Your “Tradition” Is My Pain: How Race-Based Mascots Inflict Real Harm On Native Americans

Let me ask you a question. When was the last time you saw a thoroughly modern Native American in a film or a TV show? Now, I’m not asking the last time you saw a contemporary film or TV show that has Native American character based in the 18th or 19th centuries. I’m asking when you last saw a Native American character firmly grounded in the present—an investment banker clad in a tailored suit or as a blue vested Wal-Mart greeter—anything that acknowledges the continued existence of 5.2 million Native Americans in the United States with something beyond harmful stereotypes. Put away all of the feathered heads plastered in profile on the sides of helmets and the men in warpaint charging onto a football field at halftime. Cast aside all the old Westerns and the revisionist histories filled with ultra-spiritual shamanic characters and brave, buckskin-clad warriors. Can you remember the last time you saw a Native American who wasn’t hidden in history or reduced to a two-dimensional stereotype?

I’ll give you time to think, but don’t feel too bad if you come up with nothing. Even with the aid of Google, I could only come up of 3 instances in the past 15 years of popular media that featured non-stereotypical modern depictions of Native folks: John Redcorn and Joseph on King Of The Hill, Kicking Wing in Joe Dirt, and Ken Hotate on Parks and Recreation. That’s it. Now, I’m sure there are some other recent examples that I’m not familiar with—particularly with regards to non-recurring characters on TV shows—but my broader point is that Native Americans are all but invisible in popular culture.

Even when you include historical representations, content analyses show that Native Americans are only featured in anywhere from 0% to 0.4% of popular films and television shows, less than 1% of children’s cartoons and 0.09% of video game characters. For the vast majority of Americans, the modern Native American simply isn’t there. As a result of this, the primary exposure many non-Native folks get to Native Americans is through the deeply flawed and Eurocentric reading of US history that is taught in our schools and depicted in popular media, and the whitewashed narratives promoted through national holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, and Native mascots.

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For many in the United States, this type of representation of Native Americans is the only one they ever encounter

Over the past 50 years, there has been no shortage of rationales and ad hoc justifications for the continued existence of American Indian mascots by supporters of the schools and sports teams who use them—and they’re all wrong. The very fact that we have made it to the year 2015 with a professional football franchise that uses a dictionary defined racial slur as its team name does not speak so much to the validity of its continued existence, but to the degree with which Native Americans have been marginalized and deemed second-class citizens by broad swaths of our society.

Hail To The [Expletive Deleted]s

Contrary to what Washington team owner Daniel Snyder might say, there is nothing honorable in using hate speech to brand a professional sports team. It takes a deluded mind to honestly believe that naming a professional, college, or high school sports team after an entire race of people, festooning all manner of equipment and merchandise with a stereotypical representation of them and singing fight songs and performing gestures that make a mockery of their culture constitutes an honorable gesture. Evidence of such delusion was on full display in a letter Snyder wrote to season ticket holders in 2013, where he said, “when I consider the Washington R**skins name, I think of what it stands for. I think of the Washington R**skins traditions and pride I want to share with my three children, just as my father shared with me.” Not everyone would not second Snyder’s sentiments.

“I understand what tradition is, but you took a tradition that wasn’t yours”, Sarah LittleRedfeather Kalmanson told me when asked about supporters of teams with race-based mascots. Kalmanson, a Native American of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) descent who splits her time doing graphic design work and marketing between her own independent business and the Native-focused environmental group Honor The Earth, has been integral in building the Not Your Mascots movement that is on the front lines of eliminating the perpetuation of harmful Native American stereotypes. Like all of her Native colleagues in the movement, Kalmanson’s fight is not solely academic or theoretical, but is also rooted in years of stigmatization and hard won experience.

Kalmanson, whose father was in the Air Force, spent most of her childhood bouncing around from base to base, even spending a couple years in England where she received no reprieve from racial discrimination, but the most painful memories she has were accrued here in the States. “I was on the pom-pom squad when I was in high school here in Wisconsin and I remember being mortified at students doing the ‘woo-woo’ face and the tomahawk chop”, Kalmanson said. “I had a long and difficult journey to find myself. I can recall seeing myself and it would hurt. It really would…and then, when I was in my twenties, I just started self-searching and remembering.”

Mark Denning, an educator and lecturer in American Indian history and culture and member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, had similar experiences, although from the other side of the gender line. In the late 1970s, while a student at Marquette University, Denning was approached by the school to portray their new mascot, “The Warrior”, which was being introduced to replace the absurdly insulting “Willie Wampum”, a mascot that consisted of a student dressed up in stereotypical Native American garb, with a tomahawk and a massive papier-mâché head that looked like a cross between Chief Wahoo and one of the California Raisins. At first, Denning was supportive of the product—after all, a human likeness surely seems preferable to a gross caricature—but over time he began to feel denigrated and disrespected by the whole thing.

