American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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For more than a century, non-Natives have used names, symbols, and material culture associated with or built on their stereotypes of indigenous peoples to create mascots for high school, college, and professional sport teams. Although such imagery remains common in the United States, increasingly, over the past thirty years, Native American leaders and educators, advocates for social justice, and a variety of professional and political groups have called for an end to the misappropriation and misrepresentation central to Native American mascots. The movement against the misuse of Indian symbols in sports has been ignored or even resisted by some schools, sports fans, and athletic organizations, but it has had a noticeable and positive impact across the United States. 


Native American mascots are a common feature of sports in the United States. Although it is difficult to arrive at an exact count, most scholars agree that several thousand schools have used names, symbols, and/or cultural artifacts associated with indigenous peoples, referring to their teams as Warriors, Braves, Indians, Redskins, or others. At the collegiate level, according to the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, more than eighty institutions have Native American mascots. Dozens of professional and semiprofessional teams have employed images of Indians. Significantly, indigenous peoples stand alone as the only racial or ethnic group to be misappropriated and misrepresented in this mass fashion, more than a half century after false and psychological injurious images of blacks, Latinos and others became problematic.

Educational institutions, professional franchises, and amateur clubs have used American Indian symbols for a variety of reasons. Some, like Dartmouth College, chose Native American mascots to reflect an historical link between an institution and indigenous people (Dartmouth was founded as an Indian school). Others, like the University of Illinois or the University of Utah, selected such symbols to enshrine regional history and legitimately claim territory occupied by indigenous peoples. Still other uses are largely accidental, hinging on school colors (often red), the team play (described as savage or wild), or the enthusiasm of an individual (whether a coach, band leader, student, or alumnus) for Indians and Indianness.

Whatever their specific origins, Native American mascots crystallized in an historical context that made it possible, pleasurable, and powerful for Euro-Americans to incorporate images of Indians in athletic contexts. First, beginning with the Boston Tea Party, Euro-Americans crafted identities for themselves by "playing Indian." Second, the conquest of Native America simultaneously empowered Euro-Americans to appropriate, invent, and otherwise represent Native Americans and to aspire for aspects of the cultures damaged by conquest. Third, countless spectacles, exhibitions, and other sundry entertainments centered on Indianness proliferated during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Native American mascots built on these patterns and traditions.

Not surprisingly, given these sociohistorical foundations, while Native American mascots have afforded many Euro-American individuals and institutions a means to fashion identity, to many indigenous peoples these athletic icons perpetuate inauthentic and injurious images. Halftime performances, fan antics, and mass merchandizing transform somber and reverent artifacts and activities into trivial and lifeless forms that simultaneously reduce Native Americans to a series of well-worn clichés, effacing the complexities of Native American cultures and histories.  

Stereotypes and More

Mascots stereotype American Indians for pleasure and profit. They offer misleading, flat, and fictional renderings of Native Americans, frequently trapping them in the past, while reducing them to stereotypical bellicosity, wildness, and savagery. Sports teams and educational institutions have used clichéd elements associated with Indians and Indianness, often borrowed without permission from tribes or, worse, copied directly from Hollywood westerns, to rearticulate values important to them, such as pride, valor, aggression, strength, and tradition.

Native American mascots do more than stereotype; they also reveal much about the unequal position of American Indians. Indeed, such imagery reflects and contributes to the denial of cultural self-determination for Native Americans. The acceptance of misleading and injurious images, such as Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians, makes it impossible for American Indians to be recognized as fully human social actors and to exercise the rights and protections accorded them under the law. Consequently, it is difficult for American Indians to be recognized as Indians and heard as meaningful actors; they must contort themselves to fit white stereotypes. Significantly, Native American mascots negatively impact American Indian youth.

Even as they dehumanize indigenous peoples, Native American mascots empower Euro-Americans, allowing them to fashion identities, histories, and communities. Indianness in sports lays the foundation for the construction of intimate networks, powerful spaces, and meaningful traditions. It is not simply defined in white terms, but through individualism that presumes that individuals can choose who they are, fashion their own identities, and opt to choose or reject stereotypical imagery and the identities that come with it.

