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MASCOT: 'Playing Indian': Why Native American Mascots Must End

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  • Senior Staff
    from André Cramblit..thanks! Playing Indian : Why Native American Mascots Must End By CHARLES FRUEHLING SPRINGWOOD and C. RICHARD KING American Indian icons
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 28, 2001
      from André Cramblit..thanks!

      'Playing Indian': Why Native American Mascots Must End

      By CHARLES FRUEHLING SPRINGWOOD and C. RICHARD KING

      American Indian icons have long been controversial, but 80 colleges still use them, according to the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. Recently, the struggles over such mascots have intensified, as fans and foes across the country have become increasingly outspoken.

      A the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, more than 800 faculty members have signed a petition against retaining Chief Illiniwek as the university's mascot. Students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania have criticized the athletics teams' name, the Indians. The University of North Dakota has experienced rising hostilities on campus against its Fighting Sioux. Meanwhile, other students, faculty members, and administrators have vehemently defended those mascots.

      Why, nearly 30 years after Dartmouth College and Stanford University retired their American Indian mascots, do similar mascots persist at many other institutions? And why do they evoke such passionate allegiance and strident criticism?

      American Indian mascots are important as symbols because they are intimately linked to deeply embedded values and world-views. To supporters, they honor indigenous people, embody institutional tradition, foster shared identity, and intensify the pleasures of college athletics. To those who oppose them, however, the mascots give life to racial stereotypes as well as revivify historical patterns of appropriation and oppression. They often foster discomfort, pain, and even terror among many American Indian people.

      The December 1999 cover of The Orange and Blue Observer, a conservative student newspaper at Urbana-Champaign, graphically depicts the multilayered and value-laden images that American Indian mascots evoke. Beneath the publication's masthead, a white gunslinger gazes at the viewer knowingly while pointing a drawn pistol at an Indian dancer in full regalia. A caption in large letters spells out the meaning of the scene: "Manifest Destiny: Go! Fight! Win!" Although arguably extreme, the cover, when placed alongside what occurs at college athletic events -- fans dressing in paint and feathers, halftime mascot dances, crowds cheering "the Sioux suck" -- reminds us that race relations, power, and violence are inescapable aspects of mascots.

      We began to study these mascots while we were graduate students in anthropology at the University of Illinois in the early 1990s. American Indian students and their allies were endeavoring to retire Chief Illiniwek back then, as well, and the campus was the scene of intense debates. Witnessing such events inspired us to move beyond the competing arguments and try to understand the social forces and historical conditions that give life to American Indian mascots -- as well as to the passionate support of, and opposition to, them. We wanted to understand the origins of mascots; how and why they have changed over time; how arguments about mascots fit into a broader racial context; and what they might tell us about the changing shape of society.

      Over the past decade, we have developed case studies on the role that mascots have played at the halftime ceremonies of the University of Illinois, Marquette University, Florida State University, and various other higher-education institutions. Recently, we published an anthology, Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy, in which both American Indian and European American academics explored "Indian-ness," "whiteness," and American Indian activism. They also suggested strategies for change -- in a variety of contexts that included Syracuse University and Central Michigan University, the Los Angeles public schools, and the Washington Redskins. Our scholarship and that of others have confirmed our belief that mascots matter, and that higher-education institutions must retire these hurtful symbols.

      The tradition of using the signs and symbols of American Indian tribes to identify an athletic team is part of a much broader European American habit of "playing Indian," a metaphor that Philip Joseph Deloria explores in his book of that title (Yale University Press, 1998).

      In his historical analysis, Deloria enumerates how white people have appropriated American Indian cultures and symbols in order to continually refashion North American identities. Mimicking the indigenous, colonized "other" through imaginary play -- as well as in literature, in television, and throughout other media -- has stereotyped American Indian people as bellicose, wild, brave, pristine, and even animalistic.

      Educators in particular should realize that such images, by flattening conceptions of American Indians into mythological terms, obscure the complex histories and misrepresent the identities of indigenous people. Moreover, they literally erase from public memory the regnant terror that so clearly marked the encounter between indigenous Americans and the colonists from Europe.

      That higher-education institutions continue to support such icons and ensure their presence at athletics games and other campus events -- even in the face of protest by the very people who are ostensibly memorialized by them -- suggests not only an insensitivity to another race and culture, but also an urge for domination. Power in colonial and postcolonial regimes has often been manifested as the power to name, to appropriate, to represent, and to speak -- and to use such powers over others. American Indian mascots are expressive practices of precisely those forms of power.

      Consider, for example, the use of dance to feature American Indian mascots. Frequently, the mascot, adorned in feathers and paint, stages a highly caricatured "Indian dance" in the middle of the field or court during halftime. At Urbana-Champaign, Chief Illiniwek sports an Oglala war bonnet to inspire the team; at Florida State University, Chief Osceola rides across the football field, feathered spear held aloft.

      Throughout U.S. history, dance has been a controversial form of expression. Puritans considered it sinful; when performed by indigenous people, the federal government feared it as a transgressive, wild, and potentially dangerous form of expression. As a result, for much of the latter half of the 19th century, government agents, with the support of conservative clergy, attempted to outlaw native dance and ritual. In 1883, for example, the Department of the Interior established rules for Courts of Indian Offenses. Henry Teller, the secretary of the department, anticipated the purpose of such tribunals in a letter that he wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs stating that they would end the "heathenish practices" that hindered the assimilation of American Indian people. As recently as the 1920s, representatives of the federal government criticized American Indian dance, fearing the "immoral" meanings animated by such performances.

