongoing misrepresentation and racist imagery that is present in amateur and professional sports by arguing against the allowance of such images, claiming such representation to be a by-product of a postcolonial society that allows for cultural imperialism, where the idea of Native American lives and presence are simply a thing of the past and not of the present day. The continued misrepresentation and racist portrayal that has plagued Native American communities simply reinforces a false image that does not fully and adequately reflect Native American cultures, peoples, epistemologies, and complexities. The use of Native American objects and the performance of certain Native rites and rituals only further degrades Native American culture and way of life, as many of these objects and rituals are being performed out of context, for various forms of entertainment during halftime shows at sporting events (both amateur and professional), and are therefore trivializing their importance to their respective communities and peoples. Authors propose several solutions to stop the use of Native Americans as mascots, including the participation in educating society on why having Native Americans as mascots is problematic. Solutions also include the deliberate stoppage of wearing and buying clothing that contains false images of Indians, refusal to participate in culturally demeaning acts, and engaging in political activism in order to show lack of support for the use of Indian mascots. When Native Americans are represented as mascots, it allows for the likening of complex nations to animals and objects, not to humans. Our nation’s ability to neglect its oppressive and genocidal role in history is significant because it has led to the continued misrepresentation of Native Americans, as well as the placement of Native Americans in a time capsule, where they are seen as a people of the past, not as persons with contemporary issues in society.
In “Chiefs, Braves, and Tomahawks: The Use of American Indians as University Mascots”, authors Robert Longwell-Grice and Hope Longwell-Grice attack the university usage of such imagery, as their duty as educators is to stop such usage of images through the education about why these images are racist and disrespectful. The authors link the usage of Native Americans as mascots to the surge in the marketing of Native America, particularly when referring to images, symbols, and “spirituality” of the culture. Many who support the use of Native Americans as mascots claim that this commercialization of culture is one of praise, not oppression. These supporters do not realize that through their backing, they are engaging in the production of a false image that has come to encompass and stereotype Native Americans, and are ultimately ignoring their oppressive roles in society. The use of tomahawks, spears, and headdresses produce a stereotyped vision of Native Americans, where the use of these objects is taken completely out of context and is trivialized, and ultimately causes Native Americans to be placed in a time capsule rather than being seen as contemporary nations and people.
Barbara E. Munson’s “Teach Them Respect Not Racism: Common Themes and Questions About the Use of ‘Indian’ Logos”, Munson highlights how the prolonged use of Native Americans as mascots constitutes institutionalized racism. These logos, that often reflect a
stereotype of Native Americans, continue to separate and marginalize Native Americans in modern day society, relaying aspects of their customs and cultures to simple images that are solely used for entertainment and capital. Because these images are presented at schools and at various levels of education, this creates a barrier for Native American children that attend these schools, as they have to deal with their heritage, history, and culture being completely deconstructed in order to promote an image that does not fully encompass what it means to be Native American. These logos also teach non-Native students that such culturally abusive behavior is all right in our postcolonial society. Use of “sacred” objects, ceremonial traditions, and components of traditional dress allow non-Natives to take aspects of Native American culture without being completely aware and understanding of their deep meaning and appropriate uses. This practice, then, allows for the misguided stereotypes of the “rich and varied cultures” of Native North America. The use of “sacred” Native American objects, ceremonies, and
traditions in relation to sports and entertainment is also a violation of Native American customs, and ultimately contributes to the collective ignorance of Americans today.
Munson also goes on to addresses some common statements and arguments that support the continued use of Native Americans as mascots. The most common statement of support stems from users claiming that having teams named after Native Americans is actually a form of honor, and therefore should not be considered offensive or wrong. Honor, however, plays no role in the symbolism produced that actually offends and disrespects Native Americans and their respective cultures. Munson declares that such symbolism is a mockery of their culture. They have to deal with seeing “sacred” and important communal objects, such as feathers, drums, face painting, and traditional dress, being used for another culture’s sport and game. Supporters of mascots often relate the images used and produced to “paying tribute” to Native Americans, but Munson clearly deconstructs that argument by highlighting that Native Americans do not pay tribute to each other in that way. Tribute comes in the forms of being donned with an eagle feather and the sharing of knowledge from elder to community, not in the racist portrayal of people who have been plagued by ruthless colonization and imperialism. As stated before, the presentation of Native Americans through these logos and images firmly place Native American people in the past, giving no acknowledgment to their presence in present-day society.
