An increasing number of U.S. schools are discarding their mascots portraying Native Americans, leading some community members to question the (seemingly) sudden change. After all, are Indigenous-themed symbols, images, and words really harming the tribes they reference?
See it from the Side of Native Americans
Put simply; one cannot understate the damaging impact these mascots have had and continue to have on Native Americans. In addition to various psychological effects, these mascots make it unnecessarily challenging for Native people to build meaningful relationships within their communities.
Because when people choose to wear sacred tribal regalia as a costume, it implicitly tells others that Indigenous communities are not genuine, supporting structures comprised of actual people. Instead, these mascots and team names downplay the fact that Native Americans are people.
Miriam Rios, a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, explains it as simple as it really is. “I am not a mascot or a stereotype. I am a person. People have said, ‘This is our tradition.’ But it is a painful tradition for an Indigenous person.”
Another damaging effect Native-themed mascots have on Indigenous people is the painful reminder they carry. The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Tribal Council addresses the fact that generations of Native Americans have been oppressed. The attempted erasure of these people “can still be felt throughout our communities,” the tribal council wrote in a statement.
It may seem obvious that generational trauma and cultural disregard would be enough reasons to wipe out Native-themed mascots across the country. But the opposing side of this debate attempts to show why these names are worth keeping.
Stuck in Old Ways, Or Saying Something Valid?
For some members of communities that feature Native American mascots, whether it be at the high school, colligate, or professional level, the imagery shouldn’t be seen as a “big deal.”
In fact, some individuals attest these mascots carry a sense of strength, character, and honor. As a result, they see this as a way to revere Native Americans, both past and present. Therefore, people on this side of the argument don’t view these mascots as racist in any way, shape, or form. Instead, they misinterpret them as a way to positively represent Indigenous people and their history.
A more self-centered argument some individuals bring to the table is that these mascots allow them to feel a sense of pride in their school. After all, why replace stereotypical names that offend Native Americans everywhere when keeping it reminds people of their high school glory days?
Lastly, for a handful of institutions with Native-themed mascots, the resistance to change is for financial reasons. Agencies deem it is too expensive to swap mascots. Which is somewhat valid. Changing a team’s mascot is expensive, requiring the institution to change images on gym floors, walls, signs, jerseys, etc.
Still, it’s safe to say historically, Native Americans as a whole have had to pay a price much higher than what it will cost these institutions to change mascots.
Currently, around 2,000 public schools in the United States still have mascots portraying Native Americans in some way. Keep in mind this statistic does not include private schools, colleges, universities, or professional sports teams.
But is there any evidence to show there’s truly any harm being done when schools have Indigenous symbols, characters, and imagery for mascots and team names? According to the APA, there is more happening behind the scenes than some may realize.
More Problematic Than What Meets the Eye
The American Psychological Association (APA) has, and continues to do, extensive research on the mental effects Indigenous-themed mascots and imagery have on the Native American community.
It is first essential to note the generational trauma many Native families have was caused by the U.S. public school system. In the mid-nineteenth century, the American government and Christian organizations forced hundreds of thousands of Native American children to attend boarding schools.
The goal was to eliminate the children’s way of life and replace it with mainstream American culture. Needless to say, these memories are still fresh in several Native families. And there is often little to no trust in the public school system.
Therefore, when educational facilities use Indigenous-themed mascots, it can serve as a painful reminder of the brutal history between Native Americans and the U.S. government and school system.
Further, the APA notes it is “particularly troubling” schools use Native-themed imagery because they are places of learning. And the mascots teach and reinforce stereotypical, misleading, and insulting images of American Indians.
The negative lessons these mascots are reinforcing not only impact Native American students, but they are also sending the wrong message to all students. Such themes can quickly create a hostile learning environment and affirm that these negative stereotypes are acceptable.
How Does this Impact the Mental Health of Native Americans?
The most concerning impact these mascots can have is regarding the mental health of Native youth. According to the APA, social science literature proves ill representation of their culture can impact the social identity development and self-esteem of young Native Americans.
Dr. Stephanie Fryberg states the mascots can “remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them. This, in turn, restricts the number of ways American Indians can see themselves.”
The long-term impact of poor social identity development in Native American youth can help explain the lower high school graduation rates, lower college enrollment rates, and significantly higher rates of depression. These students do not feel valued or understood. And something as simple as a mascot change may be the factor that transforms everything.
The APA originally called for the removal of all Native-themed mascots in 2005. And the National Congress of American Indians made the claim even earlier in 1969. Both agencies note when institutions discontinue using these names and mascots, it shows they will not tolerate acts of racism and disrespect toward Native people.
A Change that Needs to Happen
While many grade schools, universities, and professional teams in the U.S. have changed their mascots, several depicting Native American culture still remain. Psychologically speaking, the public cannot overlook the impacts these mascots have on Native youth any longer.
The fight to keep these symbols on the basis of pride or as a way to honor Indigenous people are simply invalid. For Native Americans to feel respected, safe, and like they’re being treated as equals, institutions must remove their offensive mascots.
Spread the word about using Native American culture, imagery, etc., in mascots by sharing this article. The first step toward change is education.