On the subject of mascots named after American Indians, most of us can probably agree on two points:
• The names weren’t selected to demean Indians. On the contrary, names like “Braves,” “Chiefs” and “Warriors” certainly were adopted because they communicate strength and power. Many sports teams select names that instill a sense of awe, perhaps even to intimidate. After all, few teams are named “Puppies” and “Wimps.”
• Some schools portray their Indian mascot in ways that many today would consider embarrassing, such as when war-painted non-Indians dress up in feathered headdresses, execute tomahawk “chops” and scream faux war whoops.
While many schools make an effort to portray their Indian mascot in culturally sensitive ways, it’s not always easy to control how young males choose to behave in support of their teams. If it were, there would be no need for security guards.
These points are worth considering as 50 schools in the state with Indian mascots decide whether to comply with a state Board of Education request that they change those nicknames. Pierce County schools with Indian mascots are the Clover Park Warriors and the Bethel Braves.
Schools should consider whether their mascots are portrayed in a way that respects native culture or distorts it. Would members of a local tribe find the portrayal positive? Have local tribal elders even been asked what they think?
It might surprise critics of Indian mascots to learn that most Native Americans don’t appear interested in changing teams’ names. Polls have suggested that, by a large majority, Indians are OK with high school and college teams using Indian mascots, and the approval rate is even higher for pro teams.
Indian activists say that is more reflective of low self-esteem than of true support. They point to names like the (Washington) Redskins and mascots like the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo as the most derogatory, verging on racist. Even many Indians who don’t have a problem with mascots like the Warriors or Braves are insulted by Redskins and offensive caricatures like Chief Wahoo.
While there’s been no trend of pro teams changing their names, that’s not the case at the high school and college level. Hundreds of schools nationwide have replaced their Indian mascots, and Oregon’s Board of Education has ordered schools in that state to change within five years. Only eight schools are affected there.
The trend is definitely moving away from Indian names. Local schools have a decision to make – if not now, then certainly down the line. In the meantime, they should ensure that their mascot is portrayed in a culturally respectful manner.