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Native American Mascots


Schools, villages, clubs, and many other organizations have mascots as an emblem. Some have relevance which reflects the function of the group. Others are chosen as a representation of strength, fierceness, or some other attribute. One pattern that has developed in the U. S. A. has been the choice of a mascot which refers to some sort of "Indian." Choices of these representatives has not been limited to small-scale groups. A major manufacturer of butter, margarine, and other spreads is "Land O Lakes" with its stereotypic "Indian maiden" design. An emblem of tobacco or cigar stores used to be the carved wooden "cigar store Indian." Many children's songs or rhymes refer to "Indians," accompanied by a symbolic feathered, red-skinned caricature of an "Indian child." One example of a children's poem which illustrates clearly how simplistic these depictions are. It states: "Little injun, Sioux or Crow. Little frosty Eskimo..." Again, the illustrations reflect the stereotypic furry-hooded, slant-eyed, round-faced child presumably representing all Inuit or Arctic children, and the "injun" is in feathered headdress, carrying a tomahawk, and doing a "war dance." All of these portray children who look somewhat vacant but are wearing smiles. Television and theatrical portrayals of "Indian-ness" reinforce this, with stereotypic music supposedly representing "war drums" or a similar rhythmic suggestion. Usually, the presence of someone representing Native Americans will result in a stilted speech pattern (poor use of English grammar-almost baby-talk), Western/Great Plains characterization of deer hide clothing and-of course, feathered headdresses or headbands.

Today's most glaring examples of the simplistic, cartoon-like pseudo-Indian in public usage can be seen in sports team mascots. The Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves exemplify this usage. The countless souvenir items-coats, hats, shirts, socks, pennants, clocks, chairs, and mugs-represent major money-making aspects of mascots.

What's my point, you may ask. Please stop and think about what mascots convey to anyone seeing them-the avid fan, the small child, the general public, new arrivals to the Americas, and, the Native American! Imagine, please, what it may feel like to be a child of Navajo, or Onondaga, or Haida, or Hopi, or Cherokee, or Micmac nation, and see "your Indianness" portrayed as whooping/war-dancing/feathered/animal-skin- wearing/tomahawk waving/red-skinned cartoon character! Would you feel "honored" that all sorts of people-wealthy, poor, nice, unpleasant, old, and young, claimed that this was what "Indians" are all about? Isn't this a continuation of the negative stereotyping we "avoid" under most other circumstances where other groups of people are concerned?

The same is true with the utilization of African-American representations. It would not be tolerated to portray black-faced, kinky-haired cartoon characters cavorting around a stadium while spectators chanted parts of Negro spirituals or used the "N-word"-for or against a particular team! This usage, or any similar stereotypic usage would be recognized as inappropriate, rude, untrue, and unjust. Why, then, do millions of Americans, many of whom consider themselves without prejudice, miss the point when there are complaints, demonstrations, and outraged requests to have the Native American symbols removed from the mascot realm? Many of us grew up with these symbols. Some of us didn't recognize their negative connotations until they were pointed out to us. Once conscious of these potentially hurtful factors, we tend to squirm a bit, possibly look more closely at what we do, say, or purchase. Do we stop buying children's books that include any songs, rhymes, or illustrations with the Native American caricatures? Do we "boycott" any products with stereotypic emblems on them? Do we sign and/or circulate petitions which urge the removal of these mascots or emblems from schools, teams, clubs, and other usage where they are found?

How do we answer the questions of so-called Big Business when they ask how they are to handle their financial losses if all the mascot memorabilia must be changed? When other types of changes-based upon educational, religious, and health-related factors-are required by law, companies find ways to change. Perhaps, as some states have been doing, these changes will require legislative backing. In some instances, thoughtful groups will be supportive of the changes and will help with the change-over, financially and in other ways.

How might we help educate those whose first response is "you can't make me change this; don't we have freedom of speech and freedom of choice in this country?" The answer to the latter question, of course, needs to be couched in terms of the rights and privileges of each of us-not just those of an individual or interest group. When the rights of one cause harm to the rights of others, a balance must be found-justice for all-not just for some-must be the focus. One gratifying indicator of cooperation has been the response of the NAACP to the concerns of Native Americans about the derogatory mascots. Perhaps the broader publicity-in a wider range of arenas-with the backing of more varied interest groups-will prove influential. There have been a number of academic explanations of how these mascots originated and why they have been so popular. Among these is an article prepared by Rick Hill, an influential and deep-thinking member of the Haudenosaunee. Doug George, a writer for the Syracuse newspapers, has been informative and thought-provoking in his treatment of this topic. Among the explanations are the historic ones. Native Americans have tended to be treated as "wards" rather than full-fledged citizens, throughout much of our history. While some people have been participants in all areas of the dominant culture of the U. S. A., others, by chance or by choice, have remained on the fringe. Selections from history have glorified bits of Native American activities, ignored or avoided others. For instance, Plains Indian regalia, some battles, and some leaders' names, have been popularized, memorialized, and romanticized in film, music, mascots, books, and elsewhere, to the point where these have been exploited as representation of all. While that could, in some peculiar way, appear to be "honoring" Native people, it does not reflect true Plains Indian culture or culture history, and certainly does not reflect either the culture or culture history of any other Native American groups. Further, it suggests a static moment as reflection of all things Indian. This, in turn, implies that the Native American cultures of the United States and elsewhere in the Americas are dead and gone, rather than living, developing, and working to maintain their values, beliefs, and cultures in the changing world of today. Perhaps these points underline why there are nationwide efforts to remove so-called Native American mascots from the American scene.

The Central New York Consortium on Native American Studies is a newly formed group of college, university, and Native American personnel interested in recruitment of Native American faculty, staff, and students to the colleges and universities in Central New York, sharing information about issues relating to Native Americans, and promoting better relationships between the Haudenosaunee communities and beyond these. A major focus is the recruitment and retention of Native American students in these colleges and universities through greater familiarity with their needs and more contacts between these communities and the college communities to improve offerings in the schools for all students.

One subgroup of this consortium has been preparing a set of educational materials and a videotape on the impact of Native American mascots on people. While the emphasis has been on the influence of these mascots on Native Americans, an important factor is the perceptions of Native Americans they create for non-Native Americans as well.

One shocking feature of the movement, nationwide, to remove Native American mascots from schools and sports teams has been a grass roots reaction by some communities to condemn "those rabble-rousing Indians" for meddling with "our mascots." Indeed, some groups have come to blows over the issue. They appear to be separating their mascots-Indians, Chiefs, Warriors, Braves, Scouts, Redmen, Redskins, etc., from any real-life human beings-treating their mascot as different. It seems ironic that the so-called "Indian mascot," often portrayed as some outside-distant-romantic figure with feathers and loin cloth, is perceived as all right; at the same time, a local/regional real-life Native American (Indian) leader, such as Oren Lyons or Irving Powless, is viewed as an "outsider" who is trying to tamper with the community's own symbol. Again, please consider the implications of such things-we would not permit a Roman Catholic Pope mascot, a person painted black to portray an African American mascot, a slant-eyed, yellow-painted person in Mandarin costume to represent some Asian mascot, or any of a number of caricatures that we recognize as derogatory to particular beliefs or cultural groups.

If you are interested in these issues or sources of information about the topic, please contact the Iroquois Studies Association, or me. Alternatively, check on-line for some of the many reports nationwide. At present, New York State is considering a piece of legislature that would require public schools in the state to replace their Native American mascots. Other states have enacted this legislation or have it in process.

Contributed by Ellis McDowell-Loudan
President, ISA

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