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Stereotypes (Participation)

February 8, 2012


What are the consequences of stereotypes of Native Americans evident in these mascots?  lets discuss

It’s a White Man’s Game: Racism, Native American Mascots, and the NCAA

By C. Richard King 29 September 2005

Not since the disputed presidential election of 2000 had the leadership of Florida responded with such pronounced urgency to a social or political crisis. Talk of legal action, the convening of emergency meetings among policy makers, and the frenzied pace at which commentators expressed disbelief and disgust were not incited by the failings of public education, the debasement of civil liberties, growing economic inequities, or even the economic and ecological catastrophes associated with rising oil prices.

No, the public panic in Florida, and across the United States, resulted from a decision by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to initiate a partial ban on the use of American Indian imagery, names, and symbols in its post-season tournaments, because it judged them “hostile and abusive” to indigenous peoples. Florida State University, along with 18 other colleges and universities (notably the University of Illinois, the University of North Dakota, and the University of Utah) would be impacted by the new policy. While many pundits and activists applauded the action as a welcome move, others deemed it to be both timid and long overdue. In the wake of the decision, unfortunately, these voices have too often been muffled, if not silenced, by defenses of the status quo and reiterations of clichés that have become well worn at best. To paraphrase: “Chief Illiniwek honors native peoples” or “If it weren’t for Osceola, I never would learned anything about, let alone been interested in, American Indians.” The intense reactions to the ban, particularly the arguments advanced in defense of the continued use of American Indian imagery in intercollegiate athletics, give me great pause.

To begin, I am troubled by the foundation of the current crisis: the policy itself. Its timing is puzzling at best. As an observer of the ongoing controversy over Native American mascots for more than a decade, I was more than a little surprised by the NCAA’s decision. Why do this now? For more than a quarter of century, Native American political leaders and organizations, as well as students and educators, have strongly criticized the continued use of American Indian imagery in sport. And to be fair, many colleges and universities (such as Marquette University) have listened to their concerns, opting to rethink, if not revise, their previous names, symbols, and rituals. Despite these few voluntary actions, however, the NCAA decision becomes even more startling given the larger context of contemporary intercollegiate athletics—a world that’s too often more concerned with media, marketing, and money than graduation rates, the welfare of student-athletes, or the paucity of coaches of color, not to mention social justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I found it more than a little heartening that the NCAA finally engaged the issue as a matter of organizational policy, recognizing (in a decidedly limited fashion) the import of power and process to the pleasures of play. The new policy, however, should not in my estimation be read as an anti-racist intervention. Quite the contrary, the so-called ban is something of a half-measure, a compromise (and compromised) position. It does little to highlight institutional racism, and refuses once more to reflect upon its own culpability. The NCAA opts to frame the problem with Native American mascots in terms of hostility and abusiveness. I would concur that such imagery hurts and terrorizes people, normalizing, if not celebrating, forms of symbolic and systematic violence, which in this instance perpetuate hundreds of years of colonization and racialization. This is not, however, what many Americans understand the new policy to be saying. As the NCAA policy makers speak about offensive attitudes and acts directed by misguided individuals at innocent victims, they reduce institutional racism to feelings, motivations, and affronts, making it an individual problem rather than a systemic one. The NCAA’s ban individualizes and psychologizes social conditions and cultural systems, encouraging a kind therapeutic anti-racism that selectively treats a predefined and overdetermined “problem,” not its historical foundations or lived manifestations. Such a framework, I would argue then, not only misconceives of the place of race and racism in the “normal” state of affairs, but also dashes efforts to undo racism.

In contrast with the NCAA’s position—a position so pervasive that it constitutes the common sense of both critics and defenders of Native American mascots—racism must not be confused with prejudice; it instead must be understood as domination. It is not simply that whites have bad attitudes or do bad things even when they mean no harm; racism refers to a system of social relations, a set of structural inequalities, cultural forms and ideological norms, all rooted in racialized conceptions and categories. Rather than an aberrant, extreme, or antiquated feature of the American experience, racism is normal, everyday, and ever-present, defining American institutions and ideologies. While we may wish to welcome the NCAA ban, we must also refuse the sincere fictions that make it possible by insisting that racism be understood as both ideological and institutional, a force field involving much more than individual intentions, ideas, or attitudes.

More troubling than the contradictions and complicities of the new policy have been the contorted positions and neocolonial commitments advanced in opposition to it. Whether voiced in institutional press releases, internet chatrooms, or opinion columns, familiar refrains of honor and intentionality pace passionate defenses, often paired with invocations of other ethnic mascots (Fighting Irish and Viking being especially popular) and indignant cries of political correctness. In addition to these more or less foundational rebuttals (that in many respects resonate well with the understandings of race and racism underpinning the NCAA’s position), proponents of the continued use of American Indian imagery in intercollegiate athletics introduce other arguments that reveal much about the shape of racial politics in the contemporary United States.


