The Deculturalization of Indigenous Mascots in U.S. Sports Culture


Cornel D. Pewewardy

Cornel D. Pewewardy is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Leadership, School of Education, University of Kansas, Lawrence. His research interests include multicultural education and indigenous populations.

This paper appeared in The Educational Forum, 63, Summer 1999, p. 342.

During the first three centuries of contact between Indians and whites, the image of the Indian, although confused and fictional, nevertheless had an empirical reference point - the experiences of the people on the frontier who encountered Indians and the correlation between reality and symbol was not difficult. Beginning with the Wild West shows and continuing with contemporary movies, television, and literature, the image of Indians has radically shifted from any reference to living people to a field of urban fantasy in which wish fulfillment replaces reality.

-Vine Deloria (1980, ix)

Why should educators know about the issues of Indigenous mascots, logos, nicknames, and the tomahawk chop? Invented media images prevent millions of people from understanding the past and current authentic human experience of Indigenous Peoples (Bird 1996). These trappings and seasonal insults offend the intelligence of thousands of Indigenous Peoples in the United States. As educators, we are responsible for teaching as an ethnical practice and for helping to eliminate racism in all aspects of school life. Therefore, the exploitation of Indigenous mascots in U.S. sports culture becomes an issue of educational equity.

Stereotypical Images As Mascots

Many schools around the country exhibit Indigenous mascots and logos, using nicknames and doing the tomahawk chop in sports stadiums with inauthentic representations of Indigenous cultures. Many school officials claim they arc honoring Indigenous Peoples and insist their schools' sponsored activities are not offensive. I would argue otherwise. There is nothing in Indigenous cultures that aspires to be a mascot, logo, or nickname for athletic teams.

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 being a sidekick to cheerleaders. Making fun of Indigenous Peoples in athletic events has become "as American as apple pie and baseball."

Because racial stereotypes play an important role in shaping a young person's consciousness, this inauthentic behavior makes a mockery of Indigenous cultural identity and causes many young Indigenous people to feel shame about who they are as human beings. Subjective feelings, such as inferiority, are an integral part of consciousness and work together with the objective reality of poverty and deprivation to shape a young person's world view. Schools should be places where students come to unlearn the stereotypes that such mascots represent.

So why do some schools allow their students to adopt a noncritical cartoon version of Indigenous cultures through the use of a mascot portrayed by sports teams? As Dennis (1981, 71) contended, "People engage in racist behavior because they are reasonably sure that there is support for it within their society. Their cultural lens, for example, may be highly ethnocentric; yet no distortions are perceived in the field of vision." Consider how euphemisms and code words for ethnic persons and groups are used: scalp, massacre, redskin, squaw, noble savage, papoose, Pocahontas, Cherokee princess. The English language includes various phrases and words that have relegated Indigenous Peoples to an inferior status: 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian"; ''Indian giver", "drunken Indians," ''dumb Indians," and "Redskins." Allen (1990) argued that these newer words are simply replacing the older, more blatant and abusive nicknames.

Teachers have a responsibility to take this issue seriously. As Fleming (1996, 3) stated, "Children's self images are very impressionable, pliable, and susceptible to external forces, especially if they arc steeped in violent and negative images." As Paley (1989, xiv) noted, "They also respond accordingly to the respect they are shown in regards to their individuality, including their ethnicity and/or race."

Manufactured Images

The challenge today is to deconstruct a reality manufactured by the U.S. media and scholars. Many people see something faintly anachronistic about contemporary Indigenous Peoples, viewing them as figures out of the past, as relics of a more heroic age. The modern presence of Indigenous Peoples has been hard for some people to grasp. Indigenous Peoples only recently have begun to reclaim their own ethnic images and make their special presence known.

Unfortunately for Indigenous Peoples, many false images of ethnicity still dominate our collective consciousness. As Howard (1983, 27) asserted, "In the American psyche, Indigenous People have fulfilled their historical mission." They existed to provide a human challenge to European Americans as they marched across the continent. Their resistance provided the stuff of myths of conquest and glory. Moreover, many ethnic images have been manufactured in the image of other racial groups. The manufactured "savage, pagan, retarded, culturally deprived" non-European is the flipside of the European Civilization myth. Such ethnic images distort reality while creating a new and seductive reality of their own. Students cannot be expected to understand the realities of modern life and the prospect for future generations without understanding the popular images of the past and the present.

