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We Are More Than a Mascot

Image Source: IllumiNative / Change the Name

Native American mascots are one of the more controversial topics when it comes to sports leagues today. Allies for their continued use argue that the representations honor Native cultures and peoples. Opponents say that they reinforce harmful stereotypes, damage the mental health of Native people, and contribute to the “invisibility” and erasure of Native cultures.

My high school mascot was the Warriors. Our logo was a generic profile of a Native man with a large nose wearing a headdress. At games, some would dress up in costumes based on Native regalia. The debate on whether or not to change the mascot would come up every few years, with Native community members arguing that it was offensive. Being a mostly white school in a mostly white city, the debate would eventually disappear from the local news cycle, while the mascot remained.

In most cases, a sports mascot representing any other racial or ethnic group of historically oppressed people in the way that Natives are often represented, would be met with strong backlash and not be allowed. However, a large national survey showed that 40% of respondents didn’t even think that Native people still existed. It’s no wonder why the problem continues.

The truth is that Native mascots have been around for over a century. In the 1960’s Native activists began collectively working together to get rid of Native mascots, which they argued perpetuated false stereotypes about Native peoples. Since then, many sports teams across all levels of play have changed their names and mascots, most recently, the Washington football team and the Cleveland baseball team. However, today there are still hundreds of secondary schools and colleges across the U.S. who continue to utilize Native American caricatures as their mascot.

These schools continue to use these caricatures despite several recent studies that have shown the detrimental impact of Native mascots. A 2020 study that looked at the psychological impact of Native mascots on Native people showed that the use of Native mascots causes Native individuals to feel lower self-esteem, lower community worth, increased stress, increased depression, and made them less likely to pursue achievement related aspirations. Furthermore, Native mascots can activate, reflect and/or reinforce harmful stereotypes about Native people.

These harmful stereotypes contribute to the misrepresentations of Native Americans in society that are often seen in popular media, on social media, and other spaces. By representing Native people solely in stereotypes based on historical depictions, it gives the impression that we are not still here today thriving and resilient in the face of enormous challenges. In a way this invisibility perpetuates long-standing efforts by the U.S. Government to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”, because if we “no longer exist” the U.S. government no longer needs to acknowledge tribal sovereignty, uphold treaty rights and acknowledge wrongs systematically perpetuated against Native people.

Do Native mascots honor Native people? No. It’s difficult to see “honor” when you watch a sports game and see fake headdresses, “war paint,” and offensive chants. They mock our traditions and cultures as if we no longer exist. Whatever the intention is, we are more than a mascot. We are people. We are still here, and we deserve respect.

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Author: Tamee Livermont is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Her passion and interests lie in advocacy to create healthier, safer communities for generations to come. She is pursuing a career in medicine and policy. In her free time she is an advocate for equity and justice, hikes, and quilts.

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