The Only Good Indian Mascot is a Dead Indian Mascot
Facilitators: Cornel Pewewardy and Shilo George, April 13, 2013
Started with Pewewardy loudly hitting a stretched-skin drum with a leather mallet and ululating in traditional Native American vocalization.
[Personal Note: The drum beats startle me each time. A white audience member is vocalizing with him, apparently singing along. Am I supposed to be vocalizing? Are all of us? Is this expected; desired? I feel awkward and uncomfortable.]
Pewewardy finishes with his song and says a blessing or thought of some sort in his native tongue. Switches to English and introduces himself. He is Comanche and Kiowa. Pewewardy states that regardless of race or culture, it is important to be aware of the history of the lands and the cultures of those lands. He says it is also important to know the stories and histories of your own past, and how you came to the land. The song was a traditional Native American song that is apparently basically a national anthem of sorts for the Native peoples of this land. It is song that celebrates strength and resistance, and mourns loss. He introduces Shilo George, his female co-presenter, who is Tsistitas (Southern Cheyenne-Arapaho). She is a board member of OIEA (Oregon Indian Education Association).
[Personal note: My middle school, Chinook Middle School, used to have an Indian mascot. The year I attended, they changed it from a Chieftain-style stereotype to a totem emblem that was designed by Chinook tribal members working with the middle school students and staff. There were a lot of assemblies and stuff. It was a really cool discussion to have as an 8th grader, and not one I think most 8th graders have. Also, I just now realized I commented on Pewewardy’s last name as interesting/ unique to fellow attendee and I am a retard.]
They counted off around the room: 1, 2, 1, 2. Had all the 1’s form a circle, and all the 2’s form a circle outside the 1’s. Pewewardy says this is “circle methodology” which is an indigenous way of knowing. After this will be the presentation/ slideshow, which Pewewardy hopes will engage not only our consciousness but our “disconsciousness,” which he hopes will help engage us on a social justice and active consciousness level. He also lays out some “culture protocols” for the lecture/ presentation, which is basically to not interrupt and to hold our questions until the end of the presentation. They pass out some blank cards they say we will use at the end of the presentation.
Slideshow: The Only Good Indian Mascot is a Dead Indian Mascot.
Thesis: The possessive investment in whiteness to maintain American Indian mascots in American schools, media, and sport culture. We must consider and expand our awarenss of and understanding of this issue.
- Post-Indian, not Indian. This is very important, Pewewardy stresses. He is post-Indian. He asks we call him by his given name (Namanah; Comanche). States that Indian and Native American and American Indian are terms that were applied to his people by the invading dominant culture; that all the terms (even the p.c. ones) have been invented by the dominant culture.
- Honor Culture Protocols: Use of terms: Indian, Native, American Indian, Native American, First Nations People and Indigenous Peoples are issues of tribal sovereignity and self-determination. Says inclusivity is a threat to tribal sovereignity, and they don’t want to abide by PC terms coined by the dominant culture to be more inclusive. Points out that they cannot even speak/ pass on their native tongues anymore because English is the language of power — treaties are all in English.
[Personal Note: Brings to mind White By Law and the plight of the Mashpee.]
Slide: Cartoon depicting two modern white kids and a traditionally dressed Native man. The kids are asking the Native which team or corporation (mascot) he is representing.
Pewewardy asked (and answers) where Indian mascots originated from. It started in the early 20th century animal mascots were spreading among European and American boarding schools as a means to raise team spirit/ school solidarity. The use of Native American imagery as mascots was born out of the confluence of these events. The Native Americans were considered to be less human than whites, and more similar in mind/ manner to animals — therefore they easily fit into the practice of using animals and animal imagery as mascots. Further, when the Native American boarding schools would play against other boarding schools, the commentators/ announcers would refer to those teams as, “the Indians coming onto the field.”
Pewewardy expands on practice of Native American boarding schools. It was an attempt to prove American Indians could be educated and made civilized in a controlled and well-regulated environment. In the 1920s and 30s, an influx of white settlers into lands set aside for Native American tribes forced an exodus of Native American youth from their tribal lands. In many cases, these youth were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools or with families that forced a native erasure of their cultures.
[Personal Note: That’s the Mormon/ Lamanite intersection right there.]
