The Use of Native American Images, Mottos, and Nicknames as Professional and College Sports Mascots

Introduction

Mascots of popular sports teams can be one of the deciding factors in obtaining a fan’s loyalty. Children seem to gravitate towards pictures and people dressed in costumes, and of course, there are the stereotypical girlfriends or wives that say “I like this team because of their colors and/or mascot.” Even some of the more die-hard fans, generally men in our society, started their journey of “fandom” by liking the team for its mascot when they were children. Because of this lifetime of love, many fans will not only idolize their team’s greatest player and coach, they will also defend their beloved team’s mascot to the death. At any sporting events, or on sports TV and radio, it is common to hear phrases such as, “you watch your mouth when you talk about my Bulldogs” or “how dare you offend my Jaguars”.

Sports mascots have their costumes, their logos, and their favorite cheers among other signs of spirit. Mascots are supposed to be fun; they are effective methods of turning more viewers into fans. They provide merchandise and uniforms and they are crucial to lifelong traditions. However, some mascots have been adopted to professional and college teams that are actually offensive toward a particular minority in the United States: Native Americans. College programs, such as the Florida State University Seminoles, use mascots that depict Native Americans in a stereotyped manner of being violent and warlike. Popular professional sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins of the NFL, the Cleveland Indians of the MLB, and the Atlanta Braves also of the MLB, use negative depictions of Native Americans, including the use of the fan-favorite, “tomahawk chop”.

There are many organizations across the United States that are attempting to change these teams’ mascots and ban such negative depictions of Native Americans from sports and other forms of media. Many movements have been planned, in some instances involving the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). But there is still work to be done.

History

The history of Native Americans in this country has not always been one of peace nor prosperity. Even before the United States was officially settled and founded, indigenous peoples were removed from their lands and sold into slavery by Christopher Columbus and other early explorers. In the 1800’s, after the United States declared its independence from the British, the United States government called for the formation of “reservations” for Native American tribes: specific and marked areas that were strictly for tribes. In 1830, Andrew Jackson renewed the Indian Removal Act, which called for the relocation of the “Five Civilized Tribes”: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and Muscogee-Creek tribes. Over the course of the following decade, more than 40,000 Native Americans were forced to leave their homes and move west. This road was later named the “Trail of Tears”, and many people consider this to be an act of genocide, as many Native Americans died on the journey.[1]

Chief Osceola of the Florida State University Seminoles

The Seminole tribe lived in present day Florida. Today, Florida State University’s mascot is a Seminole; a man dressed in an indigenous costume who rides out onto the field on a spotted horse carrying a war spear. Florida State University students show their team pride with one of their more favorite mottos: “Scalp ‘em, Noles!” is common amongst the football fans. Many students at the University of Illinois, home of the Fighting Illini, claim that their Native American mascot taught them about Native American culture: “…growing up for me, I learned that the Chief was something that was part of Illinois, part of the Midwest, part of American history and I am thankful for what this University has taught me, both before I came to school here and with the education that I have received.”[2]

Both of the above situations ignore the fact that Native Americans in the United States are still victims of hate crimes. According to a report filed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2007, there were 75 separate crimes of hate committed against indigenous people across the United States. In only seven of these cases were the offenders Indigenous People; in all of the other cases, the offenders were white Americans. A Native American activist from Oklahoma, Brenda Golden, gave the following statement as to why people of Native American descent were becoming victims of hate crimes: “People are gonna prey on the weak, and we are weak because of 500 years of oppression.”[3] Just as there people across the United States who still believe that African Americans are inferior to white Americans, there are many people who still view Native Americans as savages who hundreds of years ago, killed many white people who were attempting to take their land.

Contemporary Movements and Organizations

There have been numerous movements with the similar goal of eliminating the use of Native American images, mottos, and nicknames as sports mascots in professional and college sports. Some organizations are smaller and seek to eliminate such images present with local teams, while other organizations deal with national teams and national collegiate affiliations. Many of these organizations are founded by members who have traced their ancestry to Native American tribes still residing in the United States.