The continued use of Native Americans as mascots is a direct result of how we are taught to perceive Native Americans, particularly when discussing their role in our nation’s history. From elementary school and onward, students are taught that relations between the United States and Native American nations were always reciprocal, and that Native American nations peacefully handed their land over in order to benefit and expand the newly found United States.
Students are not exposed to the truth of the foundations of this nation until high school, or, in some cases, college. Our education system neglects to identify our role in the deconstruction of numerous Native American communities, the theft of millions of acres of land, and the ultimate genocide of indigenous peoples. Education, then, has come to rely on the romanticized idea of the Native American, which is another stereotype that fails to accurately portray Native American cultures and ways of life. These stereotypes then become the focal point from which we derive our image(s) of the Native American, and these stereotypes fuel the continued racist portrayal of Native Americans today. As scholar Ellen J. Staurowsky keenly highlights in her essay “American Indian Imagery and the Miseducation of America,” when discussing the issue of using Native Americans as mascots, rarely emphasized is the fact that these images are “white inventions” that have been adopted by white educational power structures to ultimately marginalize and separate Native Americans from contemporary society. We still allow there to be several professional sports teams that use racial slurs as their team names, but we consider the issue not important, because of our ability to place Native Americans within a time capsule and our choice to ignore our nation’s destructive role in North American history.
As stated earlier, many supporters of Native American mascots deem their use of Native American figures, objects, traditions, and ceremonies as honoring Native American peoples and communities, associating the use of these images with victory, pride, and a sense of valor that resonates with certain stereotypes of Native Americans that are learned in school. The association of these images with sentiments of valor and honor coincide with one of the oldest stereotypes of Native Americans being “blood-thirsty savages” that constantly searched for a battle or war in order to fill their appetites for victory and bloodshed. The non-Native depiction of these images and stereotypes through mascot portrayal is then likened to playing Indian, according to scholar Michael Taylor, and serves as a powerful form of copying the Indian Other in order to satisfy feelings of white guilt about their role as oppressors in history. Playing Indian, in the form of mascot portrayals, celebrates certain aspects of Native American customs and traditions as costume and entertainment rather than celebrating the richness and complexity of Native American cultures and nations. Non-Native depictions of Native American customs and cultures often seek some form of authenticity, whether in appearance or form, so that the person playing Indian can fully embody the “imagined qualities” of Native Americans, including speed, strength, and the mythical connection to nature, land, and wilderness. These same “qualities” were first used to identify Native Americans as “the Other” when colonizers came from Europe, linking these “qualities” with inferiority, paganism, and using such “qualities” as justification for colonization. Ironically, these same “qualities” are now celebrated by non-Natives and their settler-colonial societies, and are often used as markers of authenticity when attempting to identify aspects of Native Americans and their respective cultures.
Although education, or lack thereof, was earlier identified as one of the founding causes for the continued use of Native American cultures and customs as mascot themes and objects, it also serves as the foundation for the acknowledgement of our nation’s history in order to understand our role as past and present day oppressors of Native American nations, cultures, and communities. Cultural literacy, according to Ellen J. Staurowsky, is the “means by which the vast differences in individual and group experiences and knowledge can be bridged and accommodated in a democratic, pluralistic society”. Cultural literacy and its enforcement within schools and institutions of education would call for the deconstruction of binaries that are present in our society. Notions of “something that is” and “something that is not” would ultimately be done away with, as there would be no construction or depiction of “the Other”. The use of Native Americans as mascots ultimately fuels our current cultural illiteracy, and this illiteracy has ultimately benefited us as the dominant nation, and has proven detrimental to Native American nations and communities. Our long-standing tradition of using Native American cultures and objects as themes for mascot portrayal has shaped a relatively hostile cultural, political, and economic climate for Native Americans, further crippling their voice for justice, empathy, equality, acknowledgment, and representation.
