"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mascot Indians

In order to delve into this complicated issue I first have to answer two fundamental questions-

1. How and why do we choose mascots?

2. How and why were Indians chosen as mascots?

As with so many issues, it is good to start with working definitions. The following is the definition of mascot from the American Heritage dictionary:

mascot n. A person, animal, or object believed to bring good luck, especially one kept as the symbol of an organization such as a sports team.

It also includes a word history that I will quote in full:

“A giant strutting bird leading a cheer at the homecoming game may seem a far cry from a witch fashioning a charm or spell, but these two figures are related historically in the development of the word mascot. Mascot came into English as a borrowing of the French word mascotte, meaning "mascot, charm...” The French word in turn came from the Provençal word mascoto, "piece of witchcraft, charm, amulet," a feminine diminutive of masco, "witch." This word can probably be traced back to Medieval Latin masca, "witch, specter." Thus for all their apparent differences, yesterday's witches and today's cuddly mascots can be seen in the same light, as agents working their respective magic to bring about a desired outcome.”

In a lot of ways, this origin makes sense. We choose mascots because we want part of this power or magic for ourselves. We fixate on the desirable qualities of the symbol. We the athletes on the field or the fans in the stands want to impart in ourselves its enchanted elements. We wish to be as quick as a cougar, as fierce as a lion, as strong as a bull. It has an almost spiritual element to it.

How then do Indians fit into this picture? Throughout American history, Native Americans have been seen as an otherworldly, spiritual other. From the moment Columbus set foot in the Caribbean, the indigenous people of this continent have fascinated Europeans. Their Christian Bibles included a Europe, an Africa, and an Asia but what then was this America? And who were these people who lived with such strange customs, languages, and practices? They were exotic, they were bizarre, they did not fit. And at a time when these former Europeans were busy burning each other as witches, these strange new people, in this strange new land, certainly held their own magic. Where the lines on the map ended, the magic began.

When the colonists stormed three ships in Boston Harbor in the year 1773, why were they dressed like Indians? They were not disguising themselves but rather making a point. As the ensuing two decades saw a radical transformation in America from British colony to independent nation, non-native Americans suffered a crisis. How could these former subjects of the King emphasize that they were no longer British but instead something new.

The United States has been called the greatest experiment in human history- a nation based not on divine right but on the high ideals of democracy, liberty, and freedom. Such high ideals and abstract concepts provided little solace to the war-weary Americans. They demanded something tangible, more concrete. There existed a huge void in their identity. “If we are no longer British,” they thought, “What are we? Americans, but what does that even mean? How can we lay claim to this new land we just shed our blood for? How do we become true, authentic 'Americans'?”

The resourceful and ingenious Americans did not have to look far for their answer. From the Boston Tea Party to the present day, Americans have had a continual history of “playing Indian.” We dress up like wild Indians in our social fraternities. We put stoic Indians on our currency. We write tall tales of noble savages. We dress in buckskin and sing Indian songs at Summer camp. We dress like Pocahontas and Squanto at Halloween. We put up our tepee at Woodstock and tell everyone to be one with the earth. Like so many generations past when choosing their mascots, we choose Indians as our “agents working their respective magic to bring about our desired outcome.” We want to be that exotic, wild other. We want to live out our fantasies of a more primitive life. We want to be true, authentic Americans. We want that connection to the land that is so uniquely, mysteriously, even magically Indian.

And yet all these things are simply that, Indian.  Not Chippewa, Ottawa, Iroquois, Lakota, Abenaki, Seminole, Muscogee, Ute, Mandan, Paiute, Diné, Inuit or even Native American. Just Indian.

This is this idea of the Indian or “indianness,” separate from real Native American people and cultures but the truth is these two things can never truly be separated. The former is simply an attempt to re-envision, to remake the latter so it can be conveniently used by non-native people. Native Americans and their cultures, past and present, were simply too diverse, too complicated, too complex, too inconvenient to make a good stand in for this utter insecurity on the part of the Americans. Therefore, we pick and choose certain elements of Native Americans, building up some aspects while burying others. We create one-dimensional stereotypes that fill the void in our own lives, our own identities. American insecurities of all varieties stripped down Native Americans into an idealized, magical native creature, the Indian. It became our hero, our inspiration, our charm, our mascot.

But haven't we moved beyond all this? This is the year 2010. Sure, when the redskins name and logo were chosen decades ago, people didn't know better. People do know better today and certainly can make the distinction between a crude stereotype and a real, diverse culture. Plus, all cultures borrow elements from other cultures so why single out this example? We've all seen people with tribal symbols, celtic designs, and chinese characters tattooed on their own skin who are not even Native American, Irish, or Chinese. We all borrow clothing fashions, music styles, and slang words from people who look, speak, and act differently than us. Even look at the back of our currency and you will see symbols ranging from pyramids, to eagles, to the neo-pagan goddess herself Lady Liberty.

And yet it is different.

Whenever I think about the issue of Indian mascots, my mind always returns to this unique historical trend, this obsession with everything Indian in all its myriad forms. But it is also more than that. This is only half the story. Native Americans were continually marginalized, persecuted, and killed in the name of Manifest Destiny. A wide group of real people were demonized as savages, pushed of their land, and then carved down into a stock character, only to be used by the very people who did the demonizing and pushing. Americans glorified Indians as noble warriors and spiritual beings, while wiping these same so-called savages from the face of the earth. It is the definition of cruel irony.

