Not for Sport
Number 15: Spring 1999
In April 1991 when my daughter
Christine wrote a letter to her principal about her high school's
"Indian" mascot and logo, I did not realize that the issue would lead
our family to activism on the state and national level. Whether the problem
surfaces in New York state; Los Angeles County; Tacoma, Wash.; or Medford,
Wis., I have found that it is framed by the same questions and themes.
As long as "Indian" team
names, mascots and logos remain a part of school athletic programs, both Native
and non-Native children are being taught to tolerate and perpetuate
stereotyping and racism. I would like to point out some common
misunderstandings on this issue and suggest constructive ways to address them.
"We have always been proud of
Most communities are proud of
their high school athletic teams, yet school traditions involving Native
American imagery typically reflect little pride in or knowledge of Native cultures.
These traditions have taken the trappings of Native cultures onto the athletic
field where young people have played at being "Indian." Over time,
and with practice, generations of children in these schools have come to
believe that their "Indian" identity is more than pretending.
"We are honoring Indians; you
should feel honored."
Native people are saying
that they don't feel honored by this symbolism. We experience it as no less
than a mockery of our cultures. We see objects sacred to us -- such as the
drum, eagle feathers, face painting and traditional dress -- being used not in
sacred ceremony, or in any cultural setting, but in another culture's game.
Among the many ways Indian people
express honor are: by giving an eagle feather, which also carries great
responsibility; by singing an honor song at a powwow or other ceremony; by
showing deference toward elders, asking them to share knowledge and experience
with us or to lead us in prayer; by avoiding actions that would stifle the
healthy development of our children.
While Indian nations have the right
to depict themselves any way they choose, many tribal schools are examining
their own uses of Indian logos and making changes. Native American educators,
parents and students are realizing that, while they may treat a depiction of an
Indian person with great respect, such respect is not necessarily going to be
accorded to their logo in the mainstream society.
"Why is an attractive
depiction of an Indian warrior just as offensive as an ugly caricature?"
Both depictions uphold stereotypes. Both firmly place Indian
people in the past, separate from our contemporary cultural experience. It is
difficult, at best, to be heard in the present when someone is always
suggesting that your real culture only exists in museums. The logos keep us
marginalized and are a barrier to our contributing here and now.
Depictions of mighty warriors of
the past emphasize a tragic part of our history; focusing on wartime survival,
they ignore the strength and beauty of our cultures during times of peace. Many
Indian cultures view life as a spiritual journey filled with lessons to be
learned from every experience and from every living being. Many cultures put
high value on peace, right action and sharing.
"We never intended the logo to
That no harm was intended when the
logos were adopted may be true. It is also true that we Indian people are
saying that the logos are harmful to our cultures, and especially to our
children, in the present. When someone says you are hurting them by your
action, then the harm becomes intentional if you persist.
"Aren't you proud of your
Yes, we are proud of the warriors
who fought to protect our cultures from forced removal and systematic genocide
and to preserve our lands from the greed of others. We are proud, and we don't
want them demeaned by being "honored" in a sports activity on a playing
Indian men are not limited to the
role of warrior; in many of our cultures a good man is learned, gentle,
patient, wise and deeply spiritual. In present time as in the past, our men are
also sons and brothers, husbands, uncles, fathers and grandfathers.
Contemporary Indian men work in a broad spectrum of occupations, wear
contemporary clothes, and live and love just as men from other cultural
The depictions of Indian
"braves," "warriors" and "chiefs" also ignore the
roles of women and children. Many Indian Nations are both matrilineal and
child-centered. Indian cultures identify women with the Creator, because of
their ability to bear children, and with the Earth, which is Mother to us all.
In most Indian cultures the highest value is given to children -- they are
closest to the Creator and they embody the future.
"This logo issue is just about
Using the term
"political correctness" to describe the attempts of concerned Native
American parents, educators and leaders to remove stereotypes from the public
schools trivializes a survival issue. Systematic genocide over four centuries
has decimated more than 95 percent of the indigenous population of the
Americas. Today, the average life expectancy of Native American males is 45
years. The teen suicide rate among Native people is several times higher than
the national average. Stereotypes, ignorance, silent inaction and even naive
innocence damage and destroy individual lives and whole cultures. Racism kills.
"What if we drop derogatory
comments and clip art and adopt pieces of 'real' Indian culture, like powwows
and sacred songs?"
these solutions are culturally naive and would exchange one pseudo-culture for
another. Powwows are religious as well as social gatherings that give Native
American people the opportunity to express our various cultures and strengthen
our sense of Native community. To parody such ceremonial gatherings for the
purpose of cheering on the team at homecoming would compound the current
offensiveness. Similarly, bringing Native religions onto the secular playing
field through songs of tribute to the "Great Spirit" or Mother Earth
would only heighten the mockery of Native religions that we now see in the use
of drums and feathers.
"We are helping you preserve
The responsibility for the
continuance of our cultures falls to Native people. We accomplish this by
surviving, living and thriving; and, in so doing, we pass on to our children
our stories, traditions, religions, values, arts and languages. We sometimes do
this important work with people from other cultural backgrounds, but
they do not and cannot continue our cultures for us. Our ancestors did this
work for us, and we continue to carry the culture for the generations to come.
Our cultures are living cultures -- they are passed on, not
"Why don't community members
understand the need to change; isn't it a simple matter of respect?"
On one level, yes. But in some communities, people have bought
into local myths and folklore presented as accurate historical facts. Sometimes
these myths are created or preserved by local industry. Also, over the years,
athletic and school traditions grow up around the logos. These athletic
traditions can be hard to change when much of a community's ceremonial and
ritual life, as well as its pride, becomes tied to high school athletic
Finally, many people find it
difficult to grasp a different cultural perspective. Not being from an Indian
culture, they find it hard to understand that things that are not offensive to
themselves might be offensive or even harmful to someone who is from a Native
culture. Respecting a culture different from the one you were raised in
requires some effort -- interaction, listening, observing and a willingness to
We appreciate the courage, support
and, sometimes, the sacrifice of all who stand with us by speaking out against
the continued use of "Indian" logos. When you advocate for the
removal of these logos, you are strengthening the spirit of tolerance and
justice in your community; you are modeling for all our children
thoughtfulness, courage and respect for self and others.