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Monday, January 14, 2013

That Mascot Doesn't Honor Anyone

The Washington R****ns name and mascot* (and the many like it) rely upon caricatured stereotypes of those who have been historically subordinated. These negative images are promoted for the entertainment and profit of the dominant culture. Though there are, of course, varying perspectives within the many diverse native communities, this practice has long been decried as inappropriate.

The consequences are real. In 2005, the American Psychological Association released its 'Resolution Recommending Retirement of American Indian Mascots,' which cited the many "harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people."

Given that most such mascots are associated with schools, we should be particularly vigilant. But as of 2006, over 2,500 elementary and high schools use American Indian mascots. Thus, at an early age we promote the idea that stereotyping marginalized groups is acceptable.

Sports fans routinely claim they are 'honoring' Native American cultures by painting their faces red and sticking plastic feathers in their hair.  But perhaps if we truly wanted to honor indigenous cultures, we would begin by honoring their repeated requests to cease and desist with such mockeries. If we really wanted to honor, perhaps we would take the time to learn the true historiescultures, and stories, rather than promoting monolithic and inaccurate images. If we honestly wanted to honor, we might show interest beyond the moments in which we are simply interested in appropriating for our own gain.

Of the most common sports mascots, most are animals (Eagles, Bears, Falcons, Lions) or objects (Rockets, Jets, Sox, Rockies). What does it say when we add to this list teams like the Chiefs, Braves, and Indians? Even when other human beings are used as mascots, it is as a profession, not as a race or ethnicity itself (Packers, Steelers, Cowboys).

People of color are often otherized to the point of being not fully human. We see the manifestations of this tendency is the use of people as props in advertisements (links NSFW), and as Halloween costumes. When we lose our compassion for each other as fellow human beings, objectification and dehumanization facilitate violence and the devaluation of life.

Some of the ease with which we employ such objectification speaks to the invisibility of native cultures within our daily lives. Would you paint your face black, wear an afro wig and prance around the football field trying to imitate your perceptions of black people? Would you lead a pep rally including a fake communion ceremony and selling plastic toy crucifixes as souvenirs?

Given the history of white culture's relationship with American Indian populations, continued profit through the use of caricatured imagery seems particularly heinous. Yet it is all too commonplace. It ushers an environment where it is appropriate for opposing teams to shout things like "hey, Cowboys, finish off those R*****ns" or "Kill the Indians!”

And yet, as a nation, we continue to cling to our mascots like graven idols. We cite years of tradition, argue that offense wasn't intended and so it shouldn't be taken. But ultimately, majority culture shouldn't get a say. It's not about pleasing the crowd's desire to be entertained. We have been repeatedly asked to cease our behavior and yet we have patently refused. Indeed, “when someone says you are hurting them by your action, if you persist – then the harm becomes intentional.”

What does that say about our heart for our neighbor? This neighbor from whom we've stolen land and maligned for generations. The issue of sports mascots is one small piece of a much larger network of injustices against American Indian nations. Most of these issues continue to be ignored or ridiculed.

We need to consider seriously what is at stake when we prioritize our own team pride over the humanity and respect of our sisters and brothers. Are we really more loyal to a mascot than to the reconciled body of Christ?

Have you attended a school that uses imagery of American Indian stereotypes as a mascot? How would your community react to calls for change? What would be your witness? 

Take a look at this great video that drives the point home (but check out this commentary as well):

*Due to its use as a racial slur, BTSF and others choose not to employ the official name, out of respect for those traditionally targeted by the term. 


  1. This thought passed my mind when I saw the Seattle Seahawks play the Washington team a couple weeks ago; correct me if I'm wrong, but the Seahawks' use of American Indian imagery seems more celebratory than offensive. (It does help that the city of Seattle was named after Chief Seattle.) This gives me hope that there is a productive place for American Indian signs and symbols in the world of mainstream sports. (As a Swedish-American, I can only come to this issue from the outside, as "Viking" mascots tend more towards the category of profession-based mascots, like the Steelers, rather than the category of ethnicity. So please correct me if I am wrong.)

  2. hi Kaleb! Thanks for your comment!