Indian imagery in sports does more than recreate Native American identity in a white cast. It also contributes to the production of nationalism, gender bias, and social hierarchy. Native American mascots reflect core ideas of what it means to be traditionally American, white, and male. On the one hand, such renderings of Indianness are best understood in a broader, comparative framework that connects indigeneity with whiteness and blackness. On the other hand, the true meaning of Native American mascots cannot be appreciated without reference to gender: Predominantly white institutions create images of savage warriors that affirm accepted connections among masculinity—aggressiveness, violence, bravery, and honor—while confirming the righteousness of conquest.

Schools using Native American mascots contribute to stereotyping and the mistreatment of American Indians. They miseducate students, teaching them the dominant culture's perceptions of history, culture, and power. As a consequence, American Indian nicknames and symbols transform schools and stadiums into hostile environments for indigenous peoples. Perhaps because of their centrality to miseducation and the maintenance of problematic ideas about race, history, and nation, such imagery increasingly has become the site of social struggle.  


Although indigenous peoples long have protested popular misrepresentations and impersonations, beginning in the late 1960s, energized by a political, cultural, and social resurgence throughout Indian Country, Native Americans critiqued the tradition of playing Indian at halftime, demanding its end. Although initially successful, forcing retirements at Dartmouth College and Stanford University, as well as changes at Marquette University and the University of Oklahoma, the movement encountered strong resistance among fans, alumni, and boosters, failing to make much progress for the following two decades. Then, during the early 1990s, activists confronted mascots with renewed energy, fostering public debates and policy changes. During the subsequent decade several universities retired mascots, including St. John's University and the University of Miami, or revised their uses of Indianness, among them Bradley University and the University of Utah. A number of school districts (notably in Los Angeles and Dallas) and state boards of education encouraged or required the end of Indian mascots; countless political, social, and professional organizations (from the National Congress of American Indians and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the American Anthropological Association and the National Education Association) condemned such symbols and spectacles; and the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board voided the trademark rights of the Washington Redskins of the National Football League, finding that the name and logo used by the team were disparaging and hence violated the law. The ruling was voided by a higher court on a technicality, however, and the imagery continued to be used.

More recently, two important developments have occurred at the national level. First, the United States Civil Rights Commission has held that Native American mascots infringe on the basic human rights of American Indians, encouraging discrimination and prejudice. Second, in 2004, the National Collegiate Athletic Association issued a prohibition on teams using American Indian imagery in post-season tournaments. While it has granted exceptions to schools that it deems have the support of specific Native nations or tribes, this marks an important move toward a more proactive agenda outside of Indian Country to challenge Native American mascots.

Despite these trends, it is unlikely that Native American mascots will disappear from American sports anytime in the near future. For the most part, Euro-Americans have failed to grasp the significance of playing Indian at halftime, refusing to appreciate the implications of Euro-American privilege or the pain caused by their casual abuse of ethnic imagery. Indeed, the continued use of Indians and Indianness in sports will likely serve as a barometer of the extent to which Americans have come to terms with racism, the conquest of North America, and the humanity and sovereignty of Native America. At the same time, the persistent protests of American Indian imagery in sports offer forceful reminders of the insistence of indigenous peoples to be understood as citizens worthy respect and inclusion.

C. Richard King

Further Reading
1170749 Davis, Laurel. 1993. "Protest Against the Use of Native American Mascots: A Challenge to Traditional, American Identity." Journal of Sport and Social Issues 17, no. 1: 9–22.; King, C. Richard, and Charles F. Springwood, eds. 2001. Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; King, C. Richard, ed. 2004. "Re/Claiming Indianness: Critical Perspectives on Native American Mascots." Journal of Sport and Social Issues 28, no. 1 (special issue).; Spindel, Carol. 2000. Dancing at Halftime: The Controversy over American Indian Mascots. New York: New York University Press.

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