"It seems that the world will never get rid of fakers ... there have been, and are, a great many people using the Indians as their mascots ... Do they do any good? ... They do more harm than good to the Indian people ... Anyone who poses as an Indian does not help the Indians."
- Carlos Montezuma, Yavapai Apache, Influential Native American leader. Montezuma graduated from the University of Illinois in 1884.
Born and raised in the largely White, suburban community of Fairview Village, Pa., situated northwest of Philadelphia, I had the great good fortune to attend Methacton High School in the early 1970s. Wrapped in the appealing school colors of deep green and crisp white, I played field hockey and lacrosse as a Methacton "Warrior." Never once in the four years that I participated on those teams and studied for college did I, or any of my friends, teachers, or coaches, question the image that was such a part of our collective experience.
In the years that followed, while building a career as a college coach, athletics director, and eventually sports scientist, I remained uncurious about such things, taking them for granted and content in the essential rightness of what they represented. My education and background is not the stuff from which one would predict an advocate for the elimination of American Indian mascots to arise (1). But an advocate I have become.
The evaporation of a lifetime of unthinking acceptance of these images first started with questions raised by my students in a sport sociology class during the "politically incorrect" World Series in the fall of 1995 (a series that featured the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians). In order to be conversant on the subject in class, I found myself immersed in material that challenged my understandings of the world and what I had, and hadn't, learned in my years of formal schooling (2). My conclusion was this: These images have much more complicated histories than we realize and are much less benign than we pretend.
As you read this article, some of the questions posed may appear harsh and contentious. They certainly seemed so to me. But such is the nature of holding ourselves accountable as educators. We cannot possibly prepare our students to meet the demands of a racially and ethnically diverse world without reflecting on the gaps in our own education and the cultural blindspots that we possess. If we are to responsibly and fairly serve all of our students, American Indian and non-American Indian alike, we need to reassess the appropriateness of these images as they have been used by our athletic teams and in our schools.
For almost four full decades, appeals have been made to school districts and institutions of higher education to cease using American Indian stereotypes as rallying points and centerpieces for their community, team, and individual identities. To date, more than 600 academic institutions have responded to these requests by changing or eliminating the use of American Indian imagery in association with their sport teams. At the collegiate level, prominent institutions such as Dartmouth, Marquette, Miami University of Ohio, San Jose State, St. John's, Stanford, and Syracuse, have all elected to adopt new mascots. Within the past five years, school boards in Los Angeles, Wisconsin, and Kansas have followed suit. While these institutions found cause to change, approximately 1400 high schools and more than 70 colleges and universities have opted to persist in using these images.
Since the 1960s, the National Congress of American Indians has urged schools to stop using these images. Over the years, they have been joined by a myriad of groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Education Association, the National Indian Education Association, the Society of Indian Psychologists, and the National Coalition for Racism in Sport and the Media. (For a full list of organizations urging the elimination of Native American mascots, check out http://earnestman.tripod.com.) Although attempts to sensitize school systems and the American public have been somewhat successful, change has been slow and painstaking.
In recent years, awareness is increasing that these images present the potential for and result in racially hostile environments for some American Indian students and serve to negatively impact on the education of all children. Several legal authorities, including the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the New York State Attorney General's Office, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, have cautioned that these images may violate federal civil rights law.
As more civil rights and education groups examine the issue, more support for eliminating these images has surfaced. In April of 2001, the United States Commission on Civil Rights examined the issue and encouraged non-Native schools to cease using Native American symbols and imagery. Within the same month, New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills announced the findings of a study he authorized on the topic, concluding that "the use of Native American symbols or depictions as mascots can become a barrier to building a safe and nurturing school community and improving academic achievement for all students."
In a letter to superintendents of the 136 schools in the state of New York that have Native American mascots, Mills wrote: "As educators, we have an obligation to inform communities so that they might come to understand the pain, however unintentionally inflicted, these symbols cause."
Each new announcement calling for schools to reexamine their stance on this issue is greeted with support from a growing number of people. At the same time, as momentum builds, the level of rancor evidenced in these discussions becomes more pronounced. In communities like Boiceville, NY, which is the home of the Onteora Indians, political backlash has been directed at those who voted to eliminate their mascot. In other communities around the country, threat of physical harm, and in some cases outright violence, has erupted.
