Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Plotting the Assassination of Little Red Sambo: Psychologists Join War against Racist Campus Mascots

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Plotting the Assassination of Little Red Sambo: Psychologists Join War against Racist Campus Mascots

Article excerpt

Psychologists Join War Against Racist Campus Mascots

Imagine, if you will, a tall, thin Black man, dressed in Hollywood-inspired African warrior attire, bearing a scowling countenance, and brandishing a spear. Now imagine this character being used as the mascot of a college sports team -- the Blackskins. At half time, a White cheerleader dressed in full costume and Blackface, might portray a Blackskin and run up and down the sidelines high-stepping in a mock African war dance. His antics are imitated by spectators in the stands who stab at the air with their crudely fashioned lances, growling and screaming like fierce animals. Then, imagine all of this is broadcast weekly to a nationwide television audience.

Are you feeling offended yet?

Sadly, for Native Americans across the country, there is nothing imaginary about this indignation. Today, scores of public and private colleges and universities still use Indian mascots and symbols for their sports teams. While a handful of universities, such as Stanford, Marquette, Eastern Michigan, Miami of Ohio, and Dartmouth, have dropped their Indian mascots in recent years, these institutions are the exception.

The decade-long struggle to remove Indian sports mascots from college campuses and professional sports received a boost recently from the psychology department at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, which hosted a national conference on the topic in April. By a vote of 33-5, the conference joined a long list of individuals, associations, and academic departments nationwide who are calling for the removal of Native Americans as mascots.

What's significant about the UIUC department's position, says chairman Dr. Ed Shoben, is that it's in line with the majority of faculty at the university.

"The majority of the faculty believe that the use of [Chief Illiniwek] is both offensive and inappropriate," he says. Illiniwek, a fictional chief of the Illinois people, is the University's mascot.

In issuing its disapproval of the mascot, the psychology department's statement read: "The Department of Psychology believes that it is in the best interests of the University for Chief Illiniwek to be retired."

However, the UIUC administration and board of trustees are on record stating that the chief is not meant as an insult and in fact is an effort to honor American Indians.

"I've said all I'm going to say on this issue," says Susan Gravenhorst, a member of the UIUC Board of trustees. "The board is strongly in support of the chief. He's an extremely important symbol for the university."

Shoben suspects the reason the mascot is kept is because many alumni supporters "have warm, fuzzy feelings about the chief."

Honor or Indignity?

The nationwide controversy over Indian sports mascots was the focus of an award-winning documentary, In Whose Honor?, that made its premiere on PBS the summer of 1997. The documentary, produced and directed by Jay Rosenstein, depicts the manner in which many of these mascots entertain sports fans. In one scene, a gymnastically-gifted chief does a make-believe Indian dance, in buckskin, barefoot, and in full eagle feather regalia. In the background, fans whoop it up, wearing headdresses and "war paint." The program features interviews with Native Americans who express their feelings about these dehumanizing images.

According to the documentary, the national protest against the use of Indian mascots began at UIUC in 1987 after then graduate student Charlene Teeters took her two children to a Fighting Illini football game.

Teeters, who is a Spokane American Indian, tried to prepare her children for what they would see. But nothing she could have said prepared them for the humiliation of seeing people in "war paint," wearing feathers, and carrying tomahawks. At the tailgate parties, members of sororities and fraternities were doing "buck and squaw" dances. …

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