As a Native American woman, I am regularly confronted with mascot images that dehumanize Native Americans as hostile and aggressive. These images are usually cartoonish depictions of our traditional dress and lifestyle from the 1800s. With two major league baseball teams using offensive monikers and the NFL pre-season starting this week, the onslaught to ridicule Native Americans through mascots is difficult to avoid in professional sports. On the local level, Native American youth are exposed to these harmful images by attending public schools. After years of calling for the change, this week the use of the Killingly, Connecticut high school “Redmen” mascot was finally slated for elimination.
As a twelve-year-old, I attended a middle school in Topeka, Kansas where our mascot was “The Redmen” (now the Ravens). As a sixteen-year-old, I attended a high school in Atchison, Kansas where “The Redmen” is still the mascot.
I had no choice in where I went to public school as it was based on my parents’ residences. The chants and cheers both against and in support of the schools’ sports teams made me feel powerless to defend who I am as a Native person. Dishearteningly, the next generation of Native youth continue to deal with this public ridicule without the ability to defend themselves. The time to ban these mascots and start truthful conversations on the history of the United States is now. On May 17, 2019, Maine became the first to ban state-wide the use of Native American mascots at public schools and all colleges and universities. Both state and federal laws are called for to remedy this oppressive use of Native American images and mascots in educational and sports activities at every level.
On a daily basis, American Indian youth experience negative stereotypes and microaggressions harming their self-esteem according to a 2015 study published by Utah State University psychologists Merill L. Jones and Renee V. Galliher. These same youth have the highest rates of suicide, alcohol related deaths, and the lowest quality of life in the nation. The Center for Disease Control reported in March 2018 that American Indian/Alaska Native suicide rates have been increasing since 2003; between 2004 and 2015 showing, 35 percent of those who have died by suicide were between the ages of 10-24 years old.
Where do Native American youth learn to think of themselves in less than positive ways? The most prevalent places occur in neighborhood school systems and in mainstream sports with derogatory “Indian” mascots that are imposed on Native people against their will. As an undergraduate at Stanford University in the early 1990s, I began to speak out when alumni attempted to bring back “the tomahawk chop” at sports events after the former derogatory “Indians” mascot had been put to rest in 1972 when a petition was presented to the University president by 55 American Indian students and staff at Stanford. The petition identified the mascot as mocking American Indian culture and religion.
What was nostalgia for them amounted to dehumanization for me.
As recently as November of 2018, the “Thanksgiving Day” NFL match pitted the Dallas “Cowboys” team play the DC “Redskins” team. When our ancestors entered into treaties with U.S. officials that provide title to public and private lands, they did so for the benefit of future generations of American Indians, not for our people and youth to be the butt of sports jokes for centuries to come.
Being bombarded in mainstream media, sports broadcasts, and local educational activities amount to an enormous amount of microaggressions for Native youth. There are also the macroaggressions such as the recent incident at Colorado State University where Native youth on a campus visit were interrogated by police when the mother of another potential student on the tour thought they looked suspicious. The two young men had driven from New Mexico to go on the campus tour, but due to the police investigation did not complete the tour and instead drove back home seven hours away. This type of negative stereotyping is particularly insidious in educational institutions as it: 1) normalizes the dehumanization of Indigenous people allowing for all levels of sports to use us as mascots and 2) engrains in our youth that they do not belong in the educational system.
In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a press release calling for the elimination of “Native American images and nicknames” by non-Native schools. In August 2005, the NCAA took positive steps to limit member schools’ tournament play displaying Native American stereotypes by a vote of 17-0 by the Executive Committee. Still, the prevalence at elementary, middle, and high schools continues on leading to each generation of children accepting that it is perfectly fine to “play Indian” at sports events and on Halloween.
The argument that sports mascots honor Natives is hollow and untrue. Suzan Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, the 2014 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has spent decades fighting to remove the Washington “Redskins” name. In a 2017 opinion piece for news source Indianz.com, she stated: “Far from an honor, the team’s name is the worst thing we are called in the English language. It refers to the practice of skinning Native people, a tradition started in the centuries when companies, colonies, territories, and states issued bounty proclamations for dead Indians.” She also noted that these mascots harm the self-esteem of Native youth.
Through centuries of forced assimilation in which our children were kidnapped for civilization training and all manner of abuse, our traditions, customs and ways of life have been regarded as inferior by U.S. governmental policies. Yet, our images have been taken and used as fighting and hostile to justify the dispossession of our lands and the genocidal acts of violence against us. In June 2019, Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, introduced a bill to formally retract the 20 medals of honor awarded for the gunning down of unarmed men, women and children at the village of Wounded Knee in December of 1890. Four Hotchkiss machine guns were used to open fire on the rounded-up Lakota people and after the massacre a pit was dug to throw in the bodies of those killed. The truth of our humanity continues to be suppressed as Indian mascots are paraded on sports fields across the nation.
This same history against Natives occurred in the north by the government of Canada. In a December 2018 decision by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), Brad Gallant, a member of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation Band, prevailed against the city of Mississagua in a settlement requiring the removal of all Indigenous-themed mascots in sports facilities and public spaces. The Ontario Human Rights Commission invited in the perspectives and voices of Indigenous youth and confirmed the harmful impact such mascots produce. As in the NCAA example, this one decision has not yet led to the thorough removal of these insidious negative images of Native people. Federal, state and public officials are called upon to acknowledge and take action to remove dehumanizing mascots of American Indians.
Fighting the use of Indian mascots has been like shadowboxing – the images are pervasive and everywhere. Pinning down one violation has not resulted in the wholesale abandonment of this racist practice. Racism against American Indians should not be America’s favorite pastime. I will keep fighting alongside Native American parents and community leaders for our youth to have equal opportunity in the home of the free spirits of our ancestors. Too much is at stake for us to give up this fight, the lives of our youth are on the line.
Angelique EagleWoman (@ProfEagleWoman) is a law professor, author, mother, advocate on Indigenous issues and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate in South Dakota.