As a former director of athletics and coach and now professor, I am deeply troubled by the divisiveness that surfaces when these images are challenged and the often immediate characterization of these requests as "political correctness" run amok. I am also concerned that professionals working in athletics exhibit little inclination to take up this question of their own volition within sport governing bodies or coaches associations.
The hesitancy on the part of the athletic community to comment on this issue is reflected in the remarks of Charles Whitcomb, the chair of the NCAA Minorities and Opportunities Committee. Although the committee stated a position several years ago that "member institutions with Indian mascots that promote Indian caricatures and mimic ceremonial rites do not comply with the NCAA's commitment to ethnic student welfare," no real action has been taken by the association to assist all members in understanding the implications of the position. In explaining why the committee will be addressing this issue more substantively in upcoming months, Whitcomb observed "We need to stop dodging the issue and face it head on. As an Association, we need to do what's right for our membership and for our student-athletes. As an Association, we need to stand up and be counted."
The remainder of this article will develop a rationale for why athletics directors and coaches, whether they work at Indian mascot schools or not, should be carefully considering this issue and rethinking the arguments that have traditionally been used to justify the existence of these images. In effect, this article focuses on why athletic department personnel should, in Whitcomb's words, "stand up and be counted" in working to eliminate American Indian sport team stereotypes.
Should Athletics Face This Issue Head On?
Although school mascots and nicknames are not wholly located within athletic departments, there can be no denying that teams and athletic facilities serve as the vehicles through which these images are represented in mass forms to the public. Athletics directors and coaches do not play a passive role in the shaping and perpetuation of these mascots, logos, and nicknames. To the contrary, the influence athletic department personnel wield in this regard is at once subtle but also profound. The design of uniforms, authorization of images to be placed on athletic facilities and other school property, the commissioning of merchandise through booster associations, and the promotion of these images through local and national media and marketing ventures are all formal exercises in using American Indian imagery as a reflection of what is considered a positive value and belief system.
But is the value and belief system that we sanction through these images something that we should feel comfortable about as educators? Consider the following cases. At the University of North Dakota, where the mascot is the "Fighting Sioux," an argument is made that generations of Indians and non-Indians have supported the image and taken pride in it. However, can any image be supported, especially in an educational setting, when it inspires hate speech and outright racism? American Indian students who have protested the name have been called "Prairie Niggas," targeted with invitations to "go back to the rez where you belong," and subjected to threats that have warranted their leaving the institution. Beyond specific behavior directed to students who protest the nickname, there is also the matter of what the "Fighting Sioux" image encourages among factions who are clearly not persuaded to be either reverent or respectful in their depiction of American Indians. For several years, a t-shirt graphically showing an Indian in a compromising sexual position with a buffalo has been worn by North Dakota State University fans.
Based on my research, the disrespect evidenced in the North Dakota case is not an anomaly but one reflective of a widespread pattern, a pattern that reveals that these images, and the belief systems that sustain them, are not contained solely within individual communities but are shared across communities and are immune to critical reflection on the part of educators. To illustrate, consider the cultural phenomenon of the "tomahawk chop" and "war chant," a phenomenon borne out of the imaginations of the marching band, known as the "Marching Chiefs," and the student body at Florida State University. Subsequently exported and further popularized by fans of professional teams in Atlanta and Kansas City, the "chop" has eventually been adopted by students and fans at high school games around the country.
Importantly, there are themes worth attending to in this example. The gesture itself is a production of an educational environment given credibility by professional teams. College students serving as role models provide permission for high school students to behave in a similar manner. The acceptability of the gesture is given currency through the express marketing of the image by Florida State, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the NCAA, various bowl organizations, and the major television networks to college sport fans. The system of approval and permission is interlocking and self-perpetuating.