One organization against the use of Native American imagery as a sports mascot is based in Northeast Ohio. Named the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, this organization was founded in 1991 on the 500th year anniversary of Columbus Day which celebrates Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the new world. Upon its founding, the main goal of this organization was to promote education about the truth of Columbus and his treatment of the indigenous people already living in the “new” world. Now, the primary goal of this organization is to promote awareness and advocacy to indigenous communities in Ohio. Also, the Committee of 500 years seeks to eliminate the use of the racist image of “Chief Wahoo” and the use of the name Indians as part of the Major League Baseball team, the Cleveland Indians. The Committee recalls that upon the adoption of the name “Indian” as the mascot, local newspapers began making comments about how the players needed to “wake up and play like the Indian savages on the field”.[4] This organization holds conferences during the Cleveland Indians’ opening weekend, leads workshops educating the public about the racist imagery used by the Cleveland Indians, and has members from around the nation and around the world.

Another organization working against the use of Native American imagery as a sports mascot is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA. This organization oversees everything affiliated with college sports, including scholarships, performance-enhancing drugs, grades, and issues with diversity, among many other concepts. In 2005, the NCAA announced a new policy that would require colleges and universities with Native American mascots, logos, and images to refrain from using these images during NCAA-affiliated and sponsored events. [5] The policy went on to state that schools using these images would be prohibited from hosting NCAA championships beginning in 2006, unless they changed their mascots. The response to this policy was overwhelming: never before has the NCAA become so vilified, even when it has had to deal with agents, steroids, and illegal benefits to players. Following the announcement, there were 19 major schools that attempted to appeal the policy first, before they thought of changing their mascot. Most of the schools changed their names and dropped their mascots, but others filed lawsuits against the NCAA and continue to pursue the charges. Major schools, like the Florida State University Seminoles were allowed to keep their name and their mascot after receiving support from a local Seminole tribe in the state of Florida. Other schools remained ineligible pending a mascot change.

There are many other organizations with similar goals as the NCAA and the Committee of 500 Years. They continue to express outrage at the stereotypes and racist images that many sports mascot rely on even when the team may be ignorant of their meanings. Their numbers are growing across the nation and their voices are becoming louder and clearer every year.

Strategies and Goals of  Movements and Organizations

Many organizations working against the use of Native American images as mascots, mottos, and nicknames have one specific goal in mind in terms of their achievement: education. Organizations like the NCAA and the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance rely heavily on promoting awareness and becoming advocates for Native Americans across the United States. They hold workshops to make the public aware that such stereotypical images of warlike face paint, spears, and head dresses do not benefit the team; instead, they continue the idea that Native Americans are warlike savages that are enemies to citizens of the United States. As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated when they called for an elimination of the use of Native Americans as mascots, logos, and nicknames at schools and universities:

“The Commission deeply respects the right of all Americans to freedom of expression under the First Amendment and in no way would attempt to prescribe how people can express themselves. However, the Commission believes that the use of Native American images and nicknames in schools is insensitive and should be avoided. . . .Schools have a responsibility to educate their students; they should not use their influence to perpetuate misrepresentations of any culture or people.”[6]

The New York State Education Department later agreed with the statement of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and went on to note that using race-related images as a mascot could promote an environment that may not be safe and supportive for the students. Following this statement, New York schools such as Syracuse, St. John’s, and Siena went on to change their Native American mascots.

In order to combat the use of Native American stereotypes in American sports culture, the Council of the American Sociological Association of Discontinuing the Use of Native American Nicknames, Logos and Mascots in Sports released the following statement:

“WHEREAS many Native American individuals across the United States have found Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport offensive and called for their elimination; AND, WHEREAS the continued use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport has been condemned by numerous reputable academic, educational and civil rights organizations, and the vast majority of Native American advocacy organizations, including but not limited to: American Anthropological Association, American Psychological Association, North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Modern Language Association, United States Commission on Civil Rights, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Association of American Indian Affairs, National Congress of American Indians, and National Indian Education Association; NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, THAT THE AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION calls for discontinuing the use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport.”

Some schools and professional teams argue that by having a Native American image as their mascot, they are honoring the Native American culture. I would completely disagree with this statement: there is nothing in Native American culture that wants to be used as a mascot, logo, or nickname. There is a list of other organizations that had similar feelings at the bottom of this page.

