week of  date  2/20/02
Smoky Mountain News (Waynesville, NC) Feb. 20, 2002

Mascot display takes aim at stereotypes
By Michael Beadle

At first, it seems like a petty argument. Why should a sports team’s mascot or logo have to change because some people think it’s offensive?

Teams with nicknames like the “chiefs” or “warriors” have been around for years. And besides, using these names is a sign of respect toward Native Americans. A school or professional team with a name like the “warriors” takes pride in the fighting spirit of Native Americans. If people think Native American terms are offensive and have to change team mascots and logos — a very expensive ordeal, considering all the uniforms, murals and other sports memorabilia associated with a logo — then where will it end? Will the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame have to change its name because it’s offensive to Irish people? Likewise for Nordic people finding the Minnesota Vikings football team offensive.

The case for keeping sports mascots and logos the way they are seems to have its entrenched supporters, but the opponents of using Native American images and names with sports teams is growing behind a huge grassroots effort of civil rights organizations and multicultural groups.

As a way of examining this issue a little closer, an exhibit titled “It’s Only a Game?” is now on display in the lobby of Hunter Library at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. The display, which will be up until March 1, is sponsored by the Western Carolina University Cherokee Center and the Native American Student Association at WCU. It offers a mix of facts, photos, documents and probing questions about the ongoing controversy concerning the use of Native American symbols as sports mascots. The issue is put into a historical context so the viewer can see how Indian sports mascots and certain words can present demeaning stereotypes of Native Americans.

To many Native Americans, a sports team with an Indian logo or mascot mocks their culture, their history, their religion and their self-worth, and exacerbates a tragic American legacy of government-sanctioned genocide, bigotry, racism, and economic and political deprivation against Native American tribes.

For Roseanna Belt, director of the Western Carolina University Cherokee Center, using Indian mascots is primarily offensive to Native Americans because it gives the general public a limited perspective and a generally false portrayal of who Native Americans are.

“It perpetuates the image that Native Americans aren’t around anymore,” Belt said.

The way Belt sees it, if people only see stereotyped Indian images of a warrior with war paint and feathers who go around beating a drum and scalping people with tomahawks, that may be the only knowledge people have of who Native Americans are.

“And that’s where the danger is,” she said.

In some tribes, eagle feathers and war paint were used only in religious ceremonies, and to mock these symbols is considered by many Native Americans an irreverant act comparible to tossing rosary beads around like Mardi Gras necklaces or watching a bishop or rabbi run around a football field in full ceremonial dress. Nicknames like “redskins” or “squaws” are linguistically considered derogatory terms equated with racial epithets like “nigger” or “slant-eye” or “cracker.” Nevertheless, college and professional sports teams continue to use names like “Braves” and “Indians” with some mascots acting out sports rituals in full ceremonial dress. In some instances, the Indian male is reduced to a silly caricature as is the case with Chief Wahoo, the grinning, one-feathered mascot of the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

While some may see this as a harmless diversion, a closer look at sports pages and fan posters reveals subtle and sometimes glaring cases of racism.

In the exhibit at Hunter Library, a photo of a sports poster depicting high school rivals reads, “Massacre those Warriors,” which includes a blue pitchfork with blood on it. Another photo of a high school poster reads, “Devils Relocate Warriors.” One high school in eastern Tennessee went so far as to hang mock scalps in its gym to symbolize each team it had defeated.

The exhibit goes on to explain that scalping Native Americans was actually supported by the governments of the American colonies and territories. Bounties were issued for the scalps of children.

Among the most provocative pieces in the exhibit are historical photos and journal entries of U.S. soldiers who witnessed atrocities committed against Native American tribes. In 1864, for example, 200 Cheyenne Indians were massacred near Sand Creek, Colo., by approximately 700 U.S. troops. Those who died included men, women and children. One statement reads, “Fact: Most modern scholars estimate the population of the indigenous people of North America to have been between 10-20 million. In 1840, the population was estimated to be around two million. By 1880, native numbers had dropped to 250,000.”

In an article condemning the use of Indian mascots, award-winning Native American musician and education professor Cornel Pewewardy eloquently argues that stereotypes of Native Americans have a profound, harmful effect on the public psyche.

“Making fun of Indigenous Peoples in athletic events has become ‘as American as apple pie and baseball,’” Pewewardy writes. “So-called Indian mascots reduce hundreds of indigenous tribes to generic cartoons.”

The classic images of Indians screaming war cries in old Western movies are often perpetuated on sports fields and gyms when Indian mascots are portrayed as relics of a heroic age, Pewewardy contends.

“Schools should be places where students come to unlearn the stereotypes that such mascots represent,” he explains. “Teachers have a responsibility to take this issue seriously.”

Some schools and universities have changed their nicknames after pressure from Native American groups. Among the bigger name colleges have been the Stanford University Indians changing to their nickname to the Cardinal, Dartmouth College’s Indians switching to The Big Green and St. John’s University’s Redmen to the Red Storm. Opponents of the use of Indian mascots are still pushing to change some of the professional nicknames including the Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Blackhawks.

In recent years, more than 75 local, state and national organizations have joined the fight by issuing resolutions denouncing or calling for an end to the use of Native American mascots used in association with sports teams. These organizations have included dozens of Native American groups but also a diverse number of multi-ethnic groups with various social, political and religious affiliations such as the American Jewish Committee, the Asian American Journalists Association, the United Methodist Church, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the NAACP, the National Education Association, the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and the American Counseling Association.

For those who would like to explore this issue further, there will be a meeting Thurs., Feb. 21, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Hunter Library Conference Room (245) on the campus of Western Carolina University. A panel led by the Mascot Education and Action Group, the Native American Student Association of Western Carolina University and others will share thoughts and opinions, show a video and welcome discussion on the subject.

“The issue of using Native American caricatures as mascots for sports teams is coming to the fore in many regions of the country and is certainly relevant to Western North Carolina,” said Bill Stahl, librarian at Hunter Library, in an email statement. “It is the hope of the library in mounting such an exhibit that it will promote reasoned consideration and discussion of this important issue.”

For more information, contact Hunter Library at 828.227.7307.

See Smoky Mountain News 2/20/02 article about impact this exhibit had on an amazing 8th grader!

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