I’m going to wade into territory that I would probably be better off staying out of but since I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut here goes nothing. The whole issue of team mascots being given pseudo Native American nicknames has always left a taste in my mouth – and not a good one. Now that the NCAA has finally gotten around to doing something about it, everybody is in an uproar over it.
It seems that this is an issue that won’t go away. From the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins in professional sports through the college ranks with the Florida Seminoles and the Central Michigan Chippewa’s to name just a few.
For the majority of these teams the mascots or nicknames have been a part of their identities for decades. In those innocent days before political correctness no one thought twice about the significance of either impersonating another race or utilizing a nation’s name as a signifier of a characteristic. In all of these cases the name was chosen in the belief that it represented a positive attribute that could be associated with the team.
Fierceness in battle, bravery, etc. were all characteristics that any sports team would love to embody. I mean what sounds better to you: The Cleveland Indians or the Cleveland Accountants.
The motivation behind the names is obvious. The intent was never negative; in fact some would even say they were positive because of the qualities that were emphasised. Why than, all the uproar about something as innocuous as a nickname or a mascot?
A stereotype even when construed as positive by those utilizing it, still only generates a one dimensional view of a people. It reduces the complexity of human nature down to a series of characteristics imposed on a people by outside forces. Instead of treating a race of people like individuals they are lumped together into a singular category.
All black people have rhythm and are good athletes, Jewish people are good with money, and Asians are studious are observations and commentary made by others. It becomes up to them to prove that they are capable of doing something other than what is considered normal for a person of their type.
Have you ever heard of “white” males being defined in that manner. Can you name any specific trait that they are assigned in the same manner as described above? Not in our society. Perhaps if we were to live where our culture wasn’t predominant we would learn what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that kind of treatment.
When a race of people or any grouping of individuals – a religion for example – are defined by attributes decided upon by others, there is the risk of dehumanization. That is the breeding ground for ideas of racial superiority and ultimately things like ethnic cleansing.
In our not too distant past many people believed that some races were superior to others. As recently as the 1990’s people were making claims such as Asians are smarter than whites who are smarter than blacks. The majority of us have outgrown such sentiments with regard to the majority of ethnic groups, but remnants of cultural bias still remain in our society.
“I watched the movies and saw the kind of Indian I was supposed to be.
A cinematic Indian is supposed to climb mountains.
I am afraid of heights.
A cinematic Indian is supposed to wade into streams and sing songs.
I don’t know how to swim.
A cinematic Indian is supposed to be a warrior.
I haven’t been in a fistfight since sixth grade and she beat the crap out of me.
I mean, I knew I could never be as brave, as strong, as wiser as visionary, as white as the Indians in the movies.” Sherman Alexie: “I hated Tonto(still do)”. Los Angeles Times 1998.
Sherman Alexie is Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian poet, author, screenwriter and director. In books like Reservation Blues and Indian Killer he illustrates the ways in which the stereotype of the noble savage is perpetuated. The stone-faced, stoical, mystic warrior never appears on the pages of his books except in the imagination of non-natives.
There are urban Indians going to school, getting drunk, being lawyers and living lives just like their white counterparts. There are reservation Indians living lives of desperate poverty, and there are the ones who have fallen so far that they will never get back up again from their seat on skid row. But not a one amongst them is a fierce warrior, any more than you or me.
If all of a sudden Indians were integrated into our society: taught in our schools, argued cases in our courts, just generally became part of our accepted landscape, how long would those nicknames persevere? These harmless nicknames and mascots are a symbol of the marginalized nature of their existence.
With the exception of Notre Dame’s Irish how many sports teams make use of anything pertaining to ethnicity aside from those employing Native American mascots and nicknames? Why is less acceptable to call a team The Washington Blackskins than the Washington Redskins? Why is it okay for the University of Illinois to have a white person put on red make up and pretend to be native and not to put on black face and pretend to be black?
If it is considered offensive to display one race as a one-dimensional character why is it allowed for another? Any school with the nickname of “Coons” and using a Minstrel Show mascot who tried to defend their actions on the grounds of tradition would be dismissed as racist and backward.
The issue of mascots and nicknames is not as grey as some people would like you to think. Just because an injustice has been ongoing for years and years is not justification for it continuation. The segregation of schools and buses was a tradition that was abolished, as was slavery. Obviously these were more overt forms of racism and oppression than those being discussed here, but in their own way mascots are equally harmful.
In fact their seeming innocuousness makes them even more difficult to combat. It’s very easy to say stuff like: “Oh what’s the harm?” or “Lighten up, it’s just a little harmless fun”. But every generation who performs the Tomahawk Chop, or sees another white man dressed up like an Indian waving a tomahawk and clapping his hand over his mouth making whooping noises, is another whose view of Indians is limited to a one dimensional cartoon.
I’m not native, but I have dark skin and long dark hair and am often mistaken for one. With reactions ranging from people actually saying “How” or calling me “Chief”, it only tells me that we have a long way to go before acceptance as equals is possible.
To those of you who say “lighten up it’s only a mascot”, I say “you’re right”. If it’s only a mascot you can change it. What’s a mascot or a nickname as compared to basic human dignity? Nothing. It’s time for people to grow up and remember there are more important things than games.