Pewewardy shows 3 slides naming colleges that have dropped their Indian mascot imagery/ names. No time to write down names; he clicks through too quickly. Talks about the machinery of whiteness:
He says people see and look at these mascots through a gaze (lens) shaped by the dominant culture perspective rather than the indigenous perspective. Pewewardy points out that even when colleges get rid of the mascots, they do not try to actually change the conversation by bringing in Native curriculums, teachers, or indigenous histories.
Pewewardy moves onto white identity performances and the exploitation/ approbation of Native culture. Says it’s all about Imperial Nostalgia, and worse, it’s effecting the Native youth in America. Cites when Native American communities invent Indian communities/ identities; when they manufacture signs and ethnic images for the purpose of reliving and re-enacting the past of the American Wild West as it is projected to them through the lens of whiteness.
Examples of this would be when Native Americans term themselves things like “Beaver Nation,” “Grizzly Nation,” or “Otter Nation.” These are recent inventions, and they reveal the influence of the dominant white culture on the Native culture. Native youth are creating new identities based on the reflection of the white lens.
Pewewardy then introduces the white master narrative in language, tropes, and idiom. There is the romanticized myth of “going Indian” or “going Native.” This is a very popular myth in the Euro-American imagination; see Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and the more recent sci-fi spin on the trope, Avatar.
He then (very quickly) reviews some of the stereotypes applied to Native American imagery. Clicked through the slides super-quick, but this is what I was able to write down:
- The sad alcoholic
- The New Age Shaman/ Medicine Man
- The Wise Guide
- Kemosabe Theory (idea that the Native American theory can only be a helpful subordinate or sidekick, not the hero)
He then address the language of savagery:
- The only good Indian is a dead Indian.
- Low man on the totem pole.
- Better dead than red.
- Kill the Indian, save the American.
- Honest injun.
- Indian giver.
- Noble savage.
- One little, two little, three little Indians
Explains the last one — apparently comes from a children’s rhyme that used to read: One little, two little, three little n*ggers, and was changed when that was no longer p.c. — Indian was apparently a valid solution?
George took over presentation to discuss the issue of Native approbation, starting with the earliest introduction for most American kids: Halloween costumes. She takes us through a series of advertisements found online for the costumes, showing that the description of the item is often just as — if not more — degrading as the item itself. Advertisements tell the would-be purchaser that they will, “learn about culture with this Native Indian warrior wig,” or that, “this adult sexy Indian will bring spirits to their knees!“, or that parents should, “prepare little warrior for tribal council with papoose bunting!“. These advertisements minimize the cultural background and erasure of these cultures, while pretending to celebrate it.
Further, they teach the white dominant privilege of seeing this as “not a big deal” from a very young age; telling youth through both word and action that Native issues are not “real” issues, and this is all just a fun game. On top of that, the sexy female Indian costume minimizes and erases the on-going and current tragedy that is the high rate of sexual assault and rape inflicted on Native women, primarily by non-Native men.
She talks about Stanford. Apparently they retired their offensive caricature of the Stanford Indian mascot back in 1958, but Stanford alumni brought it back in 2010. She shows an image of the mascot: A stereotyped caricature of a running Indian with a large, hooked nose; breechcloth; raised tomahawk; two feathers; and war paint stripes. The reason Stanford alumni brought it back was because they believed their nostalgia and perception of the mascot as “harmless” outweighed any other issues: They see it not as cultural approbation but as their right to use.
She talks about how this is an endemic view in America; that the Native cultures have been scooped up by a Wild Wild West/ Americana mentality, and many like to claim a Native presence/ influence. Cites as an example Scappoose, OR. In the 1890s, over 90% of the Multnomah tribe was decimated by fever. The remainder were scooped up and relocated by the US government. This occurred before the settlers even came into the area. Yet even though the white settlers actually never dealt with interacted with the Multnomah tribe, they have a strong pride of the stereotypical/ dominant white lens version the region’s Native American history.
George talks about how in the 1990s, great strides were made in addressing the offensive nature of these mascots, and many of the mascots were retired. Now we are experiencing a backlash of white nostalgia and a push by whites to bring back the offensive mascots.
Language and Justifications of Native American Mascots
Trope of the Noble Savage — white people claim they are honoring the culture, and point to the nobility/ beauty/ manliness of the imagery to illustrate how it’s a compliment.