Strangely, few educators raise a question about the blatant negative representation of American Indians that forms the basis for this parody. Even fewer challenge the appropriateness of the focal point of the gesture, which emphasizes a violent act and weapon of war. One wonders if it would be possible to issue plastic M-16s at games, construct a "war song" that would incite a crowd, pretend that we were back in Vietnam or on the beaches of Normandy, and then encourage massive numbers of students to "shoot their opponents" without such a spectacle causing concern not only among educators but the populace at large. And yet, in this instance, educators, athletic department personnel, and sport media have not only participated in the selling of this image, they have also embellished on it. Highly respected coach Bobby Bowden, for example, signs his autographs with a flourish, adding the expression "scalp 'em."
These stereotypes, which are written off as fun and harmless, take on a different cast when considered relative to the experience of Chandell Matzden, a young Indian woman who attended Southern Cayuga High School in New York. In a July, 2000 letter to the Board of Education, Chandell requested the removal of the school's logo, the "Chiefs," on the grounds that it perpetuated negative stereotypes about American Indians and promoted insensitivity. In her address to the school board, Chandell offered a poignant observation that she felt no honor, nor did she believe any of her classmates intended honor, when they entered the school each morning and wiped their feet on a doormat bearing the head of an Indian "Chief." (3)
Ms. Matzden also described in vivid detail three attacks directed toward her brother during the school year. One involved a white student dancing around her brother in a mock "Indian dance," which included "war whoops." In the second incident, a female student suggested that Matzden's whole family should be lined up and shot in the back of the head. In a third incident, Chandell's brother was told that he should be scalped.
In an opinion piece that appeared in The Auburn Citizen on the issue, the author observed that there was no "cause and effect" relationship between the alleged treatment of Chandell's brother and the climate within the school promoted by the image, therefore the issue needed to be kept in "perspective," meaning that the mascot should stay. What is faulty in the author's conclusion is the denial that there is, in fact, a demonstrable "cause and effect" relationship between mock "Indian dancing," "war whoops," the use of the expression "scalp 'em," and general stereotypical treatment of American Indian students. In a culture where these kinds of behaviors are transmitted from community to community through media, where the "tomahawk chop" is as popular in central New York as it is in Tallahassee, Fla., and where these images are passed on from one generation to the next through the trusted authority of school systems, their appearance is not only unsurprising, but orchestrated to be predictable. And yet, there is a perception that "proof" is required.
But how much proof do we need to know that these images encourage negative stereotyping that originates on our teams and in our schools? How much proof do we need to know that our use of these images is validated by what goes on in the broader culture? The complexities of how this plays out can be found in a case involving Arcadia High School in California, whose nickname until a few years ago was the "Apaches." In 1999, Arcadia High School sought to become a sister school with Alchesay High School in Whiteriver, Ariz., a school attended primarily by students from the White River Apache Reservation. When school administrators at Alchesay learned that Arcadia was in the throes of a dispute over their mascot at the time the offer was made and discovered that one of the Arcadia students published an online newsletter titled "The Stupid Indian," they declined the offer.
Whereas the "Stupid Indian" is an example of harmfully stereotyping American Indians in the abstract, the limitations of American Indian stereotypes are projected onto American Indian students in a variety of ways on a daily basis. According to a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education in March of 2000, teachers at Win-E-Mac High School in Minnesota staged a conflict between cowboys and Indians during a pep rally, complete with Indians being banished to the reservation. The occasion that inspired this incident was an upcoming sectional basketball game Win-E-Mac was scheduled to play against the Red Lake Warriors, a team from the Red Lake Indian Reservation. The complaint was filed by an American Indian mother on behalf of her children. When she spoke with the school psychologist about her concerns, she was reportedly told that the teachers meant no harm and that there was a lack of awareness that Indian students attended their school because her children "did not look like Indians."
Although some have suggested that school administrators have very little control over how these images may be abused by portions of the population, these examples raise far more fundamental concerns. Should educational institutions, and athletic departments as an integral part of those institutions, be in the business of fostering an environment and atmosphere in which these kinds of incidents not only occur but occur routinely? Additionally, are schools and athletic departments, through their support of these images, engaging in institutional racism?
