It is time to end the use of “Indian” mascots to represent sports teams. Whether or not you believe the mascot is in “good taste,” empirical data universally acknowledges that these symbols promote negative stereotypes of Native people to non-Native students at schools and institutions and cause psychological harm.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for “the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations.”
The APA’s position is based on a growing body of social science that shows “the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people.” In addition, “the symbols, images and mascots perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions about American Indian culture” and “teach non-Indian children that it’s acceptable to participate in culturally abusive behavior.”
The cost of keeping these symbols far outweighs the cost of removal. The excuses and justifications used to keep these mascots in place have never been valid. It is not acceptable to maintain a racist “tradition.” We see the harm it does, especially to young people who learn this imagery and keep it as part of their false understanding of the history of Native people.
This false history is your story, not the story of the Indigenous people of America. Christopher Columbus did not discover America, the Indians did not sell Manhattan for $24 and the Pilgrims never sat down with the Wôpanak of Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day. Our reality is that our ancestors are dug up to build golf courses or stables, thousands of our women are missing and murdered with little effort by law enforcement to investigate or seek justice for these crimes, and our language and culture continue to be destroyed, misappropriated as “fashion” or worse.
I remember as a 17-year-old freshman being pelted with bottles and other debris for protesting the use of the Dartmouth College “Indian” mascot at a nationally televised football game with Cornell University, at the time when Ed Marinaro, the runner up to the 1971 Heisman Trophy winner, was their featured running back. Only after that well-publicized protest did the college ultimately change its name to “The Big Green.”
I’m 66 and still protesting.
Strong public sentiment opposes the use of “Indian” mascots. In May, Maine banned all Native symbols as mascots. Connecticut and Massachusetts are considering bills to ban their use. Even the Cleveland baseball team voluntarily removed from its uniform one of the most racist symbols of Indigenous people.
The Washington, D.C., football team was forced to change its name, not out of any sense of altruism, but only after receiving economic pressure from its sponsors.
In April 2001, the then-state Commissioner of Education asked all superintendents and presidents of school boards to “end the use of Native American mascots as soon as practical.” This statement was issued over 19 years ago. The current commissioner must now mandate the end of Native Americans as “mascots.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said:
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say ‘wait on time’.”
It is time.
Harry B. Wallace is former chief of the Unkechaug Nation and is a member of the Long Island Intertribal Historic Preservation Task Force.