©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Native Americans As Sports Mascots

Sharon Pray Muir

Using “Indians” as mascots for sports teams is opposed by most Native Americans, yet the tradition is often enthusiastically supported by European Americans. Supporters of the practice maintain that they are honoring the Native heritage, that some American Indians are overly sensitive, or that the controversy illustrates extreme political correctness. Opponents regard it as a classic example of institutional racism. They contend that the tradition is offensive, that it interferes with the respectful understanding of Native cultures, or that it scars some Native Americans emotionally and psychologically.1 They also note that Native mascots are culturally inaccurate or demeaning and that they perpetuate negative, historically inaccurate portrayals of American Indians as savages. Why, opponents ask, would anyone choose a human group as a mascot if the group in question objected to it, especially when there are so many acceptable alternatives? What seems to be creative, cute, or comical to some people may be seen as mocking, trivializing, and dehumanizing by others.

A droll editorial in Time magazine suggested that sports nicknames originally were named for “animals that specialize in messy predation (lions, sharks, falcons, and so forth) or human groups famous for rapine and pillage (pirates, buccaneers, Vikings, conquistadors, bandits, and raiders).” It noted that more recent nicknames included some associated with the “nostalgic violence of cowboys and Indians (Braves, Redskins, Chiefs, Indians, Outlaws, Cowboys, Wranglers and Rangers).”1

Professional, university, and school teams have responded to the controversy in various ways. Some teams have changed their names, such as a team at Eastern Michigan University that discarded its Huron mascot to become the Eagles. Others have retained Native names but eliminated offensive caricatures, such as Central Michigan University’s Chippewas. Still others have studied the issue and kept both their Native mascots and the objectionable trappings, notably the Atlanta Braves with their chant and tomahawk chop.

A few states have asked schools to voluntarily change Native team names. In one, Wisconsin, only a few schools have done so, while most “continue to cling to what they see as a harmless tradition.”3 The Unity ‘94 Conference asked newspapers to stop printing Native team names. At least two publishers changed their policies, though in different ways. The Minneapolis Star Tribune began identifying such teams only by their city (e.g., Kansas City and Washington in place of Chiefs and Redskins). The Portland Oregonian followed suit, except that it continued to print tribal names (e.g., Chicago’s Blackhawks).4

Criteria have been suggested for assessing the use of Native Americans as mascots. One principal of a Native American school proposed 13 questions to consider, including whether the mascots are respectful of Indian cultures or rooted in Hollywood fiction.5 Television personality Larry King asked some teams with Native mascots if they would “name it that if [you] were just starting out.”6

Another test of this practice involves role reversal, in which people consider the issue as if it were their own culture being singled out: How might you feel if a sports mascot portrayed a group to which you belong? In response, proponents of Native mascots argue that they are not offended when Buffalo Bill or pioneers are mascots. But that comparison may miss the point, because neither one denigrates a culture. Giago suggests that a more apt comparison would be one in which cheerleaders painted their faces black, wore Afro wigs, or acted out crude stereotypes of African Americans.7

Non-Native people may not know that some symbols used by cheerleaders and cheering fans—chants, peace pipes, feathers, flutes, and dances—are highly revered or even sacred in Native cultures. The hypothetical newspaper article in the accompanying box uses role reversal to illustrate the depth of feeling Native people associate with those symbols.

After reading the article, consider these questions: Is the comparison appropriate? How is Hale’s situation similar to or different from the Native mascot controversy? Are the feelings of Hale’s minority justified? Are the feelings of Native Americans justified? Which meaningful symbols in your life would you be willing to have mocked, trivialized, or made fun of by others at a sports event? Is the continued use of Native peoples as mascots appropriate?

 

Notes

1. Cornel Pewewardy, “The Tomahawk Chop: The Continuous Struggle of Unlearning ‘Indian’ Stereotypes” (Paper delivered at the Annual Conference of the National Indian Education Association, Albuquerque, N.M., November 1992, ERIC Document No. 355 066), 1.

2. John Lee, “What’s in a Nickname,” Time (January 19, 1987): 82.

3. Herbert Buchanan, “Sports Mascots,” Scholastic Update, Teacher’s Edition (February 10, 1995): 13.

4. Mark Fitzgerald, “Drop Indian Sports Terms, Minorities Say,” Editor & Publisher (August 13, 1994): 19.

5. Pewewardy, 2.

6. As cited by Tim Giago in “Drop the Chop! Indian Nicknames Just Aren’t Right,” The New York Times (March 13, 1994): 19.

7. Tim Giago, “I Hope the Redskins Lose,” Newsweek (January 27, 1992):

 

Sharon Pray Muir is a professor of social studies education in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Leadership in the School of Education and Human Services at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

 

School Board Reaffirms Hale Mascot

 

Anytown— Catholics in the nearby town of Hale are expressing feelings, from outrage to dismay, at the mascot chosen for its new high school: Pope Pip. The new mascot and most related practices are considered sacrilegious by many in Hale’s tiny Catholic minority.

A cartoon, pope-like figure in religious robes and regalia adorns the front of new athletic and band uniforms and will be prominent on the schoo#146;s signs. The back of uniforms features a cross draped with what Catholics believe resemble rosary beads. Cheerleaders—who call themselves the Hale Merrys—admit that most of their new routines end with ankles together, arms stretched wide, and chin dropped on their chest. Catholics say the position mocks the crucifix. A chant will be taught at pep rallies to get crowds involved in a routine similar to genuflecting. Lead cheerleader Susie Winthrop defended the practices by saying, “We’re just being creative.”

One Catholic mother, Maria Truchia, expressed her dismay that anyone would adopt Catholics as mascots. She wonders how she can allow her children to attend the school or participate in athletic events. “But, what am I supposed to do?” she asked. “It’s the only school in our community.” Mrs. Truchia is the mother of John Truchia, last season’s top-scoring varsity basketball player.

Catholics account for 2% of Hale’s population. Seven juniors and seniors—all Protestants—formed the committee that recommended the mascot for the school, which opens next month. School board minutes report that Pope Pip was approved with little discussion last March. One school board member who asked not to be named, explained the district’s position this way: “Catholics don’t seem to realize that we chose a pope because we respect our Catholic minority. They should be proud that this predominantly Protestant community chose a symbol that honors their religion.”

Public records reveal the school already has spent thousands of dollars on stationery, uniforms, posters, signs, and other materials that boast the new logo. According to Principal Jeanine Smith, several groups of students volunteered time over the summer designing logos, chants, and other routines. Art teacher Starla Brett, who supervised the graphic designs, reacted by saying, “Some people have no sense of humor. Lighten up folks!” Reverend John White, head of a regional Protestant Ministerial Association, agreed with Ms. Brett. He admitted he was astounded by the controversy. “I can assure you, God has a sense of humor. If the Vatican doesn’t have one, it should.”

±t last night’s meeting, Hale’s school board reaffirmed the March decision. The motion also stipulated that no more time be wasted discussing the matters related to the mascot.

 

Note: The arguments in this pseudo-newspaper article are based primarily on statements made by Native Americans, students, and administrators in a video documentary about the controversy over the University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek, which continues to be the schoo#146;s mascot ( In Whose Honor? Alexandria, Va.: Public Broadcasting System, 1997). The article was developed by Dr. Sharon Pray Muir of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan (muir@oakland.edu).