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Racism and Ignorance

August 9, 2005

Eighteen colleges are now on the mascot pariah list of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Three are Braves. Six are Indians. Four identify as specific tribes -- Seminoles, Utes, Chippewas, and Choctaws. Carthage College calls itself the Redmen. The University of Illinois has created its own tribe, the Fighting Illini. The last university on the list -- Southeastern Oklahoma State -- doesn't beat around the bush or go for modifiers. Its team name is the Savages.

American Indian leaders and activists have objected to their tribes' use as sports mascots since the 1970s, but the public has shrugged its shoulders and gone on cheering for its favorite Indians and Redskins, a term one linguist compared to Darkies. It is hard to have a serious public discussion about sports mascots because most of us don't know enough history to put the debate into historical context. Native Americans know this history. These are their family stories.

American Indian sports mascots exist under a double bubble of mythological padding. One layer is the mythology that surrounds, in this case, college sports and the "student athlete." The other consists of the deeply planted myths we have absorbed about American Indians. Under all this mythological wrapping, our thinking tends to get fuzzy. Fake Indians don't seem problematic because they are so very normal, just part of our "cultural wallpaper," in the words of Jay Rosenstein, who made the documentary film In Whose Honor?

The mascot debate is actually the latest in a long series of battles over who controls American Indian culture. Since most of us never learned the history of white/Native relations in our country, the issue seems to have sprung out of nowhere. Until I wrote a book about sports mascots, I never knew the history of forced assimilation. But culture was as much a battleground as land. The U.S. government conducted a strenuous campaign to wipe out American Indian cultures, religions, and languages. American Indian children were forcibly taken from their families to boarding schools where they were physically punished if they spoke their tribal languages or tried to maintain their religious observances. In a country that prides itself on religious freedom, the First Americans had none until 1934. Before this, Native people faced sanctions even when trying to conduct ceremonies and dances on their own reservations. One of the few historical incidents many of us do know about, the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee, took place because American Indians were gathering to dance at a religious ceremony that the government was determined to suppress.

At the same time that we were trying to destroy American Indian cultures, non-Native Americans loved to dress up and play Indian. What could be more American -- we've been doing it since the Boston Tea Party. Mascot performances like Chief Illiniwek, a fictional chief who dances at Illinois on the 50-yard line at halftime or Osceola, who gallops in at Florida State University games carrying a burning lance, trace their origins to the Wild West show, traveling big-tent performances that were part of the American circus tradition. This is why mascot performers and Indian profile logos almost always feature feathered headdresses, no matter what tribe they represent. The feathered headdresses are typical of Wild West performers, who were recruited from the Sioux Nation. Buffalo Bill, the best-known Wild West ringmaster claimed, just like modern universities, that his show was both historically accurate and morally uplifting.

Buffalo Bill's signature acts -- the Indian attack on the settler cabin, on the circled wagons, and on the stagecoach -- survived after the circus era as film and television clichés. Wild West shows were filmed and evolved into Westerns. When Americans flocked to Wild West shows, they believed they were seeing the last vestiges of a dying culture. It was true that Native populations were declining. But this idea, that American Indians would disappear like dinosaurs, became so embedded in American mythology that even today many non-Native Americans are startled to encounter a flesh and blood Native person. Boy Scouts were told it was their patriotic duty to learn Indian songs and dances lest they be lost forever. Thrilled by the Wild West performances, college boys and Boy Scouts emulated the showbiz Indians when they created Indian sports mascots, many of which date from the 1920s.

The college boys and Boy Scouts, despite their good intentions, were working under an enormous misperception. Native American people survived. Their populations rebounded. Having paid dearly to save what is left of their cultures, religions and languages, they want to control how they are used and passed on. Understandably, they resent how lightly colleges appropriate their cultures for entertainment at sports events and it is particularly hurtful that this happens in higher education. The United States Commission on Civil Rights pointed this out in April 2001 when it urged non-Native colleges to retire American Indian imagery and names in sports.