Inherent Paradoxes in Our Educational System
To fully address these questions, athletic department personnel, along with other educators and school officials, may have to confront paradoxes that reveal the disingenuousness of the claims that these images serve a positive educational purpose. For those who observe that the mascot issue is a minor one compared to the larger issues that face the American Indian community (i.e., poverty, quality of life, health issues, land claims, and sovereignty issues), I am inclined to agree with the caveat that these issues are intimately related. We know that when a people becomes objectified, it becomes much easier to discriminate against them in other areas.
There is more than just a bit of irony in the fact that nothing stirs mainstream Americans more on issues related to the American Indian community as much as mascots. Tremendous resources in time, money, and emotional capital have been spent over the years, and continue to be spent, in resisting requests to get rid of American Indian mascots.
But notably, despite the arguments that this imagery fosters honor and respect for American Indians, the education of all of our children relative to American Indians continues to be one of the most neglected areas of school curriculums, from elementary school through college. In her address to the National Multicultural Institute Forum on Public Policy in Washington, D.C., on May 31, 2001, Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, observed that educational institutions in the United States have yet to develop the necessary world view to adequately address the needs of American Indian students. She also noted that there is little accurate and substantive information about the history of American Indians in the United States being taught to our children in schools.
In listening to American Indian leaders around the country, this is a constant theme. Well-known Kiowa educator, Cornel Pewewardy from the University of Kansas, has written about the mistakes teachers make in their failure either to include American Indian history as part of their lessons or to misrepresent the facts when they do deal with the topic. Strikingly, just as schools have adopted Indian stereotypes as the anchor for their team and community identities, those very same stereotypes form the foundation for curriculum that Pewewardy describes as "fluff and feathers." In effect, what educators know best about American Indians are stereotypes. In turn, what they teach most frequently about American Indians are oversimplified lessons that lack the depth and genuineness needed to effectively provide students with insight and understanding.
In her compelling work, To Live Heroically: Institutional Racism and American Indian Education, Dolores Huff points out that educational systems for white children typically adopted a liberatory model of education designed to promote individual autonomy while American Indian children have been subjected to a Machiavellian model of education wherein the legitimate goals of education are set aside in favor of achieving political ends. She elaborates:
"Historically, it is the Machiavellian model most Indians encountered. Indians were defeated not by military force (although this is widely believed) but by politically restructuring the institution of education to mold a colonial ethos. Colonialism that imprisons young minds with the concept of 'racial/ethnic inferiority' is by far more tyrannical than brute force. Labeled as 'pacification,' the education developed by missions and the Indian service encouraged young Indian people to lose confidence in their leaders and their own people and view their history and culture as second-rate." (p. 1)
In recent years, the introduction of diversity programs and a focus on diversity education in schools has been the direct result of recognizing how the Machiavellian model of education has been infused into both Indian and non-Indian school settings. The pairing of liberatory and Machiavellian models of education in non-Indian schools resulted in the privileging of some students and the oppressing of others. In the case of the intersections between educational institutions and American Indians, the logical framework of colonialism worked to impress in the minds of Indian children a sense of racial inferiority accompanied by a subtle belief in racial superiority for children historically thought of as coming from the "majority."
When considered in this light, the tensions that arise when American Indian sport team mascots are challenged take on a vastly different meaning. Rather than exercises in "political correctness," these challenges can be read as struggles with regard to which model of education will prevail in the end. Take, for example, the reaction of campus constituencies to the repeated requests made by University of Illinois alumna Charlene Teters, a Spokane woman, and others who have sought to have "Chief Illiniwek," a mythic figure dressed in Plains regalia who dances at half-time, retired at that university. In a 1990 address to the Board of Trustees she said:
"You cannot ignore the religious significance of the symbol you use in your half-time display. Native people's clans and Nations are rich in ceremony. Many of our ceremonies include dress and facial paint. The eagle feather has long been an important part [of those ceremonies], earned through bravery, self-sacrifice and acts of generosity to the people ... You are using a religious symbol to excite the fans. If you used other religions' symbols in the same you would quickly be set straight." (as reported in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Senate Committee on Equal Opportunity, EQ.97.04 Resolution to Retire Chief Illiniwek, March 8, 1998).
