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Another Logical Look at the Mascot Issue

The Indian nickname and mascot debate continues. The most prevalent argument in favor of them is that they “honor” Indians. The real question is, “Where is the ‘honor’ in being a mascot?”

Having served on a committee to recommend whether or not a university should retain their Indian nickname and mascot, I believe that I have heard every argument for continuing their use. Although I disagree with professional sports teams using Indian names and mascots, I think that educational institutions have a higher responsibility to prevent misuse and stereotyping.

The use of mascots is inextricably tied to sports. Indian mascots usually fall into two categories: 1) a war-like male, with a fierce expression, a feather headdress and sometimes carrying a weapon, like a tomahawk, or, 2) a comical male with exaggerated features, (a huge, beaky nose, big lips, buck-teeth), a feather headdress and sometimes a weapon. Both use historical images, not contemporary ones. I’m not sure how this honors Indian culture. But it seems to foster a certain stereotype. After all, why can’t the mascot be a medicine person? Or a contemporary depiction, such as an Indian attorney? Or a female, wearing a nurse’s uniform? Indian mascots reinforce one-dimensional male stereotypes as fierce, blood-thirsty scary killers, or comical idiots not to be taken seriously.

The fact that Indians disappear out of textbooks after the frontier closed instills the idea that we are historical relics and, having been thrown on the trash-heap of history, have little relevance in today’s world. Indian mascots reinforce the idea that we are historical relics to students and society in general. For that reason alone, educational institutions should discontinue the use of Indian nicknames and mascots.

University administrators had to admit that the mascot did create a stereotype, but felt that it was a “positive” stereotype. What?! Why would a university want to project any kind of stereotype? Are Jewish people good with banking and money? Do they control the entertainment industry? Would a university want to perpetuate a “positive” stereotype about Jews, based on those perceptions? I don’t think so.

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The vitriolic letters we received from individuals supporting the Indian nickname and logo were amazing. Yet university officials gave them credence. Some of the ignorant language (and grammar) were worthy of the Ku Klux Klan—yet those racist statements were seen as valid support to keep the nickname and mascot. Since the university and its alumnae are overwhelmingly non-Indian, and some of us were attempting to “destroy” their heritage, the support to retain the nickname and mascot was overwhelming. What means exist to protect Indian rights and dignity—especially when certain local tribal members spoke up in favor of retention? They certainly got favorable press. How many voters in Mississippi would have supported Rosa Parks’ right to keep her bus seat and not give it up to a white person? Likely very few. But that doesn’t mean the majority is right.

At the end of the initial deliberations, the committee recommended (not unanimously) that university retain the Indian nickname for a three-year trial basis, but not the logo. After three years, the committee would reconvene to analyze how the trial period went. After a few incidents of students dressing up in war paint, feathers and hollering “Indian chants” at football games, the committee recommended (nearly unanimously) that the university begin the search for a new nickname. The university president ignored the committee’s recommendation and kept the Indian nickname with many promises to increase educational opportunities for Native students. Many are still unfulfilled.

Yet at the time when the committee first convened, and when the local tribal council supported discontinuance of the nickname and logo, it wasn’t important—“This decision rests squarely on our shoulders,” said university administrators. But when a later-elected tribal council supported the university’s retention of the nickname (but not the logo), this was seen as an important step and hailed as universal support. Certain local tribal members who pushed to retain the nickname saw the opportunity for personal gain—and were rewarded by the university. Even in South Africa, it was possible to find blacks who supported apartheid because they stood to gain from the system, just as certain tribal members stood to gain from their nickname and mascot support. However, local tribal support or individual support does not equate to universal support, but the NCAA and university seem to see it as such.

The decision for an educational institution to abandon its use of Indian nicknames and logos will always encounter difficulties in obtaining popular support. Just as putting an end to slavery would not have been supported by voters in the American south. And it took the American Civil war to resolve that issue.

David Trout Staddon is the Director of Public Information for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of Akwesasne and an enrolled tribal member of the Wikwemikong First Nation, Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. Most of his professional career has been spent in service to Indian tribes and communities, and includes casino management, private consulting, non-profit agency administration and higher education administration. He is a member of the Native American Journalists Association, the Public Relations Society of America, and the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce of Massena, New York. The opinions expressed in the article are strictly his own and do not represent the views of any other organization.