The Stereotyping of Native Americans

Article excerpt

Names, images, and mascots that symbolize native Americans are used extensively in the United States, particularly in sports and advertising. In sports there are the Washington Redskins football team, the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians baseball teams, and the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. Fans of the Atlanta Braves use the "tomahawk chop" accompanied by a chant to intimidate visiting teams, while the Cleveland Indians use the mascot Chief Wahoo and the University of Illinois uses the mascot Chief Illiniwek.

In advertising, Chief Crazy Horse appears on cans of malt liquor, a "redman" lends his heritage to packs of chewing tobacco, and a native American princess sells cartons of butter. Even the Department of Agriculture's Soil and Water Conservation Society uses the image of a native American on its posters. This is by no means a complete list of such uses, but these examples serve to illustrate how freely this minority is symbolized in society.

As a non-native American who believes this kind of symbolization is a blatant form of discrimination, I have been asked by friends and colleagues, "Why focus on issues of stereotyping native Americans and not on the more life-threatening hardships this minority faces, such as unemployment, suicide, and alcoholism, which occur at rates higher than any other group or minority?" When the article "Violence Hits American Indians at Highest Rate Among Ethnic Groups" appeared in the local newspaper I was asked, "Would it not be more constructive to put your efforts into bringing attention to the violence that confronts native Americans instead of worrying about `a little name calling'?"

In addition, I am often reminded that there are numerous native Americans, including tribal chiefs, who don't feel that the use of native American images and names in sports and advertising is discriminatory, racial stereotyping. As a result I am asked, "Aren't you, a non-native American, trying to tell this minority how it should feel?"

These are tough questions. However, they must be answered in order to justify putting effort into trying to raise the level of awareness about acts of discrimination that affect this minority instead of issues that are more life-threatening.

It first must be established that the symbolization of native Americans in sports and advertising is discriminatory. Names such as Indians, Chiefs, Warriors, Blackhawks, Braves, Seminoles, Cherokee, Navajo, Apache, Winnebago, and Chief Crazy Horse are not, in and of themselves, offensive. How then does their use constitute racial stereotyping?

The easiest way to demonstrate this is to ask whether symbolizing any other minority in the same or in a similar manner would be acceptable. Certainly blacks, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Mexican Americans, Jews, and Martin Luther King Jr. are comparable names, but Brownman Chewing Tobacco or Martin Luther King Jr. Malt Liquor would never be tolerated. Likewise, although Jeep Cherokee and the Apache helicopter are freely used in society, there would never be a Jeep African, Jeep Mexican, Oriental helicopter, or Jew helicopter.

In fact, society would be outraged by any attempt to replace current native American names, images, and mascots with equivalents referring to another minority. Looking at the symbolization of native' Americans in this manner demonstrates racial bias.

Moreover, while some native Americans have been silent on issues of stereotyping, many others have expressed their disgust. …