"I see that the way Indian mascots are used today is about 'dysconscious racism' and a form of cultural violence. This includes many Indigenous Peoples as well. Dysconscious racism is a form of racism that accepts dominant White norms and privileges. For example, if you have seen these racial antics and negative behaviors portrayed by Indian mascots hundreds of times for most part of your life, you may become absolutely numb to it." Dr. Cornel Pewewardy
"Why Educators Can't Ignore Indian Mascots"
Some years ago when he was a principal at an elementary school in Minnesota, Dr. Cornel Pewewardy rewarded a group of kindergarteners and first graders by taking them on a field trip to the Metrodome to see the Minnesota Vikings play the Washington Redskins.
The "reward" ended up penalizing the children, not for their behavior, but simply because they were Native American. As they were being escorted through the stadium, a group of adults decked out in fake war bonnets and face paint began taunting them, yelling "Woo woo woo!" chants at them. The children began crying and said they were afraid.
"I didn't think adults could be so belligerent to kids," Pewewardy says as he recalls the incident.
During a visit to Asheville this week, Pewewardy, a Comanche-Kiowa, also remembered his own experience playing sports in high school. Fellow teammates would tease him when the school was about to play another school with an Indian mascot. His coach told him to ignore them and did nothing to stop it.
"I didn't know what to do with my feelings at that time.... It becomes a part of shaming," he said. "I had no recourse by to suppress my feelings."
As an educator, Pewewardy began to understand how children conceptualize and identify with images and how their self-esteem is affected by negative stereotypes. When he moved into higher education in 1994, he made the issue the focus of his research.
"So-called Indian mascots reduce hundreds of Indigenous tribes to generic cartoons," Pewewardy writes in "Why Educators Can't Ignore Indian Mascots."
"These 'Wild West' figments of the White imagination distort both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children's attitudes toward an oppressed - and diverse - minority. Schools should be places where students come to unlearn the stereotypes such mascots represent...."
What's the big deal, many people, even some American Indians, ask about using Indian mascots for sports teams. They point to teams like the Appalachian State Mountaineers or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to show that Whites are caricatured as mascots too, or to the Cherokee Braves to show that Indians also use Indian mascots.
But there's a fundamental difference. It's one thing for predominantly White schools to caricature themselves, or for Indians to caricature themselves. For one culture to caricature another in such a way is demeaning and disrespectful.
But it's much more than that.
While the issue may seem insignificant or trivial to some when compared to poverty and major health issues that affect so many tribes, anyone who knows our history should recognize the racism inherent in these symbols.
The bloody conquest of the American continent by Europeans left a shameful legacy of lies, forced removal from their lands, and relentless, and in many cases successful, attempts to annihilate Native cultures. How can American Indians not see the use of sports mascots as yet another attempt by the dominant culture to define, and thereby control, who they are?
In a paper titled "Chief Illiniwek: Dignified or Damaging?" Joseph P. Gone, a Gros Ventre, puts it this way: "One primary obstacle to political and economic renewal and self-determination in Indian communities around the country is the appalling ignorance of most American citizens, including policymakers at local, state and federal levels of government, regarding Native American histories and cultures. As multi-dimensional peoples engaged in complex struggles for autonomy and equality ... Indians are virtually invisible to the American consciousness, which gleans any awareness of natives from caricatured Hollywood portrayals, tourist excursions and, yes, popular symbols like Chief Illiniwek. Thus, the continued prevalence of Indian stereotypes fortifies a wall of misunderstanding between our peoples, which ultimately leads to our (Indian) detriment. This is true in terms of politics and economics as well as in terms of cultural survival and the effective socialization of our young."
Dr. Pewewardy put it another way at a workshop for teachers Monday at UNCA: "Self-esteem is the generator of academic performance. If you relegate them to something subhuman, they are not going to feel very good about themselves."
Its been more than 30 years since the National Congress of American Indians launched a campaign to bring an end to the use of Indian sports mascots and other media stereotypes.
The more than 60 organizations that have called for their retirement include Advocates for American Indian Children, the American Indian Mental Health Association, the American Indian Movement, the Association on American Indian Affairs, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Education Association. It's time sports fans honored America's indigenous people by hearing them. And it's long past time organizations from high school to professional sports teams stopped shaming themselves by the continued use of Indian sports mascots.
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