Native American Mascot Controversy

By: Danielle Ser

Native American tribal leaders, members, and their families have suffered immensely throughout history, facing forced relocation to desolate reservations, desecration of sacred sites, and a mascot controversy where names and symbols are used to offensively represent professional and non-professional sports teams.  Take for example the Washington Redskins, the Florida State Seminoles, or the Cleveland Indians.  The issues raised by this controversy include the plain language of the mascot names and how they promulgate cultural appropriation and negative stereotypes.  However, many of these mascots and team names are embedded in a team’s history and their fan base, resulting in a hotbed of disagreement.

 

Several of the mascots associate Native Americans with violence and war, perpetuating a stereotype that misrepresents Native American culture.  Studies have shown that even though some argue that the mascots honor Native Americans and portray them as courageous and brave, such mascots perpetuate negative stereotypes of native cultures, even on a subconscious level.[1]  Even President Obama expressed his disdain toward such mascots and recommended that a change be made.[2]

 

The issue also exists on a smaller scale in high schools across the nation, and a tribe in Michigan is taking action through a campaign that provides schools with funds to initiate changing mascots.  A deal in Michigan called the “tribal gaming compact” between the state and the Nottawassepi Band of the Potawatomi provides funds from tribal gaming revenue to schools and their mascot-changing efforts.[3]  At the university level, the NCAA implemented a policy against hostile and abusive Native American mascots, nicknames or imagery at its championships,[4] yet hosts of athletic teams still utilize such imagery during sporting events.[5]

 

Another large-scale native initiative against the mascot controversy is “Change the Mascot” which is directed at the Washington Redskins NFL team’s longstanding mascot.  Like the high school campaign in Michigan, the Oneida Indian Nation launched “Change the Mascot” to urge the NFL and its Commissioner to end the use of the mascot’s name and image.[6]  The initiative urges banning the use of a racial slur and epithet to represent a hugely popular professional athletic team by raising awareness of the issue and its effects on the United States’ native population and on a larger, global scale.[7]  They promote native pride and call citizens and organizations to take a stand to help perpetuate positive change.

 

Recently, Redskins mascot protestors achieved legal success when a federal judge ordered the cancellation of its federal trademark registrations because the mascot offends Native Americans under the Lanham Act.[8]  The appeal board reasoned that ““Redskins” is a dictionary-defined slur and the National Congress of American Indians declared the name racist.”[9]  However, the cancellation of trademark registrations will not go into effect until after the appeals process is completed.

 

The Native American Mascot Controversy highlights that American minorities yearn for equality and to be rid of negative stereotypical imagery and representation.  It is imperative that indigenous American populations are respected to ensure equal treatment of all human beings, preservation of ancient cultures, and pride in modern native youth.  Remedial steps are beginning to solve the situation, but many result from tribal action rather than from governmental action.

[1] The Conversation, New Research Shows How Native American Mascots Reinforce Stereotypes, (Sept. 12, 2016), https://theconversation.com/new-research-shows-how-native-american-mascots-reinforce-stereotypes-63861.

[2] The Washington Post, President Obama Says, ‘I’d Think About Changing’ Name of Washington Redskins, (Oct. 5, 2013), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/president-obama-says-id-think-about-changing-name-of-washington-redskins/2013/10/05/e170b914-2b70-11e3-8ade-a1f23cda135e_story.html?utm_term=.f8b1461c2267.

[3] Business Insider, A Native American Group Has a Unique Plan to Help Schools Get Rid of Racist Mascots, (Jan. 7, 2017), http://www.businessinsider.com/native-group-to-use-gambling-funds-to-rid-school-of-racist-mascots-2017-1.

[4] NCAA, Where Pride Meets Prejudice, (2016), http://www.ncaa.org/static/champion/where-pride-meets-prejudice/index.php.

[5] KENFL74, FSU Football Chief Osceola Renegade at Doak Tomahawk Chop, YouTube (Nov. 22, 2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J20wsKNV0NI.

[6] Change the Mascot, http://www.changethemascot.org (last visited Jan. 9, 2017).

[7] Id.

[8] The Washington Post, Federal Judge Orders Cancellation of Redskins’ Trademark Registrations, (July 8, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/judge-upholds-cancellation-of-redskins-trademarks-in-a-legal-and-symbolic-setback-for-team/2015/07/08/5a65424e-1e6e-11e5-aeb9-a411a84c9d55_story.html?utm_term=.73185b9c7746.

[9] Id.

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