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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Low self-esteem, low community worth, increased negative feelings of stress and depression.

These are some of the negative psychological effects Native American mascots wreak on the well-being of Native Americans, especially youth, according to a new study.

The Race, Ethnicity and Education Journal on June 8 published the study by Laurel R. Davis-Delano, PhD, of Springfield College; Joseph P. Gone, Aaniiih-Gros Ventre, PhD, Harvard University; and Stephanie A. Fryberg, Tulalip, PhD, University of Michigan. It describes findings from a comprehensive review of studies on the psychosocial effects of Native-themed mascots.

“Although most people in the U.S. do not perceive Native American mascots as problematic, all of the academic studies undertaken to study the psychosocial effects of these mascots demonstrate either direct negative effects on Native Americans or that these mascots activate, reflect, and/or reinforce stereotyping and prejudice among non-Native persons,” said the authors.

The study backs growing efforts to eliminate Native American themed mascots, including a call last week by the mayor of Washington, D.C., to change the name of the professional football team there.

The review described the negative psychological effects for Native students as, “in particular lower self-esteem, lower community worth, less capacity to generate achievement-related possible selves, and greater levels of negative effect.”

As for supporters’ claims such names are meant to honor Native Americans, the authors wrote, “there was no evidence from any study that Native American mascots foster positive or beneficial psychosocial effects for Native Americans.”

Fryberg et al co-authored another study, in which she and her team surveyed a thousand Native Americans. In a recent interview with Indian Country Today journalist Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Fryberg said the team’s research showed that “while Native Americans in our sample generally opposed Native mascots, especially the [Washington team’s], attitudes varied according to demographic characteristics (e.g., age, political orientation, education) and the strength of participants’ racial–ethnic identification.”

The study concluded “Native mascots are part of a much larger web of phenomena that contribute to oppression faced by Native Americans and thus it seems clear that these mascots should be eliminated.”

Stephanie Fryberg, professor at the University of Michigan, discusses her study, "Unpacking the Mascot Debate: Native American Identification Predicts Opposition to Native Mascots," whic with Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C., on February 14, 2020.

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser said Friday it is “past time” for her city’s NFL team to change its name and “deal with what offends so many people.”

One state has embraced change on the issue. Last year Maine became the first state to ban the use of Native-themed mascots in schools, colleges and universities.

According to the Washington Post, the Washington team’s name was first defined as a racial slur more than 120 years ago, when Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defined it as “often contemptuous.” Since then dictionaries have defined it as dated, pejorative, a racial slur and derogatory.

“In this historic moment for racial justice, Mayor Bowser’s declaration reflects the growing tide among our nation's leaders and all Americans to choose respect for Native people and all other people of color by ridding our country of the symbols of racism and intolerance that have long marginalized and dehumanized us,” said Fawn Sharp, Quinault, the head of the National Congress of American Indians.

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Sharp called on sports league leaders, schools, and state and local governments to end the use of those stereotypical mascots, saying it harms Natives, particularly the young.

In the trailer for a film slated for completion in 2021, Richard West, Cheyenne and Arapaho, said “When you think of a brave, or warrior, do you think of somebody who is the director of a museum? Do you think of somebody who runs a tribe that runs multimillion-dollar industries? Of course you don’t.”

Richard West was founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Now his son Ben West is co-director with Aviva Kempner of a film “Imagining the Indian.”

The trailer states that in the 100 years after Europeans arrived, the population of Native Americans was reduced by 90 percent. “This legacy of genocide and the attitudes that sit behind it are in every Native person's mind as he or she, even in the 21st century, looks at the name of sports teams and the denigration that is often reflected in the mascots associated with them,” said Richard West.

In the film trailer’s montage of Native Americans speaking on the issue, one person states, ”You know, this country doesn't really do anything voluntarily in terms of granting human rights. It comes from movement and movements educate people.”

“We need truthful history told of the strength and resilience that exist and that are still here, both Native and non-Native,” the film stated.

The movie is being funded by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a federally recognized tribe in Yolo County, California.

Marshal McKinley, Yocha Dehe Wintun, is chairman of his nation. In a 2014 video announcing the tribe was joining the Change the Mascot campaign, he said, “We want to draw attention to the pain. ... In my opinion, the R-word is as derogatory a slur as the N-word.”

McKinley said the Washington, D.C., team’s name comes from bounty hunting. “This is how severe this name is to us. When this name first came to be, it was a vehicle for people to bring the victims of violence into an office so they could collect a bounty,” McKinley said.

McKinley said changing mascot names is just the first step, though.

“We have to change our racist attitude towards one another. And the Native Americans have been at the bottom of the change ladder until now,” he said.

He said he thinks the mascot campaign “will shed some well-deserved light on the trauma, and the disadvantaged people on reservations and throughout the country that are Native American, that really haven't had this opportunity to talk about the pain and the anguish that this kind of racism puts us through,” McKinley said.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a longtime Alaska journalist.

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