For the past decade, the plea of Charlene Teters has been met with outright confrontation and disdain. Alternatively, she has been described as an "out-of-state foreigner," "troublemaker," and "publicity seeker." And yet, Ms. Teters, a distinguished artist who after graduating has since become interim dean of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, has attempted to assert her voice within what is presumably a liberatory model of education that acts on this issue decidedly Machiavellian.
Whereas Ms. Teters exhibits behaviors that would ordinarily be viewed as laudatory for a graduate--individual autonomy, moral courage, conviction, eloquence--there is an expectation that she subscribe to pacification, that she allow the University's invented history of "Chief Illiniwek" and the contrivance of honor that surrounds it to supplant what she knows and values about her own heritage as a traditional Spokane woman.
The objections voiced by American Indian students and alumni like Charlene Teters at the University of Illinois, Al White at the University of North Dakota, Dennis Yerry at Onteora High School, and Chandell Matzden at Southern Cayuga High School represent this difference in world view mentioned by Wilma Mankiller. By adjusting the cultural lens through which these images are seen, we are confronted with some haunting questions. For example, if American Indian symbols and mascots promote respect, understanding, and honor within educational systems and on athletic teams, Why do American Indians have one of the highest dropout rates in the country, with approximately 50 percent of American Indian children leaving school prior to high school graduation?
Why are American Indians three and a half times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime at the hands of someone who is not of their race?
Why do Division I coaches avoid recruiting American Indian athletes and express hesitation about awarding American Indian athletes scholarships?
Why do American Indian athletes have such a difficult time surviving and succeeding in mainstream school sport systems?
Perhaps most importantly, why do school boards and boards of trustees exhibit a greater willingness to defend Indian mascots than to listen to Indian people?
Holding Ourselves Accountable
In the weeks following the public announcements made by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the New York State Department of Education, high school athletes and citizens from a variety of school districts in central New York have been interviewed about their views regarding Indian mascots. In a May 15, 2001 article written by Mary Jo Monnin which appeared in The Buffalo News, athletes from the eleven high schools in Western New York with Chiefs, Warriors, Indians, Redskins, and Raiders nicknames were overwhelmingly opposed to changing them. One student wanted to remain a "Redskin ... just like his father and grandfather." Other athletes expressed similar views, pointing out that the images are a source of pride and respect. Like other students who have been so educated, these students ascribe qualities like bravery, honor, and fighting spirit to these images.
From an educational perspective, is it really responsible to encourage our children to believe that any identity, whether our own or someone else's, can be so easily assumed simply by putting on an athletic uniform? This is a most curious form of education and one that has its perils. Do we as educators, and the vast majority of the children we educate, have any real understanding of who Indians are, what being a warrior or chief actually means, or the implications of what a "redskin" is all about?
As Billy Mills, the great Lakota runner who won the Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meters in 1964 has explained on numerous occasions, warrior status in American Indian culture is not easily earned and carries with it deep religious significance. Similarly, the status of "Chief" is reserved for the most select, the most wise, the special few, not legions of individuals who take on the status simply by virtue of going to a certain school. The very fact that we are so blissfully unaware of the blatant reference to "skin" and "blood" inferred in the expression "redskins" and the profound impact those concepts, as constructed by lawmakers and American society, have wrought on the destiny of both American Indians and Whites in the United States, should give us pause.
Why is it that our students are so willing to claim that they are "redskins" without knowing the history of the word, a word that evokes the killing of Indians for bounty in service to a U.S. governmental colonial agenda and is described in the dictionary as a racial slur, as offensive in some circles as the "n" word is in the African-American community?(4) Particularly given the lack of education we receive in school about American Indians, on what reliable information would we base our understanding apart from the stereotypes that we counter in these images and the attendant behaviors projected onto them?
And what is it that we are actually teaching our children about their place, and that of American Indians, in the world? By pretending that we "want to be Indians" when we don't know about Indians may explain why the voices of American Indians who argue that these symbols violate cultural, religious, and ceremonial traditions are so frequently drowned out and dismissed.
In a recent lecture I delivered to an audience of over 120 people on this topic, I asked the audience how many knew who Elsie Meeks is? Out of that group of 120 people, many of whom were deeply invested in keeping Native American mascots, only one person, who works specifically in the area of Native American Studies, knew who Elsie Meeks is.
