“Savage” Mascots Take A Blow

In a somewhat surprising (and maybe confusing) development, the NCAA announced today that it would ban the use of “hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery” at NCAA championships. (Apparently, the NCAA does not have the authority to impose regulations on regular season play.) This is a significant victory for anti-Indian mascot activists, who for years have been challenging the use of often denigrating Indian imagery by sports teams. Affected by the new guidelines are several different “Braves”, even more “Indians”, and one each of the “Chippewas”, “Seminoles”, “Utes”, “Redmen”, “Illini”, “Choctaws”, “Fighting Sioux”, and the “Savages”.

It’s easy to see why many American Indians are offended by the use of clear ethnic slurs like “Redmen”, “Savages”, and “Redskins” to describe a sports team. It also might be easy to imagine why some groups might be offended by the appropriation of their names to describe teams that they are in no way affiliated with. But these are not really the issues around which debate has focused — or, rather, they are just the shallowest and easiest-to-grasp points of what is a much deeper debate, one that focuses largely on representationand the question of who history and tradition belongs to.

Defenders of Indian team names and mascots obviously resist the charge of racism, but they do so in a way that, at first, seems surprising. They do not, for instance, question the significance of a team mascot in the face of systematic racism with much more far-reaching impacts — like forced sterilization of Indian women in the very recent past. One could imagine such a claim — “how much damage is this really doing?” they could ask — but don’t (at least not usually). In fact, they cling tenaciously to their mascots — as fiercely as any Indian nation ever clung to their own traditions and autonomy. Consoder, for example, this statement from the Honor the Chief group at the University of Illinois:

For 78 years, the Chief has been the symbol of the spirit of a great university and of our intercollegiate athletic teams, and as such is loved by the people of Illinois. The University considers the symbol to be dignified and has treated it with respect. His ceremonial dance is performed with grace and beauty.

Chief Illiniwek embodies the attributes valued by alumni, students, and friends of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The tradition of the Chief is a link to our great past, a tangible symbol of an intangible spirit, filled with qualities to which a person of any background can aspire: goodness, strength, bravery, truthfulness, courage, and dignity.

The Chief Illiniwek tradition can be transformed into an educational asset, to both the University and to the Native American community. Elevating the symbol of Chief Illiniwek provides an opportunity for the University to promote the attributes that have come to be identified with this tradition. Together, we can utilize our considerable strengths and resources to celebrate diversity—our growth as a human race—and create a true consensus for the future.

Put that way, it seems almost cruel to strip the University Illini of their tradition and their code of “goodness, strength, bravery, truthfulness, courage, and dignity”. Which is to say, the defenders of Chief Illiniwek have defined him as a symbol of a “lifeway” every bit as valuable — and valid — as that of the actual Illini themselves. What is at stake here is no longer a mascot, but a culture, of which Chief Illiniwek is only the most visible symbol.

While this positioning is not likely to impress most Indian activists — any more than arguments about the Confederate flag as a symbol of the pride and honor on Southern culture is likely to impress civil rights activists — it is the corrollary that really bothers them. Because the argument from tradition is often paired with an argument that essentially says that Indians should be honored by being chosen to represent such high ideals. What’s more, that they should be proud to be represented by such a fine and authentic mascot. So, for instance, another U of IL-based site, the Chief Illiniwek Educational Foundation (Ch.I.E.F.), puts forth as its mission:

…to utilize the presence of Chief Illiniwek to promote greater education and awareness of American Indian people, culture , tradition, and history to the students, alumni, and friends of the University of Illinois.

The Ch.I.E.F. site incudes an in-depth history of Chief Illiniwek, his regalia and dance, noting the authenticity of the representation (although it appears that, since his inception in 1926, Illiniwek has owed more to the Lakota than to more local Illinois tribal traditions).

As Philip Deloria has noted, the appropriation and enactment of Indian identities in “play” has a long history in the United States — essentially since there was a United States — and it is premised on the idea that Indian tradition and history could be claimed as non-Indian tradition and history.

Indianness offered a deep, authentic, aboriginal Americanness….To play Indian has been to connect with a real Self, both collective and individual… (Playing Indian, 1998, Yale University Press).

This “authentic Americanness”, though, is premised on the evacuation of real Indians, on their supplantation — in “playing Indian”, the new “authentic American” replaces the old one — so it makes sense that mascot defenders often claim that they are preserving Indian heritage when Indians themselves cannot or will not, as in this comment (scroll to 4th comment) left on a U of IL alumni discussion board:

Consider the irony that the tribes themselves were unable to perpetuate the traditional dance the Chief does at halftime; it took a bunch of “immature frat boys” to do so. Now, there will be NO living record of this element of Illinoisian culture….

Playing Indian legitimizes the displacement of aboriginal Americans by suggesting that the new Americans are the rightful inheritors of Indian tradition. At stake in the debate over Indian mascots, then, is not just school tradition, but the very right of the school, as an American institution, to exist in the first place. For if appropriating a mere image like that of Chief Illiniwek is wrong, then how much more wrong must be the appropriation of an entire continent from its “rightful” occumpants?

