Articles: Let's teach respect, not racism: Ethnic mascots demean American Indians

Jeff Corntassel

[Print Version]

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 Shawnees.

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 legacy.

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 sacred.

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 reached Asia.

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 settlers.

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 termination.

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 been changed.

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 American Indians.

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 as well?

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.

This 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, Virginia.