The Native American mascot: tribute or disrespect?

Nikki Ewald, University student

To understand the controversy surrounding Native American mascots, it is important to know the definition of a mascot. Mascot is defined as “a person, animal or object adopted by a group as a symbolic figure especially to bring them luck” by the Merriam Webster Dictionary.

The Native American mascot debate has become extremely polarized in this age of political correctness. The debate has been a continuous flow since the 1960s. Since this time, activists and students have intensified efforts to discontinue the use of Native American-related mascots, names and logos arguing that the use permeated stereotypes and derogatory messages.

Some find this issue absurd and continue to support teams displaying Native American nicknames and images; others claim that using names pertaining to Native American names and mascots is a form of racism or stereotype. This controversy needs to be put to rest. Our society is accepting and supporting negative stereotypes without knowing the effects it has on others. All teams with an Native American mascot should be banned.

For many professional sports teams, fans dress up as Native Americans without really knowing how they are affecting a culture. A cartoon from the Internet shows a Native American talking with a sports fan saying “But dude, I am honoring you.” At some point there has to be a line drawn between what is OK and what is seen as offensive.

Fans with feathers and headdresses might seem like an acceptable outfit to the Washington Redskins fans, but do these fans really know what it means to be a “Redskin”? The term “Redskin” refers to the redness of a Native American’s skin color. It has also been said that it refers to the bloody skin of Native Americans that were considered prizes. The Atlanta Braves do a tomahawk chop at their games where thousands of fans mock Native American culture.

“Native American” logos and nicknames create, support and maintain stereotypes of a race of people. When such cultural abuse is supported by one or many of society’s institutions, it constitutes institutional racism. The logos, along with other societal abuses and stereotypes separate, marginalize, confuse, intimidate and harm Native American children. They create barriers to their learning throughout their school experience. Additionally, the logos teach non-Native American children that it’s all right to participate in culturally abusive behavior. Children spend a great deal of their time in school, and schools have a significant impact on their emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual development. As long as such logos remain, both Native American and non-Native American children are learning to tolerate racism in our school.

People say they understand why having a Native American as a mascot is offensive, but do they really? Oppression is prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control. There are many examples of oppression happening in places that have mascots. In Minnesota, a pep rally is held where teachers and students dress up as “cowboys and Indians,” and the cowboys yell “get back to the reservation.” In Kansas, a man who sought to remove the mascot was sent emails from students that threatened his home and the sexual assault of his wife.

Understanding the history of Native Americans is important to understanding why this is such a controversial topic. The Native American community for 50 years has worked to banish images and names like Chief Wahoo, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Braves. It is important to remind people of the conscious use of the symbols’ resemblance to other historic, racist images of the past. Native Americans struggled to survive in harsh situations. The support of these mascots only brings back memories of their ancestors and the suffering and pain they went through for their children and grandchildren.

The biggest step toward change was in 2005 when the National Collegiate Athletic Association decided to institute a new rule: It self-decided it would strong-arm schools with nicknames or mascots deemed “hostile or abusive;” they would no longer be allowed to keep these nicknames. Although this seems like a vague rule, it was aimed at colleges and universities that were currently using a Native American-derived name or symbol. This step made a large impact on the community, and there is hope for deeming all current teams with Native American-aimed names to be banned.