Let’s start at the top. Reflecting on the new policy, Florida Governor Jeb Bush remarked that the policy was “ridiculous,” and suggested that members of the NCAA “need[ed] to get out more often.” The republican governor asserts that this is not a serious issue; it is in fact a joke. Bush intimates those who would advocate the ban are ill-informed, cloistered, and/or overly serious, for if they were more in touch and aware, they could not possibly find symbols and names like those employed at Florida State University to be abusive or hostile. In his passing comment, Bush illuminates a key defense strategy: trivialize and dismiss critique; retain control of common sense understandings; refuse to talk about race.


When the racial significance of Native American mascots has entered the conversation, it increasingly has demarcated good and bad uses of Indian-ness. Whereas the Southeast Oklahoma State Savages obviously have ugly overtones and demand action, we are to understand that others like those at Florida State University or the University of Utah actually convey important values and traditions in a respectful, if not ennobling, fashion. A key indicator of “appropriate” imagery, as well as the misguided moralizing of the NCAA, is the support of American Indian individuals and tribes. On the one hand, opponents to the ban frequently point to dubious polls purporting to demonstrate that the majority of Native Americans approve of such mascots. The Salt Lake City Tribune even suggested that a referendum be held among the Ute to resolve the controversy at the University of Utah. On the other hand, defenders regularly invoke the special relationships that universities have with Native Americans. Florida State University routinely invokes the Seminole Tribe of Florida, while ignoring the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma, to legitimate its rituals and symbols. Significantly, authentic Indians authorize Indian imagery, but in decidedly different ways.


The use of polls, for example, collapses democracy to the tyranny of the majority, suggesting that questions of proper action and just relations might be reduced to a popularity contest. Would we change our assessment of the African slave trade if slaves could be found who supported it? Would we condone genocide if some portion of those being cleansed spoke out in favor of it because they received political rewards or social esteem? An equally troubling set of questions emerges when one ponders when the views and values of American Indians matter. Why is this one of the few issues where they are consulted? And more, if the majority of Native Americans supported the return of the Black Hills or the payment of reparations to survivors of boarding schools, would EuroAmericans so quickly embrace their opinions?


Somewhat ironically, supporters of Native American mascots have suggested that the NCAA is silencing American Indians, refusing to recognize them as citizens and their tribes as sovereign. Again, when Indians matter is telling; they are meaningful when it is convenient for white individuals and institutions, and especially when they legitimate predominant versions of the white man’s Indian. Thus, Florida State University celebrates one Seminole tribe, while ignoring another. Similarly, the kind of power accorded to the Seminole is quite limited, if not illusory. They may grant permission, but they do not occupy a meaningful structural position that might shape the conception and implementation of educational policy or land development. They become little more than tokens and trophies for a white centered and white dominated university, intent to retain its Indian, and the immense profits and pleasures that image accords.


In fact, some of the rhetoric marshaled in defense of Native American mascots would be best described as neocolonial, reiterating the logic and legacies of conquest and empire. Florida State University Trustee Richard McFarlain offers a chilling example: “I could care less what the Seminole Tribe in Oklahoma think. They’re in Oklahoma. They got run out of here by—who was it, Andrew Jackson or somebody like that? Trail of Tears? The real Seminoles stayed here.” Note the social Darwinism here that simultaneously excuses forced removal and applauds the few strong Seminoles who survived. And here a fundamental feature of the ongoing controversy exposes itself: empire is what made the use of American Indian names and symbols generally pleasurable and possible in the United States. Despite important social changes, imperial idioms continue to center the American experience.


In fact, listening to the impassioned defense offered in support of the continued use of American Indian imagery in intercollegiate athletics, I find that much of the concern pivots around whiteness. Repeatedly taking and remaking Native America has facilitated the claiming and naming of white institutions, identities, and experiences. In this context, the key difficulty of the NCAA ban is not that it co-opts indigenous voices and values—as some would have it—or even that it challenges tradition per se, but that it reflects a policing of whiteness, particularly the privileges and possibilities to which many white Americans feel entitled. Supporters of Osceola and Chief Illiniwek, along with other countless Native American mascots, balk at policies designed to ensure cultural citizenship and justice for all, precisely because they see such measures as infringements on their lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness. Rather than recognize unequal rights and rewards associated with a deeply racialized social world, many boosters, pundits, and administrators opt instead to embrace an increasingly common perspective on post-civil rights America: racism has receded, happily replaced with a commitment to colorblindness. At the same time, laudable goals of fairness and equality have prompted some minorities and their allies (especially those in the media and academe) to attack, criminalize, and seek to eradicate the values and virtues associated with whiteness, masculinity, and Christianity—the same values and virtues that made this country great. In a very real sense, the struggle over Native American mascots is a struggle over what it means to be American, and who gets to decide.