17 thoughts on ““Savage” Mascots Take A Blow

  1. I heard about this on NPR yesterday. one think I thought was interesting was that, according to an NCAA rep, they’re allowing one university to retain their Indian mascot because the school was founded by Native Americans. So I guess it depends on who’s doing the appropriating.

    Thanks for the Philip Deloria citation, looks intriguing.

  2. This is absurd. So in 20 years when there are only Viking, Raider, Saxon,Celtic, IE: White European mascots, the next generation of Indians will complain and sue to have thier ethnic group represented…

    Ho hum……

  3. Interesting. In my Race & Racism course, I have my students do a debate on this topic. Texts summarising the different positions are provided to them and theu have to form their arguments based on them, and on any other materials they find.

    The students that wind up on the teams that are supposed to be “for” the use of the mascots are usually angry with me because they are forced to argue against their own positions. Of course, I’ve found that people who are forced to do this usually wind up with stronger arguments because those arguing according to their “real” opinions take too much for granted. That being said, the “against” teams usually wind up getting the impression that the “for” people are materialistic and insensitive. Also, one of the main arguments that comes out in the “for” side is that Aboriginals should be grateful and honoured that their symbols are being used for such important purposes.

    In the end, most of the students usually disagree with the use of the mascots. OF course, the fact that the debate follows 1-2 classes on the experience of Aboriginal Canadians after European contact so by then they are already sensitised to the ethnocentric ways in which Aboriginals are treated in the media.

  4. I guess the NCAA knows more about being an Indian than the Indians do.

    It’s a win for activists and a loss for actual Indians.

    Goodbye Utes and Seminoles, now get back to the reservation.

  5. For a long time, I could not understand what the big fuss about Indian mascots was all about. Then, I took a class in anthropology where they showed this video (In Whose Honor?).
    I believe mascots like these are incongruent with the purpose of higher education. I felt that my alma mater was on the one hand building up loyalty for the sports team by using the exotic nature of the Indian mascot (during games) while simultaneously enabling me to see how this custom is disrespectful to the native american culture(through classes in liberal arts).

  6. My question is, if Indian mascots “honor” real Indians, why not have a team named “the Blacks” or “the Jews,” that is authentic, well-researched, and historically accurate? They would each have a positive mascot, a man in a Jew or African-American suit, who would do a little dance at halftime, maybe read out of a papier-mache Torah or something.

    I’m sure the Jews would be honored.

  7. Of course, when a team decided to turn the tables and call themselves the “Fighting Whites”, the same (white) people that fight so hard for their Indian mascots were deeply wounded. Robert Novak, for instance, complained on Crossfire that “It was meant to be offensive. They made the whites as a kind of silly little boys, white bred people…” (that’s from the rush transcript — I think it should be “white BREAD people”).

  8. That’s not actually inconsistent. Novak in that quote is objecting that the team was made intentionally bad, as an insult. That would only be inconsistent if, say, the Cleveland Indians were created as a palooka team to always lose to others and to mock the native americans as weak and inefficient. As it stands, they’re a legitimate team which contends reasonably well nationally (if erratically).

    I have some mixed feelings about these issues, and to be honest, they’re not resolved enough to yield a clear answer. So, I’ll ruminate a moment.

    Ok, so racist mascots which mock people, not a good thing.

    What about nonracist mascots which refer to race? Is it even possible to have such a nonracist mascot? I sure hope so, because if thats literally not possible, then that spells bad things for any hope of racial reconciliation. Can a mascot employ racial stereotypes, but not actually be offensive? I’m looking at the Fighting Irish here. What if its offensive to some people, but not to others? How many people have to be offended before we care? Does it matter which people?

    I am also aware that, politically, employing racial issues is a great way to win power in a minority subculture. The feeling that your culture is under threat from evil outside sources is a great unifier. Even if you’re not trying to cynically win power, its also a great way of reaffirming your ethnicity to yourself, and helping you create an identity. Its arguably why middle class young people of all ethnicities so frequently end up more racially radical than the rest of their culture/ethnicity. It would also explain why the surveys above suggest that this is an issue largely ignored by indians on reservations, but picked up by students on campus and by the indian “leaders” who are organizing the reform. So perhaps this is something of a manufactured controversy?

    My area has a local radio show. Its got some really old italian guys who play old italian music, talk, sometimes in italian, and generally, well, be italian on the air. At one point, my mother was listening to this show, and related to me what she heard- the announcer was explaining to the audience that if only, if only italians could unite politically, they could run our state. There are so many italians here that our italian voting block would be completely unstoppable. He was lamenting our inability to mobilize. The flaws in his reasoning were obvious, I think- italians have no common ground on which to unite, for one, and in addition, while I may be italian, have italian grandparents, etc, I also have irish, german, english, scottish, french, etc, etc, relatives. Why should I self identify as italian? As a result, were an italian mascot created for a sports team, I honestly wouldn’t care, unless that mascot were blatantly offensive, and even then, I wouldn’t care very personally. I guess where I’m going with this is, which is a better world? One where my “italianness” was preserved, and I participated in italian rituals and cultural acts, or one where my italianness has dissipated to the point where mocking italians doesn’t even bother me, except in the same abstract sense that mocking indians bothers me.