Elsie Meeks, the distinguished director of the Lakota Fund, an economic development enterprise, is the first American Indian to be appointed to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. When Ms. Meeks brought the issue of Native American mascots forward for the commission to consider several months ago, members of the press, and even a fellow commissioner criticized her for not focusing on more important issues. What is illustrative in the criticisms leveled at Ms. Meeks is that there is nothing about her background that would suggest that she ever takes on "frivolous," "meaningless," or "unimportant" matters on behalf of her people. In point of fact, her entire life has been devoted to the betterment of Indian people on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where she grew up and currently lives, and in the United States.
Commissioner Meeks is not alone in being dismissed in this way. Lawrence Baca, a senior trial attorney from the United States Department of Justice, who has been described in Indian Country Today as the "grandfather of Indian country credit" for his work in protecting the rights of American Indians who have been blatantly discriminated against by lenders because of their race, was treated in similar fashion when the Civil Rights Division investigated a mascot complaint at Erwin High School in Asheville, N.C. in 1999. What does this say about our educational system when individuals like Elsie Meeks and Lawrence Baca along with a litany of others like Suzan Shown Harjo, the director of the Morning Star Institute, U. S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), Gary Brouse, director of Indigenous Peoples Program for the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, author Sherman Alexie, Kevin Gover, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Wilma Mankiller, former Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation and founder of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team, Vernon Bellecourt, executive director of the National Coalition on Racism in Sport and the Media and AIM leader, and Charlene Teters, interim dean of the Institute of American Indian Arts are dismissed so readily by a significant portion of the population on this topic? Why is their world view not given consideration and weight? Why is their perspective on this issue not credible or powerful enough?
The mascot discussion asks us to face these difficult realities, most particularly at their core, the legacy of white-Indian relations that has yet to be resolved in this country. To participate in dismissing American Indian voices on this matter is to participate in a longstanding tradition of ignoring Indians when they did not subscribe to pacification and assimilation. Mascots represent our comfort zone in dealing with Indians. It is much easier to deal with fictional Indians that have no voice than to encounter real Indians that present us with the task of rethinking our assumptions and our world view. However, teaching children about American Indian culture through mascots is a form of miseducation and woefully underprepares children to deal with the complex issues that exist in the intersections between American Indian society and mainstream America.
Rethinking American Indian Mascots
For all of our talk about sportmanship and fair play, it is not accidental that ethnic and racial symbols were adopted at one point in time for athletic teams with the express purpose of fitting in with the competitive, combative nature of athletic contests. Helping to establish the necessary grounds for a "we" versus "they" mentality, anchored in a militaristic view of the world situated within a racial and ethnic hierarchy, athletic rivalries resonate with the hope of establishing physical and moral superiority over an opponent.
To recognize this is to recognize the perilous grounds we are on in justifying the continuing use of American Indian symbols within this arena. They assist us in rationalizing a drama that intentionally inferiorizes certain groups. And even when chosen as "our" identity for the supposedly "good" qualities that are perceived to be at the core of the image (valor, fighting spirit, bravery, honor), the end result is predictable. Not only does the practice distill a complex group of living people to one narrow and distorted image, it also subjects that image to an unequal measure of disdain, disrespect, disregard, and disparagement.
If we come to terms with the fact that the athletic arena is no place to be trafficking in racial stereotypes, we can begin to address ways in which communities can be approached about eliminating these images.
Steps That Athletic Departments Can Take
#1. Be leaders.
On any number of issues, from how to behave at games to the value of sports within schools to protecting the health and welfare of students, coaches and athletics directors often play a key role in educating communities. Capitalize on that role by bringing this issue forward. Consider taking it up first as a department and issuing a departmental position on the matter. Look for liaisons that can be made with other offices within your school. For example, people responsible for diversity education programs would be natural allies to assist in educating your own staff and in developing presentations to bring the issue to the attention of constituencies within the community.
#2. Model behavior for athletes and other students.
Because American Indian mascots are literally and figuratively interwoven into the very fabric of school and athletic cultures, the way that you react to being approached about this issue will set the stage for how athletes and other students within the school react. Thus, consider how to maximize the educational experience for students in exploring the issue and how to encourage people not to minimize it out of hand.
