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Athletic Team Mascots

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Mascots originally represented objects, mostly in the form of human or animal characters, which were thought to bring good fortune and success to individuals, teams or organizations. While mascots have been in use in France for ages, they gained popularity in the UK, and the USA, only after the translation of Edmond Audran’s comic operetta La Mascotte into English in the late 1800s, and the subsequent introduction of a new word, the Mascot, in the English Language.

The original usage of mascots was harmless enough and they were largely used as organizational symbols, rallying points and bonding tools for team unity. Over time their use in the United States took a strange turn; Native American or Indian characters came to be increasingly adopted as mascots by school and college sports teams and their exploitation for this purpose became a persistent and pervasive facet of American culture. Numerous professional and well known athletics and sport teams still use Native American characters and are deeply attached to them.

About 100 U.S. colleges sport Indian mascots or names today. At the high school level, more than 1,000 schools use such mascots. Five professional sports teams use Indian images: the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball; the NBA’s Golden State Warriors; and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins. (Native American Mascots Big Issue in College Sports)

 Even though some colleges like Stanford and Dartmouth have abandoned the use of their Native American mascots, numerous schools still refer to their teams as the Indians, the Apaches, the Redskins or the Braves.

While the “Indian” origin of these icons differ from team to team, either having been specifically adopted, or having come about from organic social evolution, the pervasive use of Native Americans as mascots for sports teams is grounded in unique social and historical conditions, or more specifically, distinctive sets of social and historical contexts that made it gratifying and pleasurable for white Euro Americans  to integrate images of Native Americans in sporting, athletic, and physical contexts. These include (a) the tendency of Euro Americans to associate Native Americans with physical as opposed to intellectual ability, (b) long established practices to assume the roles of Indians in play situations, (c) their post conquest empowerment to appropriate, invent, and otherwise represent Native Americans, and to long for aspects of their cultures that had been destroyed by conquest and (d) the proliferation of Native American culture and history through comic books, exhibitions, spectacles and other entertainment avenues. (King and Springwood 4) The use of “Indians” in play situations of young males has also been felt to be instrumental in their emotional attachment and continued association with sporting activities of young male adults.

 Many sporting events have elaborate rituals like the ones that occur on fall Saturdays at Florida State University, where in front of thousands of fans, the school’s mascot, a Native American figure called Chief Osceola gallops into the stadium atop his powerful horse Renegade carrying a flaming spear. Horse and rider charge from one end of the field to the other following which the chief plunges his spear into a likeness of Chief Osceola painted on the grass, adding to the excitement of the game. While these actions are meant to increase spectator interest and enjoyment, much in the nature of cheerleaders in short skirts, their continued use has led to a ritualization that has become essential and integral to team sports and spectator involvement.   (Native American Mascots Big Issue in College Sports)

In recent years the use of these mascots has become an increasing matter of contention and debate with numerous people decrying their use as an intolerable and oppressive social practice.

Across the United States and Canada, individuals and organizations, from high school students and teachers to the American Indian Movement and the National Congress of American Indians, passionately and aggressively have contested Native American mascots, forcing public debates and policy changes.   (King and Springwood 4)

Public opinion started growing against the use of Native Americans as mascots for sports teams,   since the early nineties, with media coverage and public opinion increasingly coming around to the opinion that their widespread use by sports teams, at the school, college and university, as well as by professional and semi-professional teams was instrumental in degrading and ridiculing Native Americans. The pervasive use of such characters from the community in cartoonish representations by hundreds of schools and colleges was instrumental in perpetuating widely held stereotypes of Native Americans as a primitive people who had not progressed and still existed in a three hundred year time warp, even as the world around them advanced rapidly and changed beyond recognition.

Reactions against the use of Native Americans as team mascots originate from two distinct sections, namely concerned segments of mainstream America and from the Native Americans themselves and are manifested in different ways. Mainstream community and media opinion against the use of Native Americans as icons focus on the extreme disrespect such actions inherently carry against members of the community and express concern that their continuance perpetuates cultural stereotypes as lazy, unreliable and primitive, and by doing so add to the problems of unemployment, alcoholism and dependency that still exist in the social structure of Native Americans. (Jackson and Lyons)

While these opinions are of course seconded by Native Americans their outpouring against the practice additionally contains the anguish, despair, and hurt that can be exhibited only by people who actually face oppression, and feel and experience the humiliation of being constantly treated with condescension and ridicule. While Native American writer Tom Giago requested the perpetrators to “stop insulting the spirituality and the traditional beliefs of the Indian people by making us mascots for the athletic teams” and further asked  “Is that asking too much of America?”, (Jackson and Lyons) other voices from the community also contain a tragic and genuine anguish.

