Playing Indian at Halftime: The Controversy over American Indian Mascots, Logos, and Nicknames in School-related Events
By Dr. Cornel Pewewardy
Every school year classroom teachers face the reality and challenge
of educating diverse children in a multicultural society. Teaching multiculturally
requires educators to examine sensitive, diverse topics and cultural issues.
It requires looking at historical and contemporary events from a multicultural
perspective rather than a monocultural one. Teachers and administrators
who are uninformed about cultural diversity, whose knowledge of history
and current events is monocultural in scope, and who are unaware of their
own prejudices are likely to hinder the academic success and personal
development of many students, however unintentional this may be.
Classroom teachers also have a professional responsibility to eliminate
racism in all aspects of school life. Accordingly, teachers should not
ignore multicultural issues in school. Instead, multicultural issues should
become teachable moments in which these issues are confronted and discussed.
Accurate information can begin to displace the myths that many hold about
others. Today, one multicultural teachable moment is the controversy over
using American Indian mascots, logos, and nicknames in school-related
events. American Indian mascots are important as symbols because they
are intimately linked to deeply embedded values and worldviews. To supporters
of Indian mascots, they honor Indian people, embody institutional traditions,
foster-shared identity, and intensify the pleasures of college athletics.
To those who oppose them, however, the mascots give life to racial stereotypes
as well as revivify historical patterns of appropriation and oppression.
They often foster discomfort, pain, and even terror among any American
This article examines the usage of American Indian mascots in school-related
activities and events. Non-Indian people may not be culturally aware that
some American Indian symbols used by cheerleaders and cheering fans -
war chants, peace pipes, eagle feather war bonnets, and dances - are highly
revered or even sacred in many Indian tribal communities. Many mascots,
logos, and nicknames represent stereotypical racist images that relegate
American Indian people to a colonial representation of the historical
past. The exploitation involved in the use of Indian mascots, logos, and
nicknames in schools become an issue of decolonization and educational
Countering the Assault of Indian Mascots, Logos, and
Indian" in School
After conducting research on this issue for fifteen years, I find
that most Indian mascots, logos, and nicknames were externally exposed
concepts, meaning that the naming process for athletic teams came from
outside the Indian community. Even in the earliest US government boarding
schools, Indian children had no involvement in the choice of mascots,
logos, and nicknames of their boarding schools. For example, the first
recorded usage of an "Indian" nickname an American Indian sports team
was in 1894 by Carlisle Indian School located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania,
an off-reservation US government boarding school. Mainstream sports journalists
had nothing but praise for the Indian's football performance. Opposing
college football teams and sports media began naming team members the
Carlisle "Indians." From 1894 until 1917, the Carlisle football team defeated
the major football powers of the day.
Teachers should research the matter and discover that American Indians never would have associated sacred practices with the hoopla of a high school pep rally, brave and princess pageantry, half-time entertainment, or being a sidekick to cheerleaders. Making fun of Indians in mainstream sports culture has become as "American as apple pie and baseball."
How Indian Mascots, Logos, and Nicknames Become Racist
Of course, many school administrators are all too familiar with the
current legal and educational battles toward eliminating Indian mascots,
logos, nicknames, and antics from school-related events. The US Commission
on Civil Rights (CAR), the highest official governmental body of its kind,
issued a strong statement in 2001 recommending that schools eliminate
Indian images and nicknames as sports symbols.
How Stereotypical Images Impact Young Children's Self-esteem
Perhaps some people at these sporting events do not hear the foul language shouted out in the stands associated with the usage of Indian mascots. The most obvious offense is the usage of the terms, "redskins," lady redskins," and/or "squaws." For example, one explanation for the word "redskin" originates in early colonial times as European colonist paid bounties for Indians' red skins - thereby the name "redskin" was coined. The word "squaw" is a French corruption of the Iroquois word otsiskwa meaning "female sexual parts." Both words are almost always used in negative connotation and derogatory fashion in sporting events. While these terms may be facing increasing social disdain, they certainly are far from dead. Large numbers of Americans continue to utilize these unkind words and negative terms in athletic environments today. These words of power are used to accentuate the differences in appearance, station, culture, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation in people, and to underplay the similarities between people if not to deny them altogether.