Self-representation for Native Americans and Native American communities is also necessary in breaking our current cultural illiteracy. The image of “the Indian” was one that came from colonized minds who chose to focus on what Native American nations didn’t have, in comparison to European nations, and this constructed image didn’t fully acknowledge the complexity or variety within Native American nations and cultures. This constructed image of what an “Indian” is has survived and overpowered our thinking, and fuels our disrespectful portrayal of Native Americans as mascots in amateur and professional sports. In discussing the use of Native Americans as mascot figures, the National Congress of American Indians declares that this use of negative stereotyping affects the “reputation and self-image of every single Native person” and fosters continual discrimination against Native peoples (Anti-Defamation and Mascots). The inability for Native Americans to accurately represent themselves and their history has led to this construction of a misleading image of Native Americans, and this image feeds off of generalizations and historic myths that “whitewash” a history of oppression (Anti-Defamation and Mascots). Our continued use of Native American images as mascots displays how our nation continues to oppress Native Americans, as it would be unheard of for an amateur or professional sports team to use racial slurs of any other minority groups, yet we allow amateur and professional sports organizations to carry names like “Redskins”, “Braves”, and “Reds”.
In response to the continued use of Native Americans as mascots, specifically to the use of terms such as “Redskin” and “Reds”, the National Congress for America Indians developed a short video, entitled Proud to Be, in order to combat the use of such racial slurs as team names for sports organizations. A successful illustration of the kind of self-representation that has been denied to Native Americans since colonization, Proud to Be uses terms that aptly consider the complexity of Native American nations, the variety of Native American nations, their importance in past and present society, and their resilience to an imperialistic power that continues to serve as their oppressor. American society cringes at the use of racial slurs that stem from our foundations as a slave society, yet allow terms equally offensive to other minority cultures to be used for franchise and capital. Particular terms that stem from our genocidal history and role as oppressor have made their way into several professional sports organizations, further illustrating the negligence of our history and our choice to ignore contemporary issues of Native American nations. The use of such terms also exposes our ability to neglect how these terms came to be, as they were created as terms of identification for “the Indian Other” and were markers of the hierarchy colonizers were seeking to impose on pre-existing Native American nations. These terms went on to be used as racial slurs that came to be synonymous with any Native American person/culture, and was ultimately used in the marketing and advertisement for the killing and scalping of Native Americans by white settlers, a practice that was allowed and encouraged by the United States. Bounties would be placed upon Native Americans that would pay a high price for this form of Native American removal and genocide, and became part of the proposed solution to deal with remaining Native American nations that stood in the way of America’s expansion. Today, however, our society is marketing these terms on shirts, jerseys, jackets, and backpacks, and linking them with “praise” of Native Americans.
The usage of Native Americans as themes for mascot portrayal is particularly disrespectful, racist on numerous levels, and how it promotes an image of the “Indian” that was imposed by colonization, not by Native Americans themselves. The promotion of these images has proven its significance because it has led to the continual misrepresentation of Native Americans and a sincerely disrespectful disregard to contemporary Native American issues, adhering to our society’s placement of Native Americans within a time capsule. Solutions to our society’s continued negligence of our role in history present themselves in the form of education, cultural literacy, and an opportunity for self-representation by Native American nations and communities. These solutions will combat the problem of cultural imperialism and the false images that colonialism has instilled in society. The continued racist representation of Native Americans as mascots in amateur and professional sports can be allotted to the negligence and neglect for our nation’s role in North American history.
Kelsi Rae Barron is from Inglewood, CA is a recent graduate of UCLA with a Bachelors of Arts in History. Special thanks to Professor Shorter at UCLA.
Longwell-Grice, Robert, and Longwell-Grice, Hope, “Chiefs, Braves, and Tomahawks: The Use of American Indians as University Mascots,” in The Native American Mascot Controversy: A Handbook, ed. by C. King. (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2010), 3-11.
Munson, Barbara, “ Teach Them Respect Not Racism: Common Themes and Questions About the Use of ‘Indian’ Logos,” in The Native American Mascot Controversy: A Handbook, ed. by C. King. (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2010), 13-18.
National Congress of American Indians. “Anti-Defamation and Mascots.” Last modified Jan. 15, 2015. http://www.ncai.org/policy-issues/community- and-culture/anti- defamation-mascots
National Congress of American Indians. Proud to Be. Video. Directed by the National Congress of American Indians. Jan. 27, 2014.
Staurowsky, Ellen J., “American Indian Imagery and the Miseducation of America,” in The Native American Mascot Controversy: A Handbook, ed. by C. King. (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2010), 63-74.
Taylor, Michael. Contesting Constructed Indian-Ness: The Intersection of the Frontier, Masculinity, and Whiteness in Native American Mascot Representations. 1st edition. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2013