Let's teach respect,
not racism: Ethnic mascots demean American Indians
IMAGES OF American Indians are pervasive in the United
States. One can readily see Indians depicted on products
ranging from butter to malt liquor. Names of some Indian
nations are synonymous with sport utility vehicles.
Perhaps most offensive is the portrayal of Indians
as mascots in our schools and local sports teams. In
Southwest Virginia alone, there are a number of examples:
the Blacksburg High School Indians, Blacksburg Middle
School Braves, Rural Retreat Indians and Shawsville
As an American Indian educator, I find it shameful
that such images persist. Depictions of Indians as mascots
or icons potentially prevents students and community
members from understanding the true historical, cultural,
economic and political experiences of the eight state-recognized
Indian nations in Virginia, as well as some 558 federally
recognized (and approximately 200 not federally recognized)
tribal governments throughout the United States.
Schools should be places where students go to unlearn
stereotypes, not to celebrate them. Images of Indians
as "noble savages" and "spirit guides"
distort reality and dehumanize Indian peoples. Such
culturally violent misrepresentations have no part in
a school's curriculum.
Tom Holm, a Creek/Cherokee professor, once observed
that school mascots tend to be either animals or a profession.
Are Indians animals? Is being Indian a profession?
Clearly, Indian nations have not struggled against
the violence of colonialism and institutional racism
for more than 500 years to be "honored" with
a high-school team name. Having one's culture caricatured
is clearly not what my ancestors envisioned as their
Schools with Indian mascots often conjure up their
own rituals in order to demonstrate "honor"
and "authenticity" to loyal fans. Actual Indian
ceremonies, which are specific to tribal communities
and homelands, bear no resemblance to the Hollywood
drumbeat, war whoops and halftime dancing that often
takes place at sporting events featuring Indians as
mascots. One can attend a powwow to see Indians participating
in traditional dances and dressed in full regalia --
a stark contrast to the cultural mockery of turkey-feather
headdresses, facial paints and plastic tomahawks evidenced
at most sporting events involving Indian mascots.
The "honor" of a high-school mascot has
not been conveyed to other ethnic groups in Montgomery
County. Could you imagine a high school team named the
Blacksburg High School "Blacks" or the Shawsville
"Jews"? To make this example even more appalling,
could you imagine a Shawsville student dressed as a
Jewish rabbi holding a Menorah and dancing to "Fiddler
on the Roof" during half time?
While these names and rituals seem inconceivable,
Indian mascots are prevalent in more than 2,000 primary
and secondary schools across the country. Ironically,
the honor and mutual respect of some 2.3 million American
Indians are still being held captive at institutions
of "higher learning." Consequently, when Indian
mascots are part of a school's curriculum, it is increasingly
difficult to teach our young people that education is
In addition to dehumanizing Indians, mascots also
present indigenous peoples as remnants of the past.
Racist images of the "savage" and/or "childlike"
Indian are part of a longstanding colonial history in
this country. These images were the impetus behind colonial
(and some contemporary) policies, such as enslaving
Indians, conducting genocidal wars, setting bounties
for Indian scalps (males, females and children), claiming
land as caretakers of "backward" Indians,
removing Indians from their original homelands, and
later sending Indian children to boarding schools under
the guise of "kill the Indian, save the man."
In fact, the notion of an Indian is a non-Indian invention.
In addition to the Indian holocaust in the Americas,
one of Columbus' legacies is that he designated several
hundred distinct nations residing in the Western Hemisphere
as Indians, based on his mistaken belief that he had
With colonial contact came settler accounts of Indians
as "infidels," which prompted the formulation
of specific policies. The "Doctrine of Discovery"
is probably the most notorious example. It asserted
that if a European country encountered a territory occupied
by Indians, they were considered merely "wild"
inhabitants; the original title of the land rightfully
belonged to the newly arriving and civilized European
Harmful images of "primitive" or "savage"
Indians later found their ways into dime-store novels,
Wild West shows, movies pitting cowboys vs. Indians
and eventually federal policies, such as removal and
Today's American Indians face an ongoing struggle
to eliminate the colonial images of the past from our
schools and to ground conceptions of Indian peoples
in the present. Yet while mascots are not the most important
issue facing American Indians today, they are an important
societal barometer of mutual respect and advances in
cross-cultural education. Mascots are symptomatic of
a larger battle for justice that has yet to be resolved
in the areas of Indian education, continued recognition
as treaty-based sovereigns, freedom of religion, access
to health care, etc.
When Indian mascots exist in our public schools, devastating
effects are passed on to our children. In addition to
reinforcing stereotypes, students are getting a distorted
view of the past and present. The effect is even more
devastating for Indian students attending schools with
Indian mascots. These Indian youths see their culture
mocked and trivialized daily. Much like the Indian boarding
schools of the past, schools with Indian mascots break
down the confidence and self-esteem of Indian students
by dehumanizing them. Is it coincidence that one in
six Indian teenagers attempts suicide? There is no honor
in humiliating individuals or groups.
Some progress has been made recently to eliminate
Indian mascots from our schools. Since 1970, nearly
1,000 primary and secondary schools have traded their
Indian mascots for nonracist alternatives. The University
of Oklahoma's "Little Red", Stanford's "Indians"
and St. Bonaventure's "Brown Squaw" have all
Even a major corporation involved in education has
followed suit: Crayola has renamed their "Indian
Red" crayon "Chestnut" to prevent students
from confusing the former name with the skin color of
This increased sensitivity is not an example of "political
correctness" but signifies a greater awareness
of the power of education in shaping a child's vision
of the world. Education is a tool for liberation from
bigotry -- not a facilitator of racism.
Interestingly, at one time there was a widespread
call to change the Christiansburg High School mascot
(the Blue Demons) to something less offensive to citizens
in the area. Why haven't people mobilized to change
the blatantly offensive Indian mascots in our community
It's ultimately up to the community at large to demand
the equality of a cross-cultural education and mutual
respect. Until such a day comes, I cannot send my children
to institutions that dehumanize them and teach racism
rather than respect for Indian peoples.
article appears here with permission of the author and
was originally published as an editorial in the
September 28, 1999 edition of the Roanoke Times, Roanoke,