The Problems with Native American Mascots

By Davis, Laurel R. | Multicultural Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Problems with Native American Mascots


Davis, Laurel R., Multicultural Education


Introduction

Sport has not been widely discussed in the field of multicultural education. Yet, sport is central to the lives of many students. It is critical that multicultural educators attend to the field of sport, because it plays a significant role in the socialization of youth. There are many sport-related topics that multicultural educators could address. This article focuses on the existence of Native American mascots in schoolsponsored sport.

Because of the prevalence of stereotypes of Native Americans in United States popular culture, many have difficulty understanding the problems with Native American mascots. Even those who oppose these mascots often have trouble clearly articulating the reasons for their opposition. The purpose of this article is to lay out the main arguments against the use of Native American mascots. All of the arguments mentioned in this article are used by activists who are working to eliminate these mascots.

The Mascots Are Racist Stereotypes

The most common argument against Native American mascots is that they represent racist stereotypes of Native Americans. Stereotypes of Native Americans appear throughout United States popular culture, such as in: movies; government seals; advertisements and symbols for products like butter, beer, and paper; and statues and paintings that non-Natives have in their homes. Scholars have observed two main stereotypes: the "bloodthirsty savage," which conveys the notions that Native Americans are wild, aggressive, violent, and brave; and the "noble savage," which conveys the notions that Native Americans are primitive, childlike, silent, and part of the natural world (Bataille & Silet, 1980; Hilger, 1986; Lyman, 1982; Williams, 1980).

It is the stereotype of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savage that led nonNatives to choose Native American mascots for sport. Traits associated with this stereotype, such as having a fighting spirit, and being aggressive, brave, stoic, dedicated, and proud, are associated with sport, and thus selecting a Native American mascot links sport teams with such traits. The appeal of this stereotype to many in sport is illustrated by the following quotations from supporters of Native American mascots: "I can think of no greater tribute to the American Indian than to name a team's warriors after courageous, cunning-- and feared-warriors ofthe Indian nations, the braves" (Shepard, 1991, p. 14A); and "I look at that mascot, that Indian head, and it stirs me up. I think of getting real aggressive, and it brings out the aggressiveness in me. And it makes me go out there and really wrestle hard and fight hard, you know, because that's what those Indians were" (cited in Davis, 1993, p. 15).

When all the mascots representing Native Americans are considered (e.g., Indians, Redskins, Braves, Chiefs), it turns out that Native Americans are the most common mascot in United States sport. The other mascots that are most common are animals, most of which are also associated with aggression and fighting (e.g., tigers). Of course it is offensive that Native Americans are perceived, and used as symbols, in the same way as animals.

Stereotypes are misleading generalizations about a category of people. When people believe stereotypes they tend to think that all, or almost all, people who belong to a particular category behave in the same way, and they tend to ignore the wide diversity of behavior exhibited by people within the category. So, regarding the stereotype associated with the mascots, not all Native Americans in the past were aggressive, brave, dedicated fighters. And today, most Native Americans do not occupy their time fighting. And many non-Natives are aggressive, brave, dedicated fighters. Of course, many Native Americans take pride in their ethnic/racial background, and are dedicated people. But, do they have more pride and dedication than other groups? And, since Native Americans have extremely high rates of suicide, health problems, and poverty, asserting that this racial group has more pride than other groups is shallow. …

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