      The majority of Indian mascots were invented in the first three decades of the 20th century, on the heels of such formal attempts to proscribe native dance and religion, and in the wake of the massive forced relocation that marked the 19th-century American Indian experience. European Americans so detested and feared native dance and culture that they criminalized those "pagan" practices. Yet at the same time they exhibited a passionate desire for certain Indian practices and characteristics -- evidenced in part by the proliferation of American Indian mascots.

      Although unintentional perhaps, the mascots' overtones of racial stereotype and political oppression have routinely transformed intercollegiate-athletic events into tinderboxes. Some 10 years ago at Urbana-Champaign, several Fighting Illini boosters responded to American Indian students who were protesting Chief Illiniwek by erecting a sign that read "Kill the Indians, Save the Chief." And, in the wake of the North Dakota controversy, faculty members who challenged the Fighting Sioux name have reported to us that supporters of the institution's symbol have repeatedly threatened those who oppose it.

      Although many supporters of such mascots have argued that they promote respect and understanding of American Indian people, such symbols and the spectacles associated with them are often used in insensitive and demeaning ways that further shape how many people perceive and engage American Indians. Boosters of teams employing American Indians have enshrined largely romanticized stereotypes -- noble warriors -- to represent themselves. Meanwhile, those who support competitive teams routinely have invoked images of the frontier, Manifest Destiny, ignoble savages, and buffoonish natives to capture the spirit of impending athletics contests and their participants. In our studies, we find countless instances of such mockery on the covers of athletics programs, as motifs for homecoming floats, in fan cheers, and in press coverage.

      For example, in 1999, The Knoxville News-Sentinel published a cartoon in a special section commemorating the appearance of the University of Tennessee at the Fiesta Bowl. At the center of the cartoon, a train driven by a team member in a coonskin cap plows into a buffoonish caricature of a generic Indian, representing the team's opponent, the Florida State Seminoles. As he flies through the air, the Seminole exclaims, "Paleface speak with forked tongue! This land is ours as long as grass grows and river flows. Oof!"

      The Tennessee player retorts, "I got news, pal. This is a desert. And we're painting it orange!" Below them, parodying the genocide associated with the conquest of North America, Smokey, a canine mascot of the University of Tennessee, and a busty Tennessee fan speed down Interstate 10, dubbed "The New and Improved Trail of Tears." What effect can such a cartoon have on people whose ancestors were victims of the actual Trail of Tears?

      The tradition of the Florida State Seminoles bears its share of responsibility for inviting that brand of ostensibly playful, yet clearly demeaning, discourse. For, at FSU, the image of the American Indian as warlike and violent is promoted without hesitation. Indeed, the Seminoles' football coach, Bobby Bowden, is known to scribble "Scalp 'em" underneath his autograph.

      Such images and performances not only deter cross-cultural understanding and handicap social relations, they also harm individuals because they deform indigenous traditions, question identities, and subject both American Indians and European Americans to threatening experiences. For example, according to a Tampa Tribune article, a Florida resident and Kiowa tribe member, Joe Quetone, took his son to a Florida State football game during the mid-1990s. As students ran through the stands carrying tomahawks and sporting war paint, loincloths, and feathers, Quetone and his son overheard a man sitting nearby turn to a little boy and say, "Those are real Indians down there. You'd better be good, or they'll come up and scalp you!"

      Environmental historian Richard White has suggested that "[White Americans] are pious toward Indian peoples, but we don't take them seriously; we don't credit them with the capacity to make changes. Whites readily grant certain nonwhites a 'spiritual' or 'traditional' knowledge that is timeless. It is not something gained through work or labor; it is not contingent knowledge in a contingent world." The omnipresence of American Indian mascots serves only to advance the inability to accept American Indians as indeed contingent, complicated, diverse, and genuine Americans.

      Ultimately, American Indian mascots cannot be separated from their origins in colonial conditions of exploitation. Because the problem with such mascots is one of context, they can never be anything more than a white man's Indian.

      Based on our research and observations, we cannot imagine a middle ground for colleges with Indian mascots to take -- one that respects indigenous people, upholds the ideals of higher education, or promotes cross-cultural understanding. For instance, requiring students to take courses focusing on American Indian heritage, as some have suggested, reveals a troubling vision of the fit between curriculum, historic inequities, and social reform. Would we excuse colleges with active women's-studies curriculums if their policies and practices created a hostile environment for women?

      Others have argued that colleges with American Indian mascots can actively manage them, promoting positive images and restricting negative uses. Many institutions have already exerted greater control over the symbols through design and licensing agreements. But they can't control the actions of boosters at their institutions or competitors at others. For example, the University of North Dakota would probably not prefer fans at North Dakota State University to make placards and T-shirts proclaiming that the "Sioux suck." Such events across the nation remind us that mascots are useful and meaningful because of their openness and flexibility -- the way that they allow individuals without institutional consent or endorsement to make interpretations of self and society.

      American Indian mascots directly contradict the ideals that most higher-education institutions seek -- those of transcending racial and cultural boundaries and encouraging respectful relations among all people who live and work on their campuses. Colleges and universities bear a moral responsibility to relegate the unreal and unseemly parade of "team spirits" to history.

      Charles Fruehling Springwood is an assistant professor of anthropology at Illinois Wesleyan University. C. Richard King is an assistant professor of anthropology at Drake University. They are co-editors of Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy (University of Nebraska Press, 2001) and co-authors of Beyond the Cheers: Race as Spectacle in College Sport (SUNY Press, 2001).

      --

      André Cramblit, Operations Director-Northern California Indian Development
      Council

      NCIDC (http://www.ncidc.org) is a non-profit that meets the development
      needs of American Indians and operates an art gallery featuring the art of
      California tribes (http://www.americanindianonline.com)

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