From la Belle Sauvage1 to the Noble Savage: The Deculturalization of Indian Mascots in American Culture

By Pewewardy, Cornel D. | Multicultural Education, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

From la Belle Sauvage1 to the Noble Savage: The Deculturalization of Indian Mascots in American Culture


Pewewardy, Cornel D., Multicultural Education


introduction

Invented media images prevent millions of Americans from understanding the past and current authentic human experience of First Nations People. My opposition to the use of Indian mascots for sports teams has always been because these trappings and seasonal insults offend the intelligence of thousands of Indigenous Peoples in this country.

This article speaks to the American educator and discusses how, as educators, we are responsible for maintaining the ethics of teaching and for helping to eliminate racism in all aspects of school life. Therefore, the exploitation of Indian mascots becomes an issue of educational equity. What should educators know about the issues of American Indian mascots, logos, nicknames, and the tomahawk chop?

As someone who has spent his entire adult life teaching in and administrating elementary schools for Indigenous children, I see that the way Indian mascots are used today is about "dysconscious racism" and a form of cultural violence, which operates primarily at the psychological level. According to Joyce King (1991) and Gloria Ladson-Billings (1990), dysconscious racism is a form of racism4 that unconsciously accepts dominant white norms and privileges.

For example, if you have seen the racial antics and negative behaviors portrayed by Indian mascots hundreds of times for most of your life, you may become absolutely numb to their presence. That's dysconscious racism. The thousands of ways in which Indian mascots are used today in American sports culture is racist and should be eliminated, using education as the tool for liberation. However, I understand that many educators not familiar with equity issues are not equipped to teach such liberation.

The issues

Teachers should research the matter and discover that Indigenous Peoples would never have associated the sacred practices of becoming a warrior with the hoopla of a pep rally, half-time entertainment, or beinga side-kick to cheerleaders. Even though it has become as American as apple pie and baseball, makingfun of Indigenous Peoples at athletic events across the country is wrong!

Many schools around the country exhibit Indian mascots and logos, using nicknames and doing the tomahawk chop5 in sports stadiums through inauthentic representations of Indigenous cultures. Many school officials state or say they are honoring Indigenous Peoples and insist their schools' sponsored activities aren't offensive, but rather a compliment. I would argue otherwise.

There's nothingin Indigenous cultures that I'm aware of that aspires to be a mascot, logo, or nickname for athletic teams. It would be the same as a crowd of fans using real saints as mascots or having fans dressed up as the Pope (Lady Pope's or Nuns) at a New Orleans Saints football game and doing the "crucifix chop" to the musical accompaniment of Gregorian chants while wearing colorful religious attire in the stands. What would be the reaction of Catholics around the country if that happened?

The behavior to which I object makes a mockery of Indigenous cultural identity and causes many young Indigenous people to feel shame about who they are as human beings, because racial stereotypes play an important role in shaping a young person's consciousness. Subjective feelings, such as inferiority, are an integral part ofconsciousness, and work together with the objective reality of poverty and deprivation to shape a young person's worldview.

Beginning with Wild West shows and continuing with contemporary movies, television, and literature, the image of Indigenous Peoples has radically shifted away from any reference to living people toward a field of urban fantasy in which wish fulfillment replaces reality (Deloria, 1980). Schools should be places where students come to unlearn the stereotypes that such mascots represent.

So why do some teachers allow their students to uncritically adopt a cartoon version of Indigenous cultures through the use of a mascot portrayed by sports teams? …

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