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Native American Mascot Controversies & Sociological Perspectives

Instructor: David White
For the last several years, the controversy over the use of Native imagery and names in American sports has grown. Through this lesson, you will learn some history of the controversy and explore the sociological perspective on the issue.

What's in a Name?

Over the last few years, there has been much attention paid to sports teams like the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, and the Washington Redskins. Unlike the various other sports teams that occupy a space in American popular culture, it wasn't the teams' records that garnered so much attention, but their names.

Each of the three teams mentioned above make reference to Native peoples living in the United States, and they have all drawn criticism for, among other things, negatively depicting Native peoples and promoting stereotypes that Native communities have been fighting against for hundreds of years. For example, the Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo, is a grinning cartoon image that perpetuates the childlike 'red man' stereotype popular in the early-to-mid 20th century.

Teams like the Redskins frequently use Native imagery, despite protests from Native communities.
redskin helmet

When it comes to racial equality and tolerance of diversity, the names and mascots of sports teams probably doesn't seem too significant. However, from a sociological perspective these mascots and team names reflect an attitude towards Native peoples that is incredibly complicated and has had many negative consequences.

The issue

At its core, the controversy over the names and mascots of sports teams is a matter of respect. Most Native peoples claim that these names and images are disrespectful towards Native communities and reflect the intolerance that Americans have shown towards Native peoples since the 17th century.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Native activists and groups like the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) have protested the use of these names and mascots, occasionally achieving some success in persuading teams and schools to change their names. Nevertheless, there still remain around 1000 sports teams across the country that maintain the use of Native themed mascots and team names. The term redskin, for example, is a slang term that dates back hundreds of years and is still used as a derogatory way of referring to a Native person.

From the perspective of many sports fans, team members, and owners, these activists are either being too sensitive or misinterpreting the intention behind the use. In some cases, the claim is that it portrays Native peoples in a positive light; depicting them as strong warriors. Others, meanwhile, claim that it is a part of the team's heritage and shouldn't be changed.

The Other

For the sociologist, the mascot controversy is of particular interest. While most will likely have an opinion on the matter, what they are more interested in is why the issue is significant to American culture.

In general, Native peoples fall into a category that French philosopher Michel Foucault referred to as the Other. Specifically, Foucault and others have used this term to refer to minority groups, particularly how they are interpreted and perceived by the dominant culture. Since the arrival of white settlers in America, Native peoples have been frequently misunderstood, misrepresented, and mistreated by whites. Although this has been done for different reasons at different times, it's often related to how white people perceive themselves.

For example, throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, white Americans perceived themselves to be superior to other races, like African Americans and Native peoples. As a result, they treated both groups (the Other) as inferior and unequal. Often times, this idea was promoted in literature, and later in television and film, through depictions of savage Indians who were of low intelligence.

Given this history and the role that these stereotypes and misrepresentations played in Indian removal and relocation, the use of similar themes in the present can provoke a strong response from both groups. On the one hand, Native peoples recognize them as a way of disrespecting and undermining their autonomy, while white proponents defend them as a part of their own history.

Despite protests, many teams, like Florida State University, continue to use Native mascots.
chief

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