Thanks for writing in! This is such a great and timely question.
For me, it’s a matter of individual perspective. When we group people and say that all Native Americans are offended by mascots it is incorrect. When we see people as a group, it takes away from knowing that everyone has their own perspective based on their experiences and beliefs despite their culture or genealogy.
I played sports and was a “Brave” and then a “Warrior”. We had the typical head dressed mascot at the football games. And, this brings me mixed feelings. I do have the nostalgia for being connected with my teammates, who I still have strong feelings towards. The pride and the strength that comes with being a top ranked school for my sports: basketball and volleyball.
On the other side, I remember being in middle school just starting school sports and among only a couple other Native players. I remember being 13 and feeling embarrassed when the crowd started doing ‘war calls’ or cutting the air with their hands as ‘tomahawks’. I didn’t know what this meant at the time, but I knew I wanted to crawl up inside myself and become smaller. I did not want it to be known that I was Native but felt like everyone in the stadium knew that we were, that there was a spotlight on me and my Native teammates; watching us to see our reactions.
As I progressed through school and became a varsity ‘Warrior’ the crowds got bigger and so did the excitement. There were now people in the crowds with foam tomahawks, head dresses, war paint – hooting and hollering, pretending to be savage Indians. What I then started to do was rationalize this by saying to myself, ‘well, I’m not from a chief tribe, so they’re not representing me’. Knowing full well that my Mescalero Apache friends and teammates, whose reservation bordered the school were. That it likely hit closer to home – the stereotypes and negative enactments being displayed. I had to remove myself from the equation because admitting to myself that this was how some people saw Natives as, was too much for me to process on top of preparing myself for the game, or going to school the next day walking under to massive painted ‘Warrior’ at the school entrance and pretend that I didn’t see my friends or their parents the day before chanting with their tomahawks. Or, to pretend that I myself did not join the crowd and cheer for the boys varsity team in the same way?
Do I think it was the intent of those cheering in the crowd was to humiliate or make Natives feel bad? No, I don’t think it was. I knew my friends and their parents to be good people with a lot of love and respect to give.
What I do know, is that being Native and growing up with Indian school mascots did not uplift me or make me feel proud to be Native. It did the opposite. I felt reduced, smaller.
When I talk to others about why it is not okay to have Indian school mascots or Indian Halloween costumes, I let them know that it is not okay because it hurts:
- Native Youth by directly impacting low self-esteem, mental health, and feelings of inadequacy. This matters when suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native youth ages 15-24
- Native Women by perpetuating over-sexualized stereotypes. Don’t believe me? Just Google ‘Indian Halloween costumes’ and see the first thing that pops up
- Native Men by perpetuating the misconception that all Native males are brave, stoic, ruthless savages
- Our culture because we are already largely misrepresented by what is being taught in schools, adding Indian mascots and Halloween costumes to the mix only makes this worse
I suppose the question to ask oneself is if it “is doing any harm”? Yes, I believe they are.
Are they ‘uplifting’ Native youth? No, they are not. And, if they are not serving a purpose, we must then assess their value and decide how we want to proceed.
I appreciate you asking the questions. Thank you for writing in.
P.S. there is a really great film you might find helpful called More Than a Word. You can check it out here: http://morethanawordfilm.com/ and the film here.