It was once said by Richard Henry Pratt, the director of theCarlisle school for Indians, “Let us by patient effort killthe Indian in him and save the man.” However, this is not thewhole story of how dominant American society would perceive Nativepeoples.
In effect they wanted their land, labor and finally theirculture. During a period when thousands of Native children weregetting the “Indian” beat out of them, countless sportsteams, universities, boy scouts, campfire girls and marketingassociates were using the image and culture of Native peoples toadvance their own agendas.
No one asked Native Americans how they felt about thiscontinuous image robbery and distortion because no one cared;Indians were not even given American citizenship until 1924. Thus,over the past century the nostalgic image of the “noblesavage” has adorned millions of jerseys, ball caps, flags,mugs, buildings and numerous other forms of media.
Within the last 20 years Native American mascots have becomecontroversial due to their racist and demeaning connotations. Evenwithin Native American communities there is a raging debate as tohow and in what way these mascots affect Native Americans today. Aswith many controversies this is a complex and deeply rootedissue.
Native American mascots arose in a time when blatant racism waswidely acceptable.Indigenous peoples were not seen as dynamic orprogressive, but rather as static individuals, who would continueto live in an unsophisticated and backwards manner. Hence, the ideaof the “noble savage” was born and personified bypeople such as Buffalo Bill, circuses, toy manufacturers andHollywood studios that wanted to capitalize on a dying culture.
What is unfortunate about Native American mascots today is thatthey were not wiped out of American pop culture along with theirethnic counterparts, such as Sambos, Frito Bandito, pickaninniesand many other ethnically degrading caricatures.
These mascots affect the way Native peoples are perceived bothby the general public and by Native people. By using caricaturesand titles that are degrading, Native American mascots dehumanizethe population they try to represent. Historically, thedehumanization of a population has been used to justify immenseforms of cruelty, brutality and ultimately commit genocide.
Yet, many Americans argue that Native American mascots are aform of honoring. To this comment Glen T. Morris, a member of theAmerican Indian Movement replied in 1992, “If people aregenuinely interested in honoring Indians, try getting yourgovernment to live up to the more that 400 treaties it signed withour nations.
Try respecting our religious freedom, which has been repeatedlydenied in federal courts.
Try stopping the ongoing theft of Indian water and other naturalresources.
Try reversing your colonial process that relegates us to themost impoverished, polluted and desperate conditions in thecountry.
Try understanding that the mascot issue is only the tip of avery huge problem of continuing racism against AmericanIndians.
Then maybe your “honors” will mean something. Untilthen, it’s just superficial, hypocritical puffery.
People should remember that an honor isn’t born when itparts the honorer’s lips, it is born when it is accepted inthe honoree’s ear.
Native American mascots are not about honoring anything exceptthe imbedded racist ideologies that continue to vibrate throughdominant American culture.
Native American mascots are intricately tied to the unbalancedtreatment of Native peoples throughout the United States. A 1999Department of Justice study found that Native Americans sufferedthe highest rate of violent crimes, “in fact the rate ofcrimes against Indians is two and a half times the nationalaverage; 60 percent of their attackers are white.” If youthink this is only national and not regional, you are verywrong.
According to an article appearing in The Spokesman Review in2004, “Native Americans are three times more likely to bemurdered than the general population. Their lives are six timesmore likely to end in an alcohol related death, in Spokane Countyhalf of all Native Americans live in poverty. They suffer morehealth problems, unemployment and crime then the rest of thepopulation.”
This is not solely a problem of violence but one of self-esteemas well. Native American youth have the highest suicide rate in thenation, with one out of every five attempting suicide.
These overwhelming violent crime and suicide rates will not dropuntil the general American people choose to see Native Americans ashuman beings, with the same hopes, dreams, fears and emotions thatany other person would feel. However, as long as Native Americanmascots portray Native peoples as static, unchanging and subhuman,racist ideologies and hegemonic beliefs will overshadow any attemptto heal old wounds and build new bridges.