'Indian Spectacle'

Author discusses her new book on the role and long-term impact of Native American mascots of college teams.

May 4, 2015

For decades, many colleges and universities had mascots and team names based on American Indian tribes. Many of these colleges -- under pressure from Native Americans and the National Collegiate Athletic Association -- have dropped those names. But the impact of these team names (and those that remain) is much broader than many people realize, argues a new book, Indian Spectacle: College Mascots and the Anxiety of Modern America (Rutgers University Press). The author is Jennifer Guiliano, assistant professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. Guiliano answered questions about her book in an email interview.

Q: What led you to this topic?

I grew up with Chief Illiniwek [the longtime mascot at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]. My mom's family is from Champaign, so I spent my youth going to games and watching the Chief perform. I lived through the Miami University change from Redskins to Redhawks in 1997 when I was a freshman there. And a few years later, I took a class with sport historian Dan Nathan where he encouraged me to write a community history of the Miami name. From there, it became my master's thesis, then my dissertation, and now this book.

Q: Under pressure from Native Americans and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, many colleges have abandoned Native American team names and mascots. Does the impact of having such mascots remain at the colleges that have since moved on?

Even though universities have "retired" their mascots, there lingers this intense community obsession with remembering these performances and histories. This is particularly true of schools in the Northeast and Midwest, where alumni groups, band groups and students continue to host events and websites dedicated to their mascots. Universities continue to market Indian mascots under "throwback" licensing. You can still buy apparel with Indian mascots and there is a strong market on Amazon, Cafepress.com, eBay and other online stores for "retired" mascots. There are some interesting tensions around this continued availability: colleges continue to profit from these things that they recognize are not appropriate by licensing them to external vendors. They also don't legally pursue shutting down the use of these copyrighted names and images by nonlicensed vendors, which allows these images to proliferate.

Q: What are the common themes you see in the way colleges -- in the mid-20th century, when many just accepted these mascots -- used these symbols?

There are a couple of commonalities among the colleges that adopted mascots in the early and mid-20th century. First, all of these colleges were crafting these massive institution-building campaigns where they were competing with one another for students and sporting audiences. They built these incredible football stadiums and hosted massive events where they solicited donations and sponsorship in order to attract public interest and attention. Second, contrary to today's understanding, the overwhelming majority of these colleges weren't using information about the tribes who lived on their lands. Instead, they were drawing their knowledge from radio, newspapers and things like Wild West shows. They were also learning through organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and the YMCA, where the Indian identity young men were learning about was largely a Plains Indian identity that wasn't representative of either the Sioux tribes nor the Indian communities they now claim to honor today.

Q: Your subtitle talks about "the anxiety of modern America." Can you explain how that relates?

In the early 20th century, white middle-class men were suffering from a number of challenges to their identity. Immigration, urbanization and industrialization were stressing their gendered responsibilities of taking care of their families and bringing home a good wage. It was easy to identify the ethnic poor and the rich. But for middle-class men, the opportunities to communicate their value through warfare, citizenship and everyday responsibilities were under siege. Many of the men who were involved in crafting Indian mascots were men who could be considered progressives who sought to cure the ills of overcrowding, rising poverty and a growing inequality of wealth. They felt this intense sense of competition with one another and sports became one way they expressed this anxiety and competition.

Q: How did the use of these mascots affect public perception of Native Americans and Native Americans at these colleges?

Public perception of Native Americans in the early 20th century was read through white experiences with Indians in the 19th century. So much of what the public knew of Native Americans were either dispatches from violent conflicts in the Midwest and West where newspapers told horrific stories of Indian-on-white violence, or tales of the disappearance of Indians due to population decline. There were, though, plenty of examples of Indians who didn't fit these narrative models -- men and women who attended college, held advanced degrees and ran businesses that benefited their communities. There were artists, musicians, authors, philosophers, politicians, religious leaders and athletes.

Yet mascotry largely happened outside of these actual natives. Mascots and the associated performances around their existence were stories told about some abstract glorious past where Indians no longer existed. They were objects of cultural fascination rather than actual human beings with feelings and lived experiences. As a result, even when confronted with natives at their universities who might have very specific tribal identities, most college students and administrators expected to see headdresses and fringed buckskins rather than accurate tribal identities. Some natives participated in these historically created representations by adopting Sioux tribal dress and customs rather than their own Indian identities.

Q: Some colleges and universities have managed to keep Native American names/mascots. What do you think of these institutions?

Part of what my book argues is that the history of mascots are not the history of any one tribe. Instead, Indian mascots are an amalgam, a carefully constructed rhetoric accompanied by spectacle and theater, that conflate native identities across historical periods and tribal lines. When these mascots were created, they did not originate with specific tribes. They originated with white middle-class men who were seeking to alleviate their own anxiety by creating a community and establishing rituals of belonging. As a result, I think 21st-century attempts to legitimate mascots through tribal approval completely miscasts the history of these identities.

Further, contemporary studies of the effects of these mascots on native children have convincingly revealed that they negatively impact native youth's feelings of self worth. They lead the general public to believe that all natives dressed with headdresses in fringed buckskins and rode into battle on horses screaming at the top of their lungs. Yet native identity historically has been so much more complex than those elements. There is no one native experience or representation, whether individual, communal or tribal. Men and women, young and old, able and disabled, urban and rural, all of these and more construct our understanding of Native Americans. Yet we never capture that complexity in mascot identity, and that's because we are holding onto 19th-century representations and performances as the core of what the public learns about natives. Just because we wrap them in 21st-century approval doesn't mean they are any less relics of a very violent and dehumanizing past.


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