In the end, a set of lingering questions accompany my certain conclusions. How has the war on terror with its insistence on patriotism, its reiteration of antiquated binaries (barbarism vs. civilization, for instance), and its deep suspicions of dissent shaped public reception of the NCAA ban? What is the state of democracy in Florida and the nation as a whole, nearly five years after the electoral crisis, when public institutions of higher education like Florida State University refuse teachable moments such as this to reflect upon core concepts such as inclusion, community, dignity, and equality? How is the ongoing effort to retain Native American mascots connected to other racial projects in sport—from the language used to depict athletes of color to policies related to age limits, for instance, that seek to discipline unruly black and brown bodies? Finally, what will it take for the use of American Indian symbols and names in sports to end, and for indigenous people to be recognized as people?

via It’s a White Man’s Game: Racism, Native American Mascots, and the NCAA < PopMatters.


From → Participation

  1. Alexandra Wilson permalink

    I find it very respectful of the NCAA to ban using Native American references as mascots. Personally I am 1/8 Native American, but grew up in a white suburbia therefore not having much relation with my own tribe. I never found it offensive but rather cool that my ancestors are representing a school. Although on the other side of it there is a local high school nearby called Issaquah High School and there mascot was the Indians. When I was in 8th grade the mascot got changed to the Eagles by request of the local tribe who was offended by what their reputation has turned into. At a rivalry game their totem pole got burned down as a practical joke by the rivals but as you can imagine the tribe found it very offensive that their traditions were taken as a joke. I understand why members of the tribe would take offense, similar to the cartoon above with the obnoxious fan misrepresenting the tribal member. Once the mascot turns into a joke and is made fun of it embarrasses the entire tribe who are people with feelings. I believe all mascots should be treated with respect and its best to not have any real life people as mascots in order to avoid conflict.

  2. Aaron Verhei permalink

    I respect what the NCAA is doing here by making this ban on the mascots. Personally i do not agree with this ban on Indian mascots. I personally don’t see anything wrong with the mascots being used or see anything wrong with the schools using them. The Universities are not trying to portray a bad image or be racist by using them as mascots. When a school picks a mascot they are not picking it to find the most terrifying or the mascot that will be the most feared. If that was the case would we really have say the Oregon Ducks? or the Miami dolphins? School mascots are not meant to be making fun of any certain type of people or promote any bad image. They are meant to be used to help rally the crowd and motivate a school. This being said i will agree with the post of above me i agree that If the Native American tribes around the area of these schools do not want these mascots being used than i say the schools should respect that decision and change there mascots, but i do not personally agree with this ban the NCAA is trying to place.

  3. Is intent or the reason behind selection (decades ago) important? What about larger consequences? Check out story on testimony before U.S. congress and a study in this regard — and

  4. Amelia McClung permalink

    I completely agree with the NCAA ban on native mascots. These mascots are all portrayed as a red-faced man with a Plains headdress on. These mascots make Indians a thing of the past and I think it adds to many people’s ignorance about contemporary Native Americans. In one of my classes, one person asked the question, “What do Contemporary Native Americans look like?”, as a Native artist was speaking to the class (race and racism in pop culture). As a Native American myself I was slightly offended by his comment because I’ve met my fair share of ignorant and ill-informed people when it comes to natives. I feel that these mascots, along with some other factors, like education, contribute to people believing that natives still live in teepees, still hunt and fish for survival, and don’t have anything to do with the modern world. This step made by the NCAA may not mean much in the larger sense, but it’s a start at informing the public that Native Americans are still alive and have emotions like everyone else about “just jokes”.

  5. Katie Nelson permalink

    I think what the NCAA is doing is the right thing to do, even though I don’t think it is completely necessary. As the article stated, this is long overdue and if they wanted to do this they should have a long time ago when the issue was first addressed. A ban on Indian mascots is a little far fetched, I don’t see how this helps the school’s reputation in any way. Mascots aren’t always meant to be scary so why is an Indian mascot a bad thing? Take Whittier for instance, their mascot is a Poet, obviously not something meant to be feisty or scary. This just shows how much advertising and publicity affect the way people look at a school.

  6. Alex Clark permalink

    I can support the NCAA here with the intent to help reduce portrayal of negative stereotypes on Native Americans, but I feel they might be going a little too far. Most people don’t know how badly the Native Americans were abused in our nation’s history, but to cut them out of sports like this with accusations that we are mocking them is a little excessive. I think it is honoring them as a historic group more than portraying them as negative figures.

  7. There are a powerful movie on this topic, called in “whose honor?”
    Here are a couple links to further the conversation — and, to further the conversation

  8. Kyla Chappell permalink

    I highly support the NCAA for their efforts to help end the stereotypes of Native Americans, often having a negative connotation. No matter if it took this long for it to be recognized, at least they are doing something about it now. But, I agree with the comment 2 above mine, where they say they are taking it too far but completely taking them out of sports representation. I think the negative stereotypes should be obliterated, but not the Indian representation all together. I also agree that some teams having Native American images could very well be honoring them though representation. I also think that if they are making a big deal about Native American mascots, why not the Irish Mascots, for example???

  9. The history of the “Fighting Irish” is a very different history, although it shows the ways in which the Irish were racialized at the turn of the century. The history here is interesting, although the history is very distinct and different from the history of Native Americans – no? Another thing we haven’t talked about is discrimination and a lack of opportunities afforded to to Native American high school students as collegiate student-athletes – how does play out here? Keep up interesting conversation

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