“After a while, I realized that they we’re using us for fun.” Denning told me when I sat down with him at the headquarters for Southeastern Oneida Tribal Services in Milwaukee. “Students at the basketball games were like, ‘We’re here to be entertained. We aren’t here for reality.’ Ultimately, Sports is about pretend. It’s about being entertained. And we need to look at what we find entertaining.” This whole ordeal led Denning to become a one of the nation’s leading advocates against race-based mascots and likely served as a catalyst in spurring him on to seek a greater connection with his cultural and communal roots. As with Sarah LittleRedfeather Kalmanson, this didn’t happen overnight and, through the process of introspection and self-discovery, Denning became much more attuned to the ways in which broader cultural conceptions of Native Americans affected his life. One instance that he shared with me happened when Denning was 15:

“When I was a freshman in high school, I decided to go out for the football team. When I got to practice, my coach looked at me and said, ‘Indians are really tough’ and threw me onto the varsity team.” Denning said. “I was in 9th grade & I didn’t have any business playing with those guys, but he put me out there because he had this preconceived notion of what an Indian was supposed to be and I just remember getting crushed. His idea of who American Indians were could get me hurt.”

By their very nature, mascots are 2-dimensional conceptions. They are designed to be caricatures, not representations of an entire race of people, and the effects from the consistent use of Native mascots as, for many people, the primary way in which they view Native Americans themselves are very real and profound. In Mark Denning’s case when he tried out for football team in high school, the hyper-masculinity and “Warrior-Indian” persona that is so often projected by sports team mascots and popular media, led this adult, white coach to implicitly assume that a 15-year old Denning could play with boys that were much older and stronger than he was because “Indians are really tough.”

This Isn’t About Opinion—It’s About Fact

The debate over race-based mascots is not about political correctness or offensiveness—it is about the psychological effects produced by the continued portrayal of 1.6% of our society as something less than human. I say this not as conjecture or opinion, but as scientifically validated fact. In recent years, the work of researchers like Dr. Stephanie Fryberg have shown time and again that when it comes to negative effects of race-based mascots, “[the] harm is real and substantive, with the significance rising far beyond the conventional argument related to ‘offensiveness’”. Study after study has demonstrated that Native American mascots have a tangible, deleterious impact on Native youth and adults, lowering their self-esteem and reducing their belief in both the abilities of their communities to effect change and their chances for achievement later in life. At the same time, these studies have illustrated that white students actually receive a self-esteem boost from the use of Native mascot imagery and that the stereotyping of Native Americans carries over into white students willingness to internalize stereotypes of other races.

Even more damning for proponents of race-based mascots is that the research has shown that the psychological damage to Native Americans is the same regardless of whether the mascot is a gross caricature like the Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians or a more “respectful” mascot, like Chief Osceola of the Florida State Seminoles and that the amount of harm done to Native Americans who say they agreed with the use of Native mascots is actually greater than those who oppose them. This means that, whenever a team owner like Daniel Snyder presents a few examples of Native Americans who aren’t opposed to the R**skins name and likeness, those are actually the people most negatively impacted by its usage.

With much of this research in mind, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution in 2005 calling for the immediate retirement of all Native American mascots as they have demonstrably harmful effects on Native children and, “teach non-Indian children that it’s acceptable to participate in culturally abusive behavior and perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions about American Indian culture.” And the APA aren’t alone. In the past 20 years or so, there have been hundreds of professional associations, human rights groups, Native American organizations, media outlets, religious leaders and politicians who have come out against the use of the term r**skin in specific and the continued existence of Native American mascots in general. It would take entirely too much ink to list all of the individuals and organizations who have publicly opposed race-based mascots, but a representative sampling might include President Obama, all 3 Democratic candidates for president, over 45 US Senators, the ACLU, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the United Church of Christ, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post.


The front page of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune the day after a massive protest against the Washington R**skins last year

And yet, despite the recent victory for American Indian activists in getting the University of North Dakota to remove its moniker of “The Fighting Sioux” and Adidas’s recent offer to help any high school with a Native American mascot redesign their image and equipment, progress has been maddeningly slow. Mark Denning believes a lot of the staying power of these race-based mascots lies in the ways in which the debate itself is framed, saying that conservatives have turned the issue of Native mascots into a “siren song” for free speech and less government presence, with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on lead vocals.

A Conservative Backlash in Wisconsin’s Capital

In 2010, then-Governor Jerry Doyle (D) signed into law Senate Bill 250, a landmark piece of legislation that made Wisconsin the first state in the nation to allow individuals to petition the state for removal of race-based mascots and placed the burden of proof on the state to provide clear and convincing evidence that the school’s race-based mascot does not promote discrimination, pupil harassment or stereotyping. When Walker inherited the bill upon his election, he quickly set about using it as a political prop to bolster his conservative credentials.

“SB 250 wound up being on the front lines in the ideological battle against minorities” Denning said. “It had all of the trappings of great political theater and it allowed conservatives to ring the bell of individualism loud and clear. The irony of it all is that while, on the larger scale, it’s all about individualism and less government, on the small scale it’s hurting individual people.”