The portrayal of Indigenous Peoples in sports takes many forms. Some teams use generic Indigenous names, such as Indians, Braves, or Chiefs, while others adopt specific tribal names like Seminoles, Cherokees, or Apaches. Indigenous mascots exhibit either idealized or comical facial features and "native" dress, ranging from body-length feathered (usually turkey) headdresses to more subtle fake buckskin attire or skimpy loincloths. Some teams and supporters display counterfeit Indigenous paraphernalia, including tomahawks, feathers, face paints, and symbolic drums and pipes. They also use mock-Indigenous behaviors, such as the tomahawk chop, dances, chants, drumbeating, war-whooping, and symbolic scalping.

So-called Indian mascots reduce hundreds of Indigenous tribal members to generic cartoon characters. These "Wild West" figments of the European-American imagination distort both Indigenous and non-lndigenous children's attitudes toward an oppressed and diverse minority. The Indigenous portrait of the moment may be bellicose, ludicrous, or romantic but almost never is a realistic person. As Bordewich (1996, 18) asserted, "Readers who expect a single uncomplicated portrait of the modern Indian will not find one, for 'the Indian,' as such, really exists only in the leveling lens of federal policy and in the eyes of those who continue to prefer natives of the imagination to real human beings." Many children in the United States may not have the faintest idea that Indigenous Peoples are real human beings because of such portrayals.

How Negative Mascots Are Detrimental To Children

As a teacher educator, I show future teachers why Indigenous mascots are one cause for low self-esteem in Indigenous children. The issue often becomes detrimental to students' academic achievement. The American Indian Mental Health Association of Minnesota's (1992) position statement has supported the total elimination of Indian mascots and logos from schools:

As a group of mental health providers, we are in agreement that using images of American Indians as mascots symbols, caricatures, and namesakes for non-Indian sports teems, businesses, and other organizations is damaging to the self-identity, self-concept, and self-esteem of our people. We should like to join with others who are taking a strong stand against this practice.

Most of the resolutions to eliminate negative ethnic images came from grassroots efforts, mostly from Indigenous parents. Resolutions to ban Indian mascots and logos from schools also have been drafted by American Indian organizations like the National Indian Education Association, Kansas Association for Native American Education, Nebraska Indian Education Association, Wisconsin Indian Education Association, and Minnesota Indian Education Association. Other groups that have passed resolutions to ban Indigenous mascots, nicknames and logos include the National Education Association, Governor's Interstate Indian Council, United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council in Wisconsin, Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, National Congress of American Indians, American Indian Movement, National Rainbow Coalition, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Center for the Study of Sports in Society. More recently, Whitcomb (1998), representing the National Collegiate Athletic Association, has issued a statement "supporting the elimination of Indian names and mascots as symbols for their member institutions' sports teams." Yet these strong voices seemingly speak to deaf ears. As a result, "The continued eroticization of people of color has been used to justify the control of entire communities" (Kivel 1996, 31).

According to Steele (1997, 613), "Racism is the social-psychological threat that rises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one's group applies. This predicament threatens one with being negatively stereotyped, with being judged or treated stcreotypically, or with the prospect of conforming to the stereotype." Though "these images help shape people's perceptions, stereotypes aid in the dehumanization of Indigenous Pcoples" (Bird 1996, l), U.S. society has been practicing a form of "deculturalization," stripping away the culture of a conquered people and replacing it with the dominant culture (Spring 1994).

Power and Control

Why do racial slurs in the form of lndigenous mascots and logos remain? The hidden agenda behind their use, l believe, is about cultural and spiritual annihilation as well as intellectual exploitation. Therefore the real issues are about power and control. Those who define other ethnic groups and control self-image lead people to believe that their truth is the absolute truth. Such efforts drive these negative ethnic images. Furthermore, the ability to define a reality and get other people to affirm that reality as if it were their own engenders great power. Carefully designed, expensive media commercials allow quick identification of images and stimulate emotion. The use of stereotypic images reinforces the identification of negative images and biased information processing.