#3. The cost of replacing logos and refurbishing facilities should not be an impediment to change.
In the many years I have been associated with athletics, I have never known coaches and athletics directors to decline the opportunity to get new uniforms or repaint athletic facilities except when the issue of replacing American Indian mascots is broached. It's perfectly understandable that uniforms might have to be phased out and a schedule for redoing floors or facilities might have to be set up. Beyond the moral imperative that change should happen so as to create a better and more respectful learning environment for all students, keep in mind that this is an opportunity for a fresh start--new uniforms, a new look for your athletic facilities.
#4. Think of this as a beginning and not an ending.
Sport psychologists often talk about the fact that eliminating a behavior without substituting something better will produce discouraging results. Such is the case with this topic. The goal is not to just get rid of the American Indian mascot but to work throughout the school system to effectuate change in the way in which American Indian issues are introduced throughout the curriculum. This is one small piece of a much larger initiative. Use the discussion surrounding the mascot issue as a focal point for developing lecture series and workshops, courses, etc., about American Indian issues.
#5. Avoid polls to determine if a mascot should be retained.
From a basic research perspective, polls measure what people have been taught to think. In a school district where an American Indian mascot has been the most constant symbol of identity, second only to the American flag, and something that has imparted an enduring lesson to students simply by its existence day in and day out, the notion that the results would reflect an unbiased finding is flawed. Additionally, the idea of subjecting this kind of question to the populace at large reflects a level of insensitivity that demonstrates how serious this issue is. A poll was not conducted several years ago to determine the offensiveness of the Stanford band's parody of Irish Catholics during half-time of a game with the University of Notre Dame. Americans did not have to be polled about the inappropriateness of the Irish being depicted as drunkards and the Catholic faith being depicted as backward. Just as it was sufficient that Irish and Catholics believed these depictions to be offensive for an apology to be issued and the behavior stopped, it should be sufficient that Native Americans object to this imagery.
Some Final Thoughts
In April, 2001, The NCAA News summarized the controversy surrounding American Indian mascots as one where "emotions run deep on the both sides of the issue, and at stake are traditions in place at several NCAA institutions." However, the stakes extend well beyond whatever quaint mythologies individual communities have woven around their individual mascots. The stakes are much, much higher and much more important.
With American Indian students comprising less than 2 percent of the student population, educators have a special obligation to create an atmosphere that is supportive of those students and open to promoting an understanding about their lives in the present, their history and culture. To date, schools have not done an adequate job in fulfilling this obligation, or even recognizing that such an obligation exists for that matter. At an intellectual level, we should not find it acceptable that our students know more about American Indian mascot histories than they do about American Indian history. This is a shortcoming that must be addressed if our students are ever to comprehend the complexities that shape American Indian and American life. Athletics directors and coaches can play a tremendous positive role in effectuating this change. It is time, as Charles Whitcomb noted, for us to "stand up and be counted".
1. There is disagreement in various circles as to the preferred term for American Indians. In this article, I have opted for American Indians based on my conversations with scholars and members of the American Indian community. However, when citing the work of others, I have elected to remain consistent with their chosen language. Thus, you will find the term Native American used in the article as well.
2. The discussion that occurred in my class dealt specifically with the origins of the Cleveland Indians name. In researching the origins of the name, I came to learn that the franchise has been perpetuating a mythology about Louis Francis Sockalexis, one of the first American Indians to play baseball in the professional leagues. For more information on this see Staurowsky, E. J. (1998) An Act of Honor or Exploitation?: The Cleveland Indians' Use of the Louis Francis Sockalexis Story, Sociology of Sport Journal, 15 (4), 299-316 and Staurowsky, E. J. (2001), Sockalexis and the Making of the Myth at the Core of Cleveland's "Indian" Image (p. 82-108), in R. King & C. Springwood (Eds.), Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
3. It should be noted that the principal at Southern Cayuga High School did discipline the students involved in the harassment.
4. Two authorities, the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Harjo et al. v. The National Football League and the Utah Supreme Court have determined that the term "redskins" is a racial pejorative and a term that disparages Native Americans.
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