Op-Ed: Native American mascotry creates detrimental atmosphere for all races

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Collage of Native American mascots currently used by professional sports teams. The NFL's Redskins (top left) and Chiefs (top right), the MLB's Braves (bottom left) and Indians (center) and the NHL's Blackhawks (bottom right) all use harmful Native American logos. Image source NFL, MLB and NHL.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but little did we know the repercussions that would follow. Explorers like him may have laid the groundwork for new civilizations, but they simultaneously set in place racist oppression, which persists into modern day.

Native Americans have been persecuted, robbed of their cultures and forced to adapt to Western values all without leaving their ancestral home, America. Reverberations of these injustices are widespread, but one current instance of this oppression is Native American mascotry. 

While Native Americans are prevented from taking ownership of their cultures, mainstream Americans further subordinate Natives through satirical and oppressive mascots, which fail to honor a people integral to this nation’s history and instead promote harmful caricatures. 

Native Americans protest the use of Native American mascotry. In recent decades, many colleges have changed their mascots from former Native American ones. Image source Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Native American mascots became popular in the early twentieth century, at a time when politicians forbade Natives from speaking indigenous languages, practicing their religions and leaving reservations. While Native Americans were veritable prisoners to government land, whites on sports fields performed the very dances that Natives could not perform in their own homes. Mascotry did not originate to celebrate Native Americans, but rather to demean and shame. 

In the words of Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian’s director Kevin Gover, “[Mascotry] is an expression of the idea: ‘We, the white people, won — and we can do anything with you and your imagery and your identity that we choose to do,” he said in an interview with USA today.  

The omnipresence of Native American mascots normalizes derogatory language and desensitizes slurs that are inherently racist and factually incorrect.

The term “redskin” has become popular among sports teams since the creation of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, an organization now worth over a billion dollars. Fans of the team declare that their mascot honors Natives, but in fact, the slur is defined in dictionaries as “offensive” and “to be avoided.” The origins of the word “redskin” are debated, but many scholars believe the term does not originate from the shade of Native’s skin, but rather the red from blood that would cover their skin after colonists scalped them. 

The use of “redskin” and similar terms such as braves, reds, warriors, Indians and chiefs ignore important history in favor of temporary pleasure and humor. The gravity of racism is thus unjustly ignored because Native American mascots send the dangerous message to sports fans that demonizing language is not just tolerated, but welcomed. 

Furthermore, mascots portray Native Americans as stereotypical caricatures and wrongly appropriate sacred symbols and traditions, thus homogenizing the true diversity of an entire race. Native American mascots depict Native people as wild, having unkempt hair, face paint, feather headdresses and spears. But in reality, few modern Native Americans look anything like this. 

Many mascots, portray Native Americans in feather headdresses but fail to explain the symbolism behind the item. In Plains Native American’s cultures — including Sioux, Cherokee, Blackfeet and Crow, each feather on a headdress has a purpose and can only be earned through great heroism, so when a fan arrives at a game dressed in a store-bought headdress, their actions denigrate the garment’s true meaning. 

According to Michael Friedman’s psychological research, tests show that the “presence of Native American mascots results directly in lower self-esteem and lower mood among both Native American adolescents and young adults, as well as increased negative attitudes towards Native Americans among non-Native Americans” regardless of whether or not the subject considered the mascot “offensive”.

Therefore even when mascots like Florida State University’s Seminole claims to “admire and respect” the tribe, their mascots can still incite unseen harm. This appropriation of Native culture subconsciously teaches viewers that Native Americans wear war paint, chant violently and ride on horses. Although the school attempts to honor the Seminoles, the continued use of a Native American mascot creates more harm than good.

This discrimination can also lead to grave repercussions like high rates of substance abuse, depression and suicide among Native Americans. Mascotry causes acute psychological consequences and should be avoided at all costs because there is no such thing as a positive human mascot.

No slur or racist image should ever be seen as an honor because these mascots misuse sacred history and practices of a people integral to this nation”

Native American mascotry has persisted for too long and must end immediately. Mascotry harms not only Native Americans but creates a negative atmosphere for all who inhabit this country. No slur or racist image should ever be seen as an honor because these mascots misuse sacred history and practices of a people integral to this nation.

Rather than “honor” Natives through degrading mascots, Americans should instead promote a positive culture of acceptance and awareness for all. The psychological harm that mascots incite should serve as a call to action for every American to immediately end appropriation and discrimination for the betterment of the entire nation.

The founding fathers established the United States to be rooted in principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but how can these ideals ring true when then those native to America are still confined to derogatory stereotypes and are repeatedly robbed of their cultures?