Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
October 7, 2000 - Issue 20

Will Another School Year Bring Insult or Honor?
The Usage of Indian Mascots in School-Related Events
By Dr. Cornel Pewewardy (Comanche-Kiowa) in Oklahoma Indian Times

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:

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.



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