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Houska: An Open Letter to Educators: Indian Mascots Harm Your Students

Tara Houska, Ojibwe, pens an open letter to educators providing them with reasons why Indian mascots harm the mental health of youths.
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Dear Educator,

I write today to urge you and your colleagues to consider the negative effects Native-themed mascots have on Native and non-Native children alike.

In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) recommended the immediate retirement of all Native-themed mascots in educational institutions, athletic teams, etc. Their position was based on empirical evidence demonstrating the harmful impact Native mascots have on the self-esteem of Native American children.

Native American children are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than any other race; it is the second leading cause of death from ages 15- to 34-years-old. To see the continued use of symbols and names known to harm our already at-risk children is particularly discouraging.

Native mascots also affect non-Native children. In March of this year, psychologists at the University of Buffalo conducted a study of predominantly white participants and determined that regardless of positive intent to honor Native Americans, mascots brought to mind negative thoughts and stereotypes associated with Native peoples. Further, they found that participants exposed to Native mascots were more likely to negatively stereotype other ethnic groups as well.

That is certainly not the kind of environment that creates a positive learning space for young minds. Our children’s well-being should matter more than the legacy of a sports mascot. Native Americans have been fighting against appropriation of our images and mockery of our culture for decades, this is nothing new.

When I moved to Washington, D.C., I was shocked at the omnipresence of Washington football team imagery. I could not imagine being a Native child here; I remember feeling shame as a student when we made paper headdresses for Thanksgiving and my classmates dressed up as Natives for Halloween – this is a different level of indignity. To grow up hearing “Scalp the Redsk*ns” at games and regularly seeing peers wearing a caricature of you on a jersey is dehumanizing; our cultures aren’t costumes. We’re still here.

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The fight against Native mascots is about more than ‘hurt feelings’. Here in D.C. I lobby and represent Native American tribes throughout the United States, and have first-hand experience with the impact of these images and names. Too often I speak with Congressional members and policymakers who have little to no knowledge of Native peoples, other than the caricatures they’ve seen at sporting events and on television. When you’re not viewed as people, appropriation of funds for a hospital or a school becomes that much less likely.

I understand that some fans have a deep connection to a school’s mascot and view it as a source of pride. But surely our dignity and equality as a still-existing group of people is worth making a change. The team will still be there, so will your school.

Native Americans have had to endure some of the worst treatment imaginable; at the time when many of these mascots and team names were selected, it was a criminal act for our peoples to practice the religious ceremonies being appropriated for entertainment value. Many students today learn nothing about Native Americans past Manifest Destiny or sports logos; “I thought you were extinct” is not an uncommon statement to hear. If there is such strong sentiment to honor us, it would be far more effective to educate students about contemporary Native Americans in addition to historical accounts.

I humbly ask that you make the right choice and stand on the right side of history. Native American advocacy has resulted in 2/3 of all Native mascots being eliminated in the past 35 years. No professional sports teams have established a racial name or logo since 1963. Change will happen, and I am hopeful as a someday parent that my children will not have to experience the open caricature of their race in educational or professional settings. No matter the positive intent or if “some Natives are ok with it”, the negative effects are the same. Native Americans are living people with many diverse cultures, we aren’t mascots.

Miigwech/Thank you.

Tara Houska. Photo courtesy Jason Daniels.

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in Washington, D.C., a founding member of NotYourMascots.org, and an all-around rabble rouser. Follow her on @zhaabowekwe.