Asserting Cultural Sovereignty
Digital History ID 731
Wisconsin Indian Education Association
A casual contempt toward Native Americans pervades American popular culture. Many of our professional sports teams take their nicknames from Native Americans. Thus alongside the names of “wild” animals--such as the Bears, Cougars, Lions, and Tigers--we have the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Golden State Warriors, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Washington Redskins.
Racist contempt is not restricted to team names. It can also be seen in such “rituals” as the “tomahawk chop” or demeaning dances, or the offensive use of feathers, face painting, drums, and war whoops. Ethnic slurs that would be unthinkable if directed at other groups are sometimes defended as a way to “honor” our Indian heritage. Many non-Indians seem oblivious to the insidious impact of such offensive practices. They help perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes about Native American cultures. They demean Native American peoples' sacred objects, ceremonial traditions, and components of traditional dress. They mock Native American religious practices.
Some colleges and universities, such as Stanford and Dartmouth, and some high school districts, including Dallas and Los Angeles, have changed their athletic teams' nicknames. But may derogatory names and practices persist. In 1992, the Wisconsin Indian Education Association condemned the use of insulting nicknames, symbols, and caricatures.
Stereotypical images of American Indians interfere with learning by creating, supporting and maintaining oversimplified, and inaccurate views of indigenous peoples and their cultures. Along with other societal abuses and stereotypes, Indian mascots and logos separate, marginalize, confuse, intimidate and harm American Indian children, thereby creating a barrier to learning and making the school an inhospitable place. Schools must be places where children are allowed equal opportunity to participate in learning. The use of American Indian logo caricatures denies full and welcome participation to American Indian children, while at the same time teaching all school children to tolerate discrimination against Indian people, their heritage and cultures.
Regardless of original intent, relative attractiveness, or degree of cherished attachment, an American Indian logo and the school traditions that grow up around it present harmful stereotypes of living people and living cultures to students in the school environment. American Indian logos do not honor Indian people; these logos are nothing more than outmoded, culturally demeaning symbols of oppression. Icons of discrimination, including American Indian logos are slowly and surely following Sambos restaurants and blackface minstrel shows into the realm of cultural oblivion. At question is not whether American Indian mascots and logos will be removed from school settings across the nation, but when and how. Rising awareness that these archaic symbols are teaching children how to do racism is resulting in the removal of American Indian logos in elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities throughout the nation. In October of last year, the Los Angeles School District, the second largest in the nation, banned the use of Indian mascots and logos. In May of this year, the Dallas Public Schools followed LA's lead. In recent years the State of Minnesota has decreased Indian logos in its public schools by over 80%. In national forums such as the Conference for the Elimination of Racist Mascots, the National Congress of American Indians Semi-Annual Meeting, and the National Indian Education Association Conference, Indian people and their allies are asking that schools eliminate AIndian@ mascots and logos by the year 2000 so that Indian people can enter the next millennium without this form of racism doing damage to our children and our cultures.
Finally, one particular image, the characterization of a Plains Indian religious leader is insulting because it is being associated, not with a religious place or ceremony, but with a sporting event - as part of a game. Not only does it misrepresent and trivialize American Indian religions, but depicting an equivalent religious leader from another culture: an Archbishop, Minister, Rabbi, the Dali Llama, or the Pope would be unthinkable. Such an icon would not be tolerated both because it insults our religious sensibility, that sense of reverence that informs our behavior when in the presence of the sacred, and because it promotes a particular religion in a public school setting.
Additional information not located on Digital History (opens in a new window):
Wisconsin Indian Education Association Position Paper, http://pages.prodigy.net/munson/position_paper.htm
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