Though teams like the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Florida State University Seminoles, Southeastern Oklahoma State University Savages, and Wichita North High School Redskins have resisted the pressure to change, scores of college, university, and high school teams have adopted new names over the years. The Marquette University Warriors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have become the Golden Eagles. The Adams State College Indians in Alamosa, Colorado, have become the Grizzlies. At Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi, the Scalping Braves have changed to the Braves (though the name still bothers many people, the extremely pejorative connotation has at least been eliminated). The Eastern Michigan University Hurons in Ypsilanti have become the Eagles, as have the Juaniata College Indians in Huntington, Pennsylvania. The Redskins at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, have become the Redhawks. The Springfield College Chiefs in Massachusetts are now the Pride. St. John's University's Redmen in New York have become the Red Storm. Stanford University's Indians have changed to the Cardinals, and Dartmouth College's Indians are The Big Green. If these colleges and universities can change, so can other educational institutions. Athletic departments at state universities in Wisconsin and Minnesota have even established a policy to ban out-of-conference competition with universities that use Indigenous names and logos.

Several newspapers, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Seattle Times, Portland Oregonian and Duluth area newspapers, have instituted new policies on the use of racist overtones and words such as "Redskin." Moreover, some radio announcers and stations have decided not to use such racially insulting words over the air. School districts in Dallas and Los Angeles have eliminated Indigenous mascots from their school districts as the result of active parent and education groups working with school officials.

Despite these changes at colleges, universities, high schools, and middle schools, no professional sports team has felt enough social pressure to take similar steps. Yet the Washington Bullets, succumbing to political pressure, recently changed their name to the Wizards - so change at this level is possible.

The Right To An Equal Education

Most states make a commitment to provide the best public education for every student. The issue of equity is an important component of that commitment to educational excellence ensuring access, treatment, opportunity, and outcomes for all students based on objective assessment of each individual's needs and abilities. Requirements and support for equity come from the state legislature the federal government, the private sector, community organizations, parents, school boards, and school district staff members.

Given this foundation the use of Indigenous mascots and logos in schools comes under the category of "discrimination." The discrimination prohibition applies to curricular programs, extracurricular activities, pupil services, recreational programs, use of facilities, and food service. Though most states prohibit discrimination against students, school officials dismiss many complaints regarding Indigenous mascots and logos as irrelevant. Complainants must pursue a process of officially filing as an "aggrieved person" who has been negatively affected by school policies.

Every public school district is required to have a complaint procedure. Some complainants have also filed reports with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in Chicago, basing their discrimination on the student's sex, race, handicap, color, or national origin.

Changing Global Consciousness

Understanding the contemporary images, perceptions, and myths of Indigenous Peoples is extremely important for people of all ethnic backgrounds. Most images of Indigenous Peoples have been burned into the global consciousness by 50 years of mass media. Hollywood screenwriters have helped create the "frontier myth" that still shapes the mainstream image of Indigenous People today. This injustice has gone largely unrecorded by the national media and unnoticed by a public that still sees Indigenous Peoples mainly through deeply xenophobic eyes and the mythic veil of mingled racism and romance. Each new generation of popular culture has, therefore, reinvented their Indigenous mascot in the image of its own era.

Those of us who advocate the elimination of mascots of Indigenous Peoples appreciate the courage, support, and sacrifice of all people who speak out and draft resolutions against the continued use of Indigenous mascots in schools. By advocating the removal of these mascots, nicknames, and logos, individuals strengthen the spirit of tolerance and social justice in their community as well as model pluralism for all children.

By raising these issues, educators provide a powerful teaching moment that can help deconstruct the fabricated images and misconceptions of Indigenous Peoples that most school-age children have acquired via the media. Educators must first educate themselves about Indigenous Peoples and their communities. As Munson (1998) stated, "Doing so will help them see that as long as negative mascots and logos remain within the arena of school activities, both Indigenous and non-lndigenous children are learning to tolerate racism in schools." Furthermore, as LaRocque (1998, 360) noted, "That's what children see at school and on television. As a result, schools only reinforce the images projected by popular culture." Sports teams with Indigenous mascots, nicknames, and logos teach children an "acceptable" racism that demeans a race or group of people. I challenge educators to provide the intellectual leadership that will teach a critical perspective as ethnical practice and illuminate the cultural violence associated with Indigenous mascots used in schools.


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American Indian Mental Health Association of Minnesota 1992. Position statement regarding the use of team mascot/namesakes that convey an image of the Native people of this land. Minneapolis: AIMHA.

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Whitcomb, C. 1998 Use of Indian mascots shows lack of respect. The NCAA News 28 September. Available at: