With another school year upon classroom teachers comes the reality and challenge of
educating a multicultural society. Teaching multiculturally requires examining sensitive issues and topics. Accordingly,
teachers should not ignore the issues of Indian mascots in schools. Instead, they should become one of those teachable
moments in which issues are confronted and discussed.
The portrayal of Indian mascots in sports takes many forms. Teachers should research the matter and discover that
Native Americans would never have associated the sacred practices of becoming a warrior with the hoopla of a high
school pep rally, half-time entertainment, being a sidekick to cheerleaders, or royalty in homecoming pageants.
Most of these types of activities carry racial overtones of playing Indian in school events. Some teams use generic
Indian names, such as Indians, Braves, or Chiefs, while others adopt specific tribal names like Seminoles, Cherokees,
or Comanches. Indian mascots exhibit either idealized or comical facial features and “native” dress, ranging from
body-length feathered (usually turkey) headdresses to more subtle fake buckskin attire or skimpy loincloths. Some
teams and supporters display counterfeit Indian paraphernalia, including foam tomahawks, feathers, face paints,
and symbolic drums and pipes. They also use mock-Indian behaviors, such as the tomahawk chop, dances, chants, drumbeating,
war-whooping, and symbolic scalping. These negative images, symbols, and behaviors play a crucial role in distorting
and warping Native American childrens’ cultural perceptions of themselves as well as non-Indian childrens’ attitudes
toward Native Americans. Most of these proverbial stereotypes are manufactured racist images that prevent millions
of students from understanding the past and current authentic human experience of Native Americans.
Its hard to take seriously, to empathize with, a group of people portrayed as speaking in broken, old stoic Indian
cliché (like “many moons ago”) as dressing up in Halloween or Thanksgiving costumes, as acting like a “bunch
of wild Indians.” These make-believe Indians are not allowed to change in time or in any other way be like real
people. 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.
Who should decide what is demeaning and racist? Clearly, the affected party determines what is offensive. It is
not for unaffected members of society to dictate how the affected party should feel. Moreover, these name changes
shouldn't have to go through ugly alumni and student backlashes that smear grassroots complainants as troublemakers,
gadflies, activist, militant, or being “politically correct.” Some say that political correctness is paralyzing
our society from expressing itself freely. This may be true, but is the desire to protect one's individual cultural
symbols from misuse and degradation considered political correctness? If this is true, then attempts to help people
understand the diverse composition of America are “just” acts of political correctness.
In 1998, Children Now initiated a study into children's perceptions of race and class in the media, focusing on
the images of Native Americans presented in national news and entertainment. Similar the to perceptions survey
conducted by the League of Women Voters in 1975, children's impressions concludes similar results—that most children
in America view Native Americans far removed from their own way of life. Not only do these studies have to be conducted
and disseminated, but the misconceptions and stereotypes about Native people which bombard the child from outside
of the classroom need to be counteracted.
Moreover, an overwhelming number of popular media presentations involve ethnic images of clowns throughout the
years in this country. The clear underrepresentation of serious aspects of Native American life in the popular
media, suggests that even the former slaves prefer to laugh about themselves rather than improve themselves. For
example the marshal arts actor Jackie Chan in Shang Hai Noon in 2000 and Disney’s Pocahontas and Columbia’s The
Indian in the Cupboard in the 1990s are updates of the 1940’s and 1950’s Stephin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland. 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
just removed from cigarette companies from using cartoons or human figures in advertisements. But for some reason,
many schools continue the usage of Indian mascots in American 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. "Chief Wahoo," is still the Cleveland Indians' logo. Despite Indians' protests against using
their images as sports mascots, dozens of teams continue to use unflattering, stereotyping symbols.
Professional organizations dedicated to the unique problems of Native Americans 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 educators to know that this issue becomes detrimental
to the academic achievement of all students.
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 (i.e., American Indian Mental Health Association
of Minnesota in 1992 and Society of Indian Psychologists of the Americas in 1999). These statements condemned the
presence of ethnic images as psychologically destructive to the minds of Native American 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. Basically, this represents the critical mass of Indian educational associations and tribal
governments have either passed resolution or gone on record wanting to eliminate Indian mascots and logos from
school-related activities and events.
If indeed, you know something needs to be done to correct these negative stereotypes, consult your local school
Title IX Indian Education Coordinator, curriculum specialist, cultural resource librarian, university professor,
or the National Indian Education Association to assist you in the elimination of negative ethnic images and materials
from the academic curriculum and school-related activities. One of the finest award-winning reference books on
this topic is American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children by Hirschfelder, Fairbanks, and Wakim published
in 1999 by Scarecrow Press. For those that have internet connectivity, go to the following website dedicated to
educating individuals about Indian mascots: http://members.tripod.com/earnestman/getinvolved.htm.
At the beginning of yet another school year, we must continue the hard work to re-educate our young people and
ourselves by seeking and studying new information about ourselves. 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 images.
In Whose Honor?
Dr. Cornel Pewewardy (Comanche-Kiowa) is assistant professor in the Department of Teaching
and Leadership, School of Education at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He teaches multicultural education at
the undergraduate and graduate level at KU.