    I suspect that this talk of “who owns native american culture” is a red herring. Who owns any culture? Isn’t the word “ownership” being used in some sort of bizarre fashion here? Lets say that jewish people “own” the seder. If I have a seder, can they stop me? Should they be able to? Should left thinking people get angry at me for “stealing” the jewish seder? Maybe “own” is just not a good word for this.

    The Boy Scouts have a number of ceremonies which are modeled after a grab bag of Indian ceremonies. I don’t think there’s any one to one comparison between boy scout ceremonies and specific tribal ceremonies, I think they’re kind of a composite. They were undoubtedly created during a time period when political correctness was not a concern. What factors should go into deciding whether these should be retained? Whether the Boy Scouts properly “own” these ceremonies? An abstract evaluation of “offensiveness?” Offensiveness to the general public? Offensiveness to actual, living Indians? Should we preference Indians who live in traditional manners? Do we want to get into the question of “who’s Indian enough that their opinion counts?” Do you need one of those cards? What about people from other ethnic backgrounds, who have married into an Indian tribe and now live as they do? What if the opinion polls change? Would we reevaluate, and put the ceremonies back in? Or take them out?

  9. Nancy-

    In classroom debates, as you’ve noticed, students sometimes impute assigned points of view to students who are only arguing a particular position because they were instructed to do so. A good way of defusing that is to make students argue both sides. I don’t know whether that fits into your format very practically, but it stops the self righteousness you often get, and, I think, lets people understand the issues a little better.

  10. Of course, when a team decided to turn the tables and call themselves the “Fighting Whites”, the same (white) people that fight so hard for their Indian mascots were deeply wounded. Robert Novak, for instance, complained on Crossfire that “It was meant to be offensive. They made the whites as a kind of silly little boys, white bred people…” (that’s from the rush transcript—I think it should be “white BREAD people”).

    That is totaly INACURATE! Alot of people LOVED this shirt when it came out. Of course, it was a stupid picture. But there is the fighting Irish (stereotype) leprechaun, the Vikings, Patriots….etc…

    As stated earlier, when all the images are of white guys, (Im sure the Zulus would not be offended) then the aborigional americans, (Im NATIVE American) will cry to be put back on… good luck…

  11. (Im sure the Zulus would not be offended)

    Eh? When was America in the business of oppressing the Zulus? The apt comparison would be with British football.

    As a comparison with the apparent compulsory need for a binominal title for sports teams in America, this is what the team names in the Premiership are:

    Aston Villa
    Birmingham City
    Blackburn Rovers
    Bolton Wanderers
    Charlton Athletic
    Manchester City
    Manchester United
    Newcastle United
    Tottenham Hotspur
    West Bromich Albion
    West Ham United
    Wigan Athletic

  12. Most of the replies are missing what is the key issue for Native Americans. A large part of the Native American problem is the is a broadbrush view of Native culture. Every major professional and collegite sports indian mascot is dressed in Plains costume; full length headress, buckskin and all. In addition, a majority of the mascots are cartoonish and foolish looking; to the indians, the mascot are the same as blackface is to African Americans. Finally, one of the major problems Native Americans have is the use of what they regard as sacred objects, like the headress, in a manner that to them, is just as sacriligious as using pages from a bible to wipe up a spill would be to a Christian. Also, the issue is the teams names; redskin, indian, squaw–which incidently,actually refers to female genitalia–buck, etc are the same to Native American as gook, wetback, nigger, are to Chinese, Hispanic, and african american peoples. That’s why the most native americans are fine with the Atlanta Braves–sanctioned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee–because it’s an occupational title, warrior, not a racial epitath

  13. The NCAA want to ban any mascots that are perceived as racial/ethnic/national origin? I am sick of saying this but this is political correctness gone mad.

  14. Being of Irish background, I have to comment on a “Fighting Irish” team(I believe that’s Notre Dame). There actually *was* a time when the “majority” culture)e.g. those not of Irish origin) thought that Irish people got into fights all the time. My mother told me on several occasions, usually close to St. Patrick’s Day, oddly, or not so oddly enough, that two Irish groups in the town she grew up in, would stage rival parades on St. Patrick’s Day, and everybody turned out to watch them. Why? They wanted to see the Irish fighting each other! But the rest of the year? Well, she never said, except in her town, Irish people were “looked down upon”. So I can see why the objection to “Fighting Irish”. While I have no direct experience of the kind of things Native Americans have to put up with every day of their lives, using names like “Redskins”, “Braves”, Savages”, etc. just stereotypes Native Americans in much the same way, and “appropriates” their culture(s) in ways over which they have no control.
    Anne G

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