Elements of Systemic Racism Targeted by Movements and Organizations

These organizations seek to target the following elements of systemic racism:

*  Education about the Common Sense

*  Culture Barriers

*  Human Rights

*  Historical Practices of Racism

*  Current Practices of Racism

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

I have watched sports, both on the collegiate and professional levels, for as long as I can remember and I probably watched them even before then but I was too young to understand the rules and regulations. I grew up supporting the same team that my father was and is loyal to, but I am willing to bet other teams may have caught my hopeful, bright eyes with their flashy colors and their exuberant mascots. And upon completing this assignment, I thought about that idea: of children and young adults watching sports and choosing “their” team based on the costumed character parading around the field. What if that character is race-related and misrepresents that group of people? The child would more than likely assume their knowledge about that group based on what they saw on TV; based on what they found to be popular. At such a young and impressionable age, any Native American image used as a mascot can create a foundation of unintentional ignorance that can last for years.

With any other controversial subject, the most important defense is education. When the NCAA announced the policy that sought to change many schools’ Native American mascots, they hoped that through the process, students and members of the school boards would learn facts about the Native American culture and not just follow their innate, common sense knowledge. They took a firm position on this matter, and in many cases, the schools has to change their mascots completely, as opposed to taking away one word. [7] While many schools and professional teams will claim that their mascot is based on tradition and history, they are ultimately erasing the history of Native Americans in this country. The stereotypes depicted by any Native American mascot, logo, nickname, or motto tarnish and manipulate a beautifully strong culture that has faced more hardships than most Americans realize.

Relevant Organizations

* National Indian Education Association: http://www.niea.org/

*National Education Association: http://www.nea.org/

*Governors Interstate Indian Council: http://w1.paulbunyan.net/~giic/

*National Congress of American Indians: http://www.ncai.org/

*American Indian Movement: http://www.aimovement.org/

Related News Articles

-“NCAA American Indian mascot ban will begin Feb 1″, ESPN: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncaa/news/story?id=2125735

-“NCAA mascot, nickname ban is confusing”, ESPN: http://sports.espn.go.com/dickvitale/vcolumn0508010-confusingmove.html

-“NCAA mascot ban doesn’t mean squat”, ESPN: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncaa/columns/story?columnist=ratto_ray&id=2126159

-“Native American imagery as sports mascots: A new problem”, Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-hidden-brain/201003/native-american-imagery-sports-mascots-new-problem

-“Is the Ethnic Mascot Controversy Over?”, US Legal, Inc.: http://sportslaw.uslegal.com/2010/02/22/is-the-ethnic-mascot-controversy-over/

Related Reads 

C. Richard King, The Native American Mascot Controversy (Book)

C. Richard King, Team Spirits (Book)

George W. Shepherd, Racism and the Underclass: state policy and discrimination against minorities (Book)

Places of Interest and Inspiration

National Museum of the American Indian, New York, New York and Washington D.C.: http://www.nmai.si.edu/

The Native American Music Awards, http://www.nativeamericanmusicawards.com/home.cfm

Native American Art Network, http://www.nativeart.net/

Fire Hawk Native American Studio, Florence, MA

Cited References

[1]Trabich, Leah, “Native American Genocide still haunts United States,” An End to Intolerance, Vol. 5, 1997 Jun., http://www.iearn.org/.

[2]King, C. Richard, “Teaching Intolerance: Anti-Indian Imagery, Racial Politics, and (Anti) Racist Pedagogy,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, Vol. 30, Issue 5, 2008.

[3] FBI, “Indians Still Most Assaulted in Hate Crimes,” 23 Nov 2008, http://www.nativeamericannetroots.net/showDiary.do?diaryId=193.

[4]Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, http://www.committee500years.com/.

[5] Staurowsky, Ellen J., ‘You Know , We Are All Indians”: Exploring White Power and Privilege in Reaction to the NCAA Native American Mascot Policy, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol. 31, Issue 1, Feb, 2007.

[6] Norton, Helen., “U.S. Civil Rights Commission, New York Department of Education Call for End to Native American Mascots”, http://www.civilrights.org/indigenous/stereotypes/u-s-civil-rights-commission-new-york-department-of-education-call-for-end-to-native-american-mascots.html, 1 May 2001.

[7]Davis-Delano, Laurel R., Eliminating Native American Mascots: Ingredients for Success, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol. 31, Issue 4, November 2007.

-Page authored by Hannah Provost

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