Dennis Banks, a member of the American Indian Movement, exclaimed: Why do these people continue to make mockery of our culture? We Indian people never looked the way these caricatures portray our culture. Nor have we ever made mockery of the white people. So then why do they do this to us? It is painful to see a mockery of our ways (1993, p. 5).   (Jackson and Lyons)

Much of the persisting enthusiasm in continuing to use mascots stems from the substantial monetary implications of the activity and the financial benefits that arise to organizations, universities and suppliers. The sale of items like jerseys, hats, inflatable chairs and other merchandisable goods leads to transactions involving millions of dollars, and contributors very often link very substantial donations and endowments, even commitments to build stadiums to the continued use of existing Native American mascots. American society is deeply involved in branding, and team managements know that popular mascots are enormously powerful branding tools that can be used effectively for increasing supporter base, motivating existing fans, and raising money.

Alumni associations also exert great pressure on college administrations not to remove mascots, icons and emblems relating to colleges that they can relate to. Ralph Engelstad, a casino magnate once committed 100 million GBP to his alma mater, the University of Dakota for building an 11,500 seat modern hockey stadium. Objecting to the University decision to review the team nickname the Fighting Sioux he threatened to withdraw his offer if the University went ahead with any plans to change the team name. In a clear surrender to the dictates of big money the University of Dakota dropped its commission to study the controversy around the name and assured Engelstad that the Fighting Sioux would continue to represent the college sports team.  (Native American Mascots Big Issue in College Sports)

While there is considerable pressure to keep team mascots going, the movement for their removal from intrinsically multi cultural institutions like sports teams is gaining momentum. Across the United States and Canada, individuals and organizations, from high school students and teachers to the American Indian Movement and the National Congress of American Indians, passionately and aggressively have contested Native American mascots, forcing public debates and policy changes. Numerous national and regional organizations are pushing for the elimination of the practice and Native American groups carry on a quiet and persistent campaign that is beginning to get results and increase public understanding of their stand. The American Anthropological, in a statement makes the following stand.

The persistence of such officially sanctioned, stereotypical presentations humiliates American Indian people, trivializes the scholarship of anthropologists, undermines the learning environment for all students, and seriously compromises efforts to promote diversity on school and college campuses. (Mitten)

The US commission on civil rights has also condemned the use of such images and nicknames as sports symbols and stated that while the commission does not prescribe how people chose to express themselves, the use of such symbols is disrespectful and insensitive to American Indians and that schools have a responsibility to educate their students in order to ensure misrepresentations about cultures or people should not be perpetuated. (US Commission on Civil Rights condemns the use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols)

Despite growing opposition, proponents of the continuance of Native American characters as icons and symbols feel that the issue is relatively minor and should not be treated as a national issue of grave importance. Loss of money is an issue of utmost importance and the withdrawal of mascot use can certainly hurt the finances and prospects of numerous school and college teams. (Oregon educators lobby to keep mascots) Apart from the issue of finances, supporters also state that their espousal of mascots, far from showing disrespect to any community, embody a national affection for an integral part of American history. The use of mascots, while not denigrating the Native American community in any way actually reinforces the concept of Native Americans as being a brave and fearless people and by associating such qualities with sports teams builds pride, bonding and belonging.

During the state Department of Education meeting on Tuesday, Reedsport Superintendent Forrest Bell said his own Native American students are in full support of the school’s tribal-themed mascot. They feel very proud that our school is the Braves, Bell said of those 14 students, and they like our logo and they all say they think it is very important to keep it. (Oregon educators lobby to keep mascots)

 While this debate shows no signs of ending, and the First Amendment of the constitution of the United States embodies the right to freedom of expression, increasing numbers of people are beginning to feel that continuance of such practices are deplorable and need to be phased out from caring, sensitive and multicultural societies. The change, in this case, has to be at a social level. Parents and primary and secondary school teachers need to take the responsibility to orient their children and students towards respecting different communities. Continued efforts in this direction will ensure the gradual phasing out of culturally disrespectful practices and put an end to the Braves, the Tomahawks and Apaches. Chief Osceola will be able to die peacefully in his sleep. Only then will American society show its empathy for Native Americans, a need that has escaped it for centuries.

Works Cited

Jackson, E. Newton, and Robert Lyons. “Perpetuating the Wrong Image of Native Americans.” JOPERD–The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 68.4 (1997): 4+. Questia. 28 Oct. 2007 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002237954>.

King, C. Richard, and Charles Fruehling Springwood, eds. Team Spirits:  The Native American Mascots Controversy.  Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. Questia. 28 Oct. 2007 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=109802129>.

Mitten, Lisa, The Mascot Issue, 17 Feb 1999, Native Culture Links, 27 Oct, 2007, <http:// www.nativeculturelinks.com/mascots.html>

Native American Mascots Big Issue in College Sports, 9 May, 2001, Tolerance.org, 27 Oct 2007, <http:// www.tolerance.org/news/article_tol.jsp>

Oregon Educators Lobby to Keep Mascots, 24 Oct. 2007, United Press International, 27 Oct 2007, <http:// www.upi.com/NewsTrack/Top_News/2007/10/24/oregon_educators_lobby_to_keep_mascots/3647>


           <http:// www.usccr.gov/press/archives/2001/041601.htm>

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