Carol and Harvey Gunderson were two Wisconsinites who had spent much of their lives fighting against race-based mascots and had used the opportunities provided by SB 250 within their school district in the western portion of the state. In 2010, the Osseo-Fairchild school district became the first in the state to have the Department of Public Instruction order them to remove their race-based mascot, The Chieftains, and replace it with something that didn’t discriminate, stereotype or promote the public harassment of a racial subset of students. SB 250 may have made the removal of the mascot possible, but it certainly didn’t make it easy.

A member of the Oneida Nation, Carol knew the kind of backlash that would come at them if they tried to change the Osseo-Fairchild mascot and gave her husband a a verbal disclaimer of sorts when they set out. “Before this all started, Carol told me, ‘Harv, you know if we get involved in this we’re going to be the most hated people in the county’” said Harvey, who as his surname might suggest, is of Norwegian heritage. “’But, if you’re ready to have a cross burned on your lawn, then alright’…and I said alright, so here we are.” Since the couple didn’t have any kids, they volunteered to be on the front lines as the de facto faces of the campaign, but that didn’t stop collateral damage from happening to others, like fellow Native American activist Gary Montana.

“We had to pull Gary’s girls out of school and home school them the last couple weeks of school because things got so bad.” Carol told me. “We made sure not to put his name on the official complaint, to try and protect the kids, but it didn’t work. These families become the lightening rod.”

Part of what made SB 250 such an effective piece of legislation was that it allowed for a single person—in theory anonymously—to file a complaint with state about a race-based mascot. When Scott Walker and the Republican Party in Wisconsin set about to amend the legislation, it was this aspect of it that they focused on. Senate Bill 317, which was eventually signed into law by Governor Walker in December of 2013, did a number of things that made the removal of race-based mascots more difficult, namely placing the burden of proof on the petitioner rather than on the state and requiring that the petitioners collect the equivalent of at least 10% of that school district’s student population in a 120 day period if they wanted the complaint to be filed.

This new stipulation is problematic for a number of reasons, the primary one being that only 1.1% of Wisconsin’s population is Native American. Thus, even if every single Native person signed the petition to file the complaint, the filers would still need to get the remaining 90% of the signatures from non-Native residents, which in the vast majority of Wisconsin counties means getting signatures from whites who are likely to be emotionally invested in the team name. In 2010, the combined populations of Osseo and Fairchild added up to a total of 2,044. Of that 2,044 a mere 18 were of American Indian origin and 1,977 were non-hispanic whites. Under the current rules for filing a complaint against schools with race-based mascots, nothing would have happened.

Of Headdresses & Feathers

Barb Munson, a member of the Oneida Nation who is the chairperson of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association “Indian” Mascot and Logo Task Force has been fighting this fight for the bulk of her adult life and over time, she’s come to an understanding of the underlying issues behind the mascot issue.

“At the very beginning of all this we kept on thinking, ‘why don’t they get it?’” Munson said when she spoke with me from her home in the town of Mosinee in central Wisconsin. “But, eventually, we just came to the realization that what this is all about is systemic racism…How is it good educational policy to teach children to wear headdresses and feathers? That’s teaching children hands-on racism in school. Would you have your kids do a blackface minstrel show? Of course not.”

When I asked Munson if she saw a viable way to reconcile the differences between those who support and oppose the mascots, she was circumspect, but hopeful.

“It is my responsibility to get up, say my morning and evening prayers in my native language and be thankful.” Munson told me. “I know that people really are good and if people are acting badly there’s something wrong, but it’s going to take more than research and education to resolve this…it’s going to take a desire to create a better society.”

Sarah LittleRedfeather Kalmanson echoed Munson’s sentiments, but she seemed to place more faith in the power of the anti-race-based mascot movement and groups like Not Your Mascots than the inherent goodness of her detractors. As we were talking, the subject of conversation switched from the use of race-based mascots in general to the ways in which those mascots hijack items of deep spiritual importance to Native American tribes, such as the headdress and use of eagle feathers. Kalmanson spoke at length and with great passion about how it had taken her decades to do enough within her community to earn the right have even one or two feathers bestowed upon her and tried to explain to me—and to other non-Native folks—the significance they held for her:

“You know how deeply honored the Purple Heart is? Think about how sacred and revered an object that is and ask yourself if there is anyone manufacturing Purple Hearts for monetary gain? Probably not. That’s how I feel about the misappropriation of the headdress.”

Will that argument sway the opinions of many supporters of teams with race-based mascot names? Probably not. But, ultimately, their opinions will be of little consequence because the fight against the continued existence of these mascots and monikers is not about public opinion, nor is about political correctness or “offensiveness” or free speech. This fight is about treating the 5.2 million Native Americans that live in the United States as human beings rather than tomahawk-toting caricatures. It is about acknowledging that the scientifically proven damage that these mascots do to the self-esteem and self-worth of Native Americans is linked to the fact that Native youth have the highest rate of suicide of any racial or ethnic group in America. And it is about realizing that the race-based mascot debate isn’t about hurt feelings so much as it is hurt people.


If you would like to learn more about the fight to stop the misappropriation of Native American identities and imagery in American culture in general and among high school, college and professional sports teams in particular, I encourage you to go to the Not Your Mascots website and to follow them on Twitter and on Facebook.

Categories: Native American News, Race, Sports

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