Given this background, why would anyone, especially teachers, allow his or her students to uncritically adopt a cartoon version of a people's culture as an Indian mascot or logo? Teachers and their students need to be educated about the negative effects of racist Indian mascots and logos portrayed by sports teams, because many students have told me that they do not see the Indian mascot issue as important in the American Indian community as those of alcoholism, substance abuse, and poverty. Some people even say it is "too much fuss over team names," "we're just having fun," "we're not harming anybody," or "what's the point?" They do not see the connection, simply because they are not close to the issues of Indian education on a daily basis. What a lot of people do not see or hear is the mimicking and protesting that goes on in sporting arenas like the "tomahawk chop" and so-called Indian spirit chants, fight songs, or Hollywood-inspired wardrum beats. It is hard to take seriously, or to empathize with, a group of people portrayed as speaking in broken, old stoic Indian clichés (like "many moons ago" in Disney's Peter Pan), dressing up in Halloween or Thanksgiving costumes, or acting like a "bunch of wild Indians." These invented, make-believe Indians are not allowed to change in time or in any other way be like real people. On athletic fields and in gymnasiums, they are denied the dignity of their tribal histories, the validity of their major contributions to modern American society, the distinctiveness of their multi-tribal identities.
In 1998, Children Now initiated a study into children's perceptions
of race and class in the media, focusing on the images of American Indians
presented in national news and entertainment. Similar the to perceptions
survey conducted by the League of Women Voters in 1975, the Children Now
study revealed similar results ... that most children in America view
American Indians far removed from their own way of life.
Making Racism Visible in School-related Events
For example "Sambo" clowns were born out of the North American slavery during the early years of the nineteenth century when free Black persons formed societies among Euro-Americans. These caricatures with their racial fantasies portrayed actual African American Peoples as docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; infantile silliness and inflated child talk and attachment. The racial fantasies that positioned African American and American Indian Peoples as incapable of technological advancement and characterized actual human beings by superstitious and humanly regressive acts of savagery were all constructed in Hollywood films. For example, Little Black Sambo images and thousands of other derogatory ideas and illustrations offered entertainment for Euro-Americans at the expense of the African American person's self-image, especially during the era of the 19th century minstrel shows. They furthered the idea of racial incompetence and deficiency. These ethnic images depend upon the exclusion of a racial Other from the body politic whose marginalized presence buttresses the identity of white consumers (e.g., Amos-n-Andy). Beneath the surface of the debates about culture clashes and ethnic tensions, this is the nub of the problem of race relations in contemporary American society. The intergroup divisions are essentially based upon the unequal relationship of different racial groups to the centers of economic, social, and political power. They also are an effect of ongoing struggles for social resources.
This attitude was supported by philosophical views of the Enlightenment
and the developing Romantic Movement, which chose to see American Indians
either as amusing exotics or as Noble Savages, excellent types for representing
ideas in literature, on the stage, or in film, but never more than white
characters with cliché comic or noble personalities disguised with
red skins and feathered costumes. Indian people were never considered
as real human beings whose living might be dramatically interesting.
An overwhelming number of popular media presentations involving ethnic images of clowns permeate US mass media history. A contrast can be made between the African American and American Indian communities showing how their ethnic minorities were manufactured by mainstream media to make fun of themselves rather than present authentic, healthy ethnic images in popular media presentations. For example, the Spike Lee's movie Bamboozled (2000) illustrates the usage of African American clowns of the 1940s and 1950s Stephin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, and Little Black Sambo. Marshal arts actor Jackie Chan in Shang Hai Noon (2000), Disney's Pocahontas (year), and Columbia's The Indian in the Cupboard (year) are also updates of the 1940s and 1950s Stephin Fetchit stereotypes. Advertising characters such as "Little Black Sambo" and the "Frito Bandito" are no longer acceptable in society because African American (especially the NAACP and the Urban League) and Mexican American and Latino/a populations (LULAC, MALDEF, National Council of LaRaza) have let it be known that such expressions carry racist overtones. "Joe Camel" was removed from cigarette companies from using cartoons or human figures in advertisements. The Canadian Mounties enlisted the Walt Disney Corporation to market their Mounties image in a more culturally responsive way. However, many schools continue the usage of Indian mascots in sporting events. The wide-mouth grin of the Cleveland Indians and Oklahoma's Eskimo Joes is the equivalent to the blackface representation of the 1920s that overly displayed racist stereotypes of African Americans. The word Inuit has largely replaced "Eskimo" by many First Nations Peoples in Canada, and "Chief Wahoo," is still the Cleveland Indians' logo. Despite Indians' protests against using their ethnic images as sports mascots, dozens of teams dismiss this national movement as unflattering, stereotyping symbolism.