    I have to be honest and say I didn't realize that the Seahawks had American Indian associations (vs an animal mascot like the Bears etc) until you pointed it out. Thank you for doing so. It think it helps that the means of 'honoring' is with an animal symbol rather than a human being. Of course it would ultimately be up to the native tribes of the area whether the Seahawk is sacred and inappropriate for use. I don't know of objections, but as I mentioned, was unfamiliar with the association. It would be very interesting to look into. It could very well be an example of respectful honoring through mascots.

    Another one to look at might be FSU, which is often represented by the Seminole Nation. FSU has a long standing history and partnership. The university actively request students and newspapers not refer to the Seminole people as 'mascots,' and they are careful to be respectful at all sporting events. They are in close dialogue with representatives of the Seminole Nation and make decisions jointly and respectfully. The partnership is of course essential. I'm not sure where it stand currently in it's reception, but last I heard it was a positive relationship.

    I tend to agree with you that 'Vikings' is more of a profession though I am aware that there have been some concerns citing the idea that the nickname perpetuates unfair stereotypes about early Scandinavian settlers to the Minnesota area. Again, I would defer to those whose heritage is being represented, and it seems (at least at the moment) that few objections have been raised.

  3. There are holes in the argument, but overall, I agree.

    1) The relationship between Florida State and the Seminole Nation IS one example of honoring the Seminole culture. The student who dresses as the "mascot" for games has to go through a lot to be chosen to do so.

    2) "The Saints" could easily be offensive to Catholics or Christians.

    3) While their presence SHOWS the need for a heart change, you can't legislate that heart change, and the racism won't disappear if the Washington Redskins become the Washington Senators, or something like that. That's like painting your oranges red and calling them apples.

  4. Joe, thanks for your input. I'm glad you recognize how complicated this issue is and that it goes well beyond a 1000-word blog post. I appreciate the opportunity to expand on some of the issues here:

    You are right in bringing up FSU, which has a long standing history and partnership with the Seminole Nation, as it may serve as a model moving forward. The university actively request students and newspapers not refer to dressed student as 'mascots,' and they are careful to be respectful at all sporting events. They are in close dialogue with representatives of the Seminole Nation and make decisions jointly and respectfully. The partnership is of course essential. It is for this reason that the 2010 Wisconsin law against offensive mascots allows schools to apply for an exemption if they obtain written permission from a partnering tribe that acknowledges consent and endorsement of the practice. Every tribe is different and so will of course have autonomous sensibilities about how their own iconography aught to be used.

    Of course, you understand that the existence of FSU example does not make the hundreds of offensive examples any less offensive. Neither does a 'turn about is fair play' argument, given the disproportionate popularity of 'Indian' mascots. To my knowledge, Saints do not typically use mimics of sacred iconography as part of their franchise. The Pope does not run onto the field and do a silly dance. Cheerleaders do not dress as sexy nuns. Crucifixes are not sold and waved around to rally the players. A parody of the Lord's prayer is not chanted after touch downs. Moreover, much of New Orleans is Catholic, allowing opportunity for self-determination in a way not possible for a marginalized and often invisible minority like American Indians. Though Catholics have been on the receiving end of prejudice in this country, by in large it has not had the devastating and accumulated effect that systematic discrimination against indigenous nations has had, which makes the mockery is particularly grating. Nevertheless, should Catholics object to its association with the team, then I do believe it should be respected. Just as I believe the repeated objections from native tribes should be respected, and to ignore them is offensive in itself.

    You last point about the legislation of change is such an important one. Yes indeed!! We cannot legislate the heart. This is why businesses are now more integrated than our churches. This speaks to the importance of Christian communities using our understanding of grace, justice, reconciliation to help usher in the change that will never come from mandated regulations. We have such an important role to play.

  5. Good perspective on the case of FSU and the Seminole Nation:

    "But the hard thing about FSU is that it always gives fodder to the mascot defenders. “But the Seminole approve of Florida State! They don’t care!” Hopefully I’ve made a bit of a case as to why they’ve consented to have their image used, but I also want to point out that just because one faction of a marginalized group believes one thing, it doesn’t mean that everyone feels that way. Can you imagine if we expected all white folks to feel the same about a controversial issue… like gun control, for example? "

  6. Folks in DC have been clamoring for the team's victorious return to the city. But mayor Vincent Gray has raised familiar concerns, stating the franchise would need to seriously consider changing the team's name and mascot before planning a move:


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