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  • What's the problem with so-called "Indian" mascots?

What's the problem with so-called "Indian" mascots?

This academic year, THE QUESTION returns with interesting questions designed to spark respectful and enlightening discussion.  Even when our questions pose challenging and uncomfortable topics, as will happen with this issue and others, we hope you will enjoy the process of patiently thinking about some big ideas.  

We begin in collaboration with WVU's Native American Studies Program, offering some perspectives on the view that the use of caricatures and stereotypes of Native American people is unacceptable and needs to stop. Among other places, we see examples of these in sports mascots and logos. Honestly facing the history of genocidal acts carried out against Native Americans, including attempts at forced assimilation, is a helpful place to begin to understand the thinking behind opposition to so-called “Indian” mascots. Broadly speaking, Native languages, spiritual and cultural practices, and traditional stories were nearly wiped out in the process of European colonization and settlement of this country. Most Americans lack a serious understanding of Native history and culture.  All of us, especially those who are members of a university community, have an obligation to understand and preserve history, thus contributing to a contemporary society where people can interact with empathy and civility. When a group has been made to feel invisible, and then told they are being  "honored" with ridiculous, inaccurate, humiliating, or disrespectful representations, it is a violation of the basic duty to treat people with dignity and respect. Those who pretend to be Indians for entertainment and fun, revving up team spirit by playing around with objects, practices, dress, and traditions that have sacred meaning, offend and belittle (whether or not they intend to do so). This issue of THE QUESTION is devoted to opening up a discussion that helps to illuminate why so many people are in favor of ending the use of so-called "Indian" mascots, and to explaining why this debate is really not just a question about mascots.

Our question raises many other important philosophical questions, such as: What makes an image, practice, or comment racist? Many mascots are silly, inaccurate representations, caricatures, etc., so what makes some mascots more problematic than others? Whether you are Native or non-Native, if you are a member of a team, fan of a team, or a student at a school that uses a mascot or logo that’s seen as problematic, and you agree that using such mascots/logos/etc. is wrong, what should you do?  What if you were the owner of a team, the principal of a school, or the president of a university that uses a problematic mascot?  How would you address the situation?  Would you have an obligation to do something, or is it alright to just go along with it and be a "team player"? 

 THE QUESTION is grateful to WVU's Native American Studies Program for its leadership on this question.  We especially appreciate Tyler Newpol, a recent graduate of WVU's Reed College of Media, for creating the video for this project. We'd also like to thank WVU's Bonnie Brown, Cari Carpenter, and Yvonne Swartz-Hammond, who are featured in Newpol's video, as well as Tyler Boulware and Deborah Kirk who contributed short essays.  This issue of THE QUESTION was supported, in part, by WVU's Celebration of the Arts and Humanities.  We have included links to several other excellent sources that help explain the problem with so-called "Indian" mascots. Please scroll down and learn from some of the experts. 

  • Deborah Kirk              

    Deborah Kirk
    Citizen of Cherokee Nation 
    WVU Lecturer in Native American Studies
    Doctoral Student in Geography
    National Science Foundation Fellow

    As a Native American, what I am most looking for with regard to "Indian" sports mascots, is respect. How does the image given represent Native American cultures? Is it degrading? Is it disrespectful? Will it cause ill will, harm, or embarrassment to members of the population for whom the mascot is aimed at representing? Does it result in forms of stereotyping? These are just a few of the many questions that race through my mind when I encounter "Indian" mascots.       

    Read the Essay

  • Tyler Bouware     

    Tyler Boulware 
    WVU Associate Professor of History
    Native American Studies Program Committee Member

    History can be inspiring and uplifting. It can also be offensive. And that is a good thing. It means our ideas about what is ethical, moral, and decent have changed – hopefully in an evolving and progressive way – and we use that to evaluate past human thought and behavior. When nineteenth-century Americans, for instance, used the terms “savage,” “barbarian,” and “redskin” to describe Native Americans, few individuals at the time voiced their displeasure.

    Read the Essay

  • Learn More                       

    Tribal Leaders from around the country share their opposition to so-called “Indian” mascots:

    Read More

    Watch Video

    National Congress of American Indians Executive Summary, “Ending the Legacy of Racism in Sports and the Era of Harmful “Indian” Sports Mascots"

    Read More

    If the Indian Mascot Could Speak (produced at the Native American House, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire)

    Watch Video

    Presentation by Charlene Teters (Spokane)

    Watch Video