And I don't think that people have moved beyond race in this country. I wince whenever someone says we live in a post-racial environment and that we all should be color-blind. Yes, I believe that today is the most racially tolerant and understanding day in American history and tomorrow will be even better. But how can we expect this trend to continue when such clear visual and meaningful stereotypes exist as the Clinton High School Redskins. It is simply wishful thinking that people will differentiate between a stereotype and reality. Images have real impact, even if the message is not on the surface.

Take this study that demonstrates how race is something even young children see:

“For decades, it was assumed that children see race only when society points it out to them. However, child-development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue—but we tell kids that "pink" means for girls and "blue" is for boys. "White" and "black" are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.”

I continue with some insightful comments from the Newspaper Rock blog:

"As the article states, parents, teachers, and society as a whole should be talking about race. And not with such namby-pamby clichés as "We're all the same." The article demonstrates how a child reacts to such vague generalities:

'To be effective, researchers have found, conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakable terms that children understand. A friend of mine repeatedly told her 5-year-old son, "Remember, everybody's equal." She thought she was getting the message across. Finally, after seven months of this, her boy asked, "Mommy, what's 'equal' mean?"'

This article explains why we look for the racial messages beneath the surface. It's because people can perceive a message even if it's not overt. For instance, if Indiana Jones is the gun-wielding hero and Indians are the spear-wielding villains, it's not hard to conclude that white = noble and civilized and brown = primitive and savage. A child can see the difference even if adults try to deny it."

And take this recent study about racial attitudes. To quote the author of the study:

“Simply telling people to celebrate diversity or multiculturalism or saying, generically, that we believe in tolerance isn’t sufficient. We need to teach people about structural racism, about the ways that race still shapes people’s life chances and how the media informs our attitudes toward race.”

I honestly believe the students of Clinton High School when they say the Redskins mascot and logo are sources of pride and inspiration. But a supposedly positive stereotype is still a stereotype nonetheless. And when you look at the historical trend of the Indian image and it's use as a mascot, you cannot help but feel a bit unsettled. How can this cultural creation, whose origins are rooted in at best ironic admiration at worst genocide, continue to serve in that role today. In doing so, it only conditions the students into believing that real Native Americans are nothing more than the proud, one-dimensional warriors they lionize every Friday night. Provided few if any alternatives, (and being hounded by legions of native stereotypes in the rest of our popular culture) how can we expect these young students at a learning institution to come to an accurate and nuanced portrait of real Native Americans and real Native culture in the year 2010.

Indian mascots have real consequences for real people today. They perpetuate a constructed stereotype that was born in a process of awkward cultural appropriation over the past 500 years. They simply prevent Native Americans from defining their own culture and their own identity.

Now, one of the most common arguments used to support Indian mascots is the fact that they have real Native American support. They show polling data which clearly shows a large majority of Native Americans in support of keeping Indian mascots. I have a theory about this and I'm going to take a chance and throw it out there.

Growing up Native American in this country means being exposed to the same stereotypes, the same images, the same feelings about Indians as everyone else. You see all these things and know them to not be true. Yet they still have their impact. You wonder why the people like you in the movies, on television, in American culture are both simultaneously glorified and vilified. Such conflicting messages can do a number on your psychology and your self-esteem. You feel dispossessed. You feel utterly insecure.

So you look for any way to set the record straight, even if it means selling out a little of yourself. You're willing to put up with a positive Indian stereotype because you too want to take pride in that image and have others do the same. Like the students at Clinton High School, you look at the Redskins mascot and want some of that magic to rub off on yourself. It's the comfort in seeing something with which you identify being celebrated.

Thanks to the Indian stereotypes in our popular culture and the reality of two centuries worth of boarding schools that systematically shamed Native identity and culture right out of the hearts and minds of generations, many Native Americans were left in an emotional and cultural no-man's land. For this reason, I understand the logic and the emotion behind this current native support for Indian mascots. I just feel there has to be a better way.

In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations. They released a point by point analysis of the negative aspects of Indian mascots. They concluded Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities...

“undermine the educational experiences of members of all communities-especially those who have had little or no contact with Indigenous peoples.”

“undermine the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality, and traditions”

“establish an unwelcome and often times hostile learning environment for American Indian students that affirm negative images/stereotypes that are promoted in mainstream society”

“have a negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children”

A big part of the solution is education to teach people of all backgrounds, native and not, to better understand the reality and the complexities of the cultures around us. But this education will only go so far if the simplistic images and stereotypes it's preaching against are plastered on the very walls where this learning takes place, our own schools.

In conclusion, I fully expect people of all backgrounds to go on borrowing from other cultures. I expect people will continue to take pieces of other cultures to fill the holes in their own. I fully expect sports teams everywhere will be in need of rallying symbols, mascots, to propel their team to victory. But when that mascot has such a troubled history and the consequences are so very real for so many people, things simply must change.


  1. I second that. Thank you for these posts. I came across your blog by accident and I'm glad I stopped to read. I am Native American and sometimes get tired of explaining to people that we aren't all the same. This post reminded me why it matters to keep trying. We had a high school here that changed their mascot from the Redskins. It all worked out for the best but it was a hairy issue there for a little while. Thank you for caring.