All these films suffer from the cultural chokehold of Hollywood aesthetic
constraints. As one can see, the authentic heritage of American Indians
is a scholarly frontier worthy of deeper exploration and further exploitation.
Film and television have inscribed our collective national memory with
so many myths and misconceptions.
Defensive Tactics and Attributes
Teachers should examine the biases and stereotypes held by their students.
Stereotypes caused by ignorance, hard times, and folk wisdom socialization
can be countered by accurate and culturally responsive information about
the groups being stereotyped. Two guiding principles should be used when
selecting curriculum materials: Does the material present females and
underrepresented groups in a realistic, non-stereotypic manner? And, does
the material accurately reflect a holistic view of the past in terms of
the contributions made by females and underrepresented groups in American
history? Removing negative images of society can clearly protect the young
children from the influences of stereotypical images. We can protect them
from this influence on their thinking, which makes them view themselves
in a distorted and unnatural way. Education, therefore, becomes a tool
for liberation from bigotry ... not a facilitator of racism.
Large School Districts and Organizations as Trailblazers
Professional organizations dedicated to the unique problems of American
Indians also must take forthright positions on this issue as well. As
a teacher educator, I show future teachers why Indian mascots are one
cause for low self-esteem in Indian children. Throughout my practitioner
experience working in K-8 schools, I have learned that the generator of
academic performance is self-esteem. This is the main point for teachers
to know that this issue becomes detrimental to the academic achievement
of all students. As such, negative Indian mascots, logos, and nicknames
are harmful to both Indian and non-Indian students. Indian students endure
the psychological damage of seeing cartoon-like caricatures of themselves
embodied in the mascots, logos, and nicknames, perhaps the ultimate in
dehumanizing victims. It is no coincidence that American Indians have
the highest suicide rate, school drop out rate, and unemployment rate
of any ethnic group in the United States.
To illuminate my point, I refer to the mental health organizations who have rushed to support the elimination of negative Indian mascots used in schools by drafting statements (e.g., American Indian Mental Health Association of Minnesota in 1992 and the Society of Indian Psychologists of the Americas in 1999). These statements condemned the presence of ethnic images as psychologically destructive to the minds of American Indian children. Professional organizations that have passed resolutions in support of eliminating negative Indian mascots used in schools include the National Indian Education Association, Kansas Association for Native American Education, United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, Governor's Interstate Indian Council, Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, National Congress of American Indians, NAACP, and NCAA. The critical mass of Indian educational associations and tribal governments that have either passed resolutions and/or gone on record asking for the elimination of Indian mascots and logos from school-related activities and events.
Although many resolutions exists today, political and cultural leaders in many states (like Oklahoma) who have hundreds of Indian mascots and logos being used in school-related events, are unconcerned with this national issue; they are uneducated about the issues; or have no educational leadership to initiate transformational change toward truly "honoring" American Indian people. Consequently, a critical need exists for experts to monitor more carefully the destructive influences in our shared physical, mental, social, and spiritual environments. Educators, parents, and community leaders must begin to build coalitions which preserve the reality of our own experiences. Educators must begin to develop educational materials, artistic productions, economic structures, fashions and concepts that deny the implications of our inferiority.
What Must Be Done
If indeed, a person knows something needs to be done to correct these negative stereotypes, consult the local school Title IX Indian Education Coordinator, curriculum specialist, cultural resource librarian, university professor, or the National Indian Education Association to assist in the elimination of negative ethnic images and materials from the academic curriculum and school-related activities. Some complainants of Indian mascots and logos have also filed complaints with the US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. Every public school district is required to have a complaint procedure adopted by the school board for residents to use.
One of the finest award-winning reference books on this topic is American
Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children by Hirschfelder, Fairbanks,
Every school year, American Indian educators and our allies must continue the hard work to reeducate our young people and ourselves by seeking and studying new information about American Indian people. We must find every opportunity to celebrate ourselves and we must challenge the fear that causes us to hesitate in taking control of our own ethnic images. We must work together and we must have faith that our struggle will be successful, regardless of the opposition.
Having been a kindergarten teacher and principal myself, I have a
profound respect and admiration for teachers and administrators. The work
they do is honorable, although rarely cherished. At the same time, I recognize
that many teachers and administrators have not been given the time or
support to help them teach in the most culturally responsive way. I hope
this explanation that suggests why teachers should not ignore Indian mascots
is one tool both teachers and administrators can use in helping children
think critically about multicultural issues in another school year.
The "STAR - Students and Teachers Against
Racism" web site is the