Public symbols that use other minority groups have mostly disappeared. They make us all uncomfortable. Can you imagine the Washington Darkies or the Florida State Chicanos? At Sonoma State University, when Jewish groups objected to the Cossacks nickname, they became the Seawolves within two years. If students were to stage minstrel shows, as they did in the 30s, the students would be justifiably criticized. But when America discusses race, the terms are usually black and white. Native Americans say they feel invisible.

The strong attachment students feel for their mascots or nicknames is not instinctual; it is promoted. Students are indoctrinated into a campus cult of racial stereotyping. Critical thinking on the subject of the mascot must be discouraged and the school has to promote an anti-educational, anti-intellectual reaction. This is even more disturbing because it takes place in a setting of talk about "honoring" Indians. But Indian mascots are fantasy figures, firmly stuck in the past.

One parallel symbol is Aunt Jemima, the slave cook who loved the plantation so much she didn't want to leave when she was freed. She is a white fantasy that denies and betrays the real history of slavery, just like the mascot Osceola. The real Osceola fought against American expansion into Seminole land and was betrayed when he came in good faith to a peace council with American soldiers. But his mascot reincarnation is happy to welcome Florida State fans.

Knowing this history, Native people find it hard to explain to us why mascots are so offensive. We can't hold up our end of the argument. It's like the modern teenager who looks at the Aunt Jemima syrup bottle, sees a positive depiction of a smiling African-American grandmother, and says, "What's the problem? It's so positive."

The problem isn't this particular logo, but the long pattern of denying the history of slavery that the original Aunt Jemima, with the ads depicting her life history, represents. In addition to slavery, there is another reality we have swept under our historical carpet: how we acquired this land we love so much. When you sweep something that large under the rug, you get bumps. Mascots are bumps in our historical carpet, something we are trying to rearrange and deny to make it more appealing. In our version of the story, American Indians just disappeared and our mascots commemorate them with respect and honor.

But American Indians are not gone and they don't want to be commemorated with a halftime Wild West show by fans that know nothing of their culture. Universities' and fans' proprietary insistence -- this is ours and we'll keep it no matter what you say -- is offensive. When the two sides clash on campuses, the racial hostility gets ugly.

The mascot/nickname/logo issue is about how the majority depicts the minority, so if you go to a reservation and interview people randomly, they may say it's not a concern for them. But listening to Native people who have spent time on the campus at Illinois or at the University of North Dakota, I usually hear strong feelings of frustration and bitterness. In those places, everything Native exists in relation to the mascot or nickname. And because American Indians nearly always oppose the mascot, the hardline students who support the mascot become anti-Indian.

Although the mascots are not intended to be hostile or abusive, the campus climate around them certainly can be, especially for Native students. Native leaders and educators, including the American Congress of American Indians, list mascots and anti-defamation as one of the important issues facing Native people.
Native people want to be in our institutions of higher education, not as mascots and sports souvenirs, but as equals and contemporaries -- as students, faculty and staff. They want their history taught truthfully in the classroom, not presented in a false pageant of white longing.

It is not easy to retire a nickname or mascot. The attachment of fans, their identity as Seminoles or Indians, runs deep. Generations of alumni come out of the woodwork, write letters, threaten to withhold money, bring lawsuits. Education is usually a popular enterprise and educators are taken aback at this kind of controversy. The NCAA has given these schools a perfect opportunity to say, "had to do it, couldn't hobble the sports program." I congratulate the NCAA for declaring that American Indians are not an exception to the non-discrimination policies of higher education and college sports that benefit other minority groups. Name and mascot changes can go very smoothly when the campus leadership is united and when they hold to their resolve that a new sports identity is best for the institution. The NCAA policy will have a ripple effect on high schools, another positive result.

Southeast Missouri State avoided the pariah list by changing its nickname this year. In October I spoke at the ceremony when the Southeast Missouri State Indians were retired, to the sounds of Mohican musician Bill Miller's haunting flute music. Everyone in attendance was positive about the future. Everyone was ready to cheer for the SEMO Redhawks. There's a lot of talk in college sports about respect. I felt it that day.

Bio

Carol Spindel teaches writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy Over American Indian Mascots (NYU Press).

 

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