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Time to Stop Playing Indian

Accomplished author and expert on Native culture Arlene Hirschfelder calls for an end to "playing Indian" by misusing inaccurate images of American Indians on Halloween, in schools, and in athletics.

It is predictable. At Halloween, thousands of children (and adults) trick-or-treat in Indian costumes. At Thanksgiving, thousands of children parade in school pageants wearing plastic headdresses and pseudo-buckskin clothing. Shops stock holiday greeting cards with images of cartoon animals wearing feathered headbands and load shelves with Indian figurines. Thousands of teachers and librarians trim bulletin boards with Anglo-featured, feathered Indian boys and girls.

Fall and winter are also the seasons when hundreds of millions of sports fans root for professional, college and public school teams with names that summon up American Indians—Braves, Redskins, Chiefs. War-whooping team mascots are imprinted on team clothing, pennants, notebooks, tote bags, towels and car floor mats.

All of this seems innocuous; why make a fuss about it? Because sports trappings and holiday symbols offend tens of thousands of Native American people. Because these invented images prevent millions of us from understanding the authentic Indian America, both long ago and today. Because this image-making prevents Indians from being a relevant part of the nation’s social fabric.

Halloween costumes mask the reality of high mortality rates, high diabetes rates, high unemployment rates. They hide low average life spans, low per-capita incomes and low educational levels. Plastic war bonnets and ersatz buckskin deprive people from knowing the complexity of Native American heritage—that Indians belong to hundreds of nations that have intricate social organizations, governments, languages, religions and sacred rituals, ancient stories, unique arts and music forms.

Dozens of children’s picture books about Thanksgiving depict generic Indians harmoniously dining with Pilgrims. These books, Thanksgiving school units and plays mask history. They do not tell how Europeans mistreated Wampanoags and other Native peoples during the 17th century. Social studies units don’t mention that, to many Indians, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, the beginning of broken promises, land theft and near extinction of their religions and languages at the hands of invading Europeans.

Toy companies mask Native identity and trivialize sacred beliefs by manufacturing Indian costumes, headdresses, pipes and trick arrow-through-the-head props (all available online) that equate Indians with playtime. Indian figures equipped with bows and arrows, guns, knives and tomahawks give youngsters the harmful message that Indians favor mayhem. Many Native people can tell about children screaming in fear after being introduced to them.

It is time to consider how these images impede the efforts of Native parents and communities to raise their children with positive information about their heritage. It is time to get rid of stereotypes that, whether deliberately or inadvertently, denigrate Indian cultures and people. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights condemned the use of Native American images and nicknames as sports symbols. It said the images are “particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.” In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations. Over the past decade, more than 100 organizations have gone on record to oppose the use of Native sports imagery.

It is time to bury the Halloween costumes, trick arrows, bulletin-board pin-ups and mascots. It has been done before. In the 1970s, after student protests, Marquette University dropped Willie Wampum, Stanford University retired Prince Lightfoot, and the University of Oklahoma eliminated its Little Red mascot. In the late 1990s, the Dallas Public Schools eliminated American Indian mascot names and imagery from school property, including athletic and cheerleading uniforms, a model for other districts in the country to follow. A couple of minor league teams have made changes. In 1997 the Toronto Blue Jays Triple-A farm team in Syracuse, New York became the SkyChiefs. The Peoria Chiefs, a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, changed its logo from an American Indian to a Dalmatian fire chief. And in February 2007, the University of Illinois banned its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, who appeared for the last time at a University of Illinois men’s home basketball game. (Months later, in the name of free speech, the school’s chancellor lifted a prohibition on the use of the mascot’s logo on homecoming parade floats and students’ clothing, which the university considered personal expressions.)

It is time to stop playing Indian. It is time to abolish Indian images that sell merchandise. It is time to stop offending Native people whose lives are all too often filled with economic deprivation, powerlessness, discrimination and gross injustice. This time next year, let’s find more appropriate symbols for the holiday and sports seasons.

Arlene Hirschfelder has authored or edited more than 20 nonfiction books and curricula dealing with Native histories, cultures, and contemporary issues. Much of her writing deals with Indian stereotypes in the world of children. She was a staff member of the Association on American Indian Affairs for more than 20 years.