Redskin – This term refers to the bloody membranes of Native scalps brought back for bounty/ reward by trappers and colonists during the Westward expansion of the United States. The bloody membrane was red in color and associated with all the other wild animal pelts brought in for bounty, therefore termed a “red skin.”
[Personal Note: I did not know that. I thought it was because people were saying Indians have red skin. It makes no sense, but neither does calling me white or Chinese yellow or Africans black. Also, the casual addressing of settlers and scalping seemed to be news to many in the room — I saw a lot of raised eyebrows and shocked looks.]
Public-Use Images: Public-school icons — including sports mascots — are open to community use. Community members can do whatever they like with those images, use them as they see fit, and spread them throughout the community, regardless of how racist or problematic the image may be (and also regardless if the school has retired it).
She then shows a slide with a cartoon depicting caricatures of other minority races, and the tagline: Let’s spread the fun. The caricatures each have a “team name” underneath them, ie: Seattle Asians, Detroit Africans, Los Angeles Hispanics, and Cleveland Indians. The caricatures depict the most outrageous versions of the stereotypical art that has been historically used in America to illustrate these races.
[Personal Note: What would a white caricature look like? Would this as effective, less effective, or more effective if the artist chose to depict a white stereotype as well?]
George proposes strategies of change: Social Media, Research papers, speaking out, news articles, etc. She also admonishes us that inaction is still an action — it is the action of complicity. Reminds us that silent racism deserves attention as well.
Pewewardy takes over, says allies should know their own cultural history and have an awareness of their past. It’s important to know where you come from and how you got to where you are.
[Personal Note: I can’t help but think of many of my white-presenting friends who claim Native American or Eastern Spiritual traditions, which they say they have a right to do because a) a spiritual awakening occurred, b) family rumor of distant ancestry, or c) they say they have permission from an actual Native person.
I always wonder why they feel the need to seek out and borrow from other people’s romanticized cultures instead of tracing back through their own cultural history and traditions. Everyone has dark shadows and light places in their past — just because the so-called white cultures have cast a larger shadow doesn’t mean I have to turn my back on my ancestors to appreciate and accept other cultures.]
Then he introduces his article on the defensive tactics and attributions on dodging the dialog of cultural diversity. These tactics are grouped into four subcategories:
- Dismissal/ patronizing
They return to the example of the Scappoose Indians and a proposed Indian Mascot ban. Talk about the objections/ arguments raised against the ban, and how they meet the above criteria: crab theorist (insults/ taunts/ use of sarcasm); claim that whites are honoring them; please give me a break (whiners/ oversensitive); the strategy of innocent gestures; the distracter (whites bringing up Indian casinos & implied financial success to subvert discussion from the topic of mascots).
Pewewardy says language has changed, and political correctness is now commonplace. Says people are developing tools/ arguments against this shift by casting political correctness as weak/ namby-pamby/ state control. The tactic of attacking allies for being “politically correct run amok” is a distraction intended to subvert the topic under discussion rather than address it.
[Personal Note: I have always felt like people who argue against political correctness are arguing for their right to use hate speech. I don’t understand why being polite and considerate has become so maligned.]
Drawing on Rhea Almeida’s 2013 work of Hierarchies of Power, Privilege, and Oppression, and James Banks’ Levels of Multicultural Integration, they created a graphic with a “circular multi-level cultural integration approach.”
It says to change the dialog, we need to start/ build from these spaces: a Contributions Approach (focus on heroes, holidays, discrete elements of cultural contribution), move to an Additive Approach (discussing content and concepts in relation to the Contributions), segue into a Transformative Approach (the structure of the curriculum to change the students understanding of concepts and cultures), and lead into a Social Justice Action Approach (which empowers students to participate in conversation/ dialog and create tangible change).
Touched briefly on institutionalized backlash against the movement, such as some House and Senate bills (Senate Bill 215) in Oregan that would erase native culture and limit the conversations.
- White allies, how do you work within your communities to address Native American mascots?
- Are there Indian mascots in your community that no-one is talking about?
- If so, why?
Guy — Jefferson County, KY is a mascot-free zone. Had a contest with students to pick a new mascot. Wanted to put out there that mascots also are an issue because they engender violence, and that even the attempt to change mascots can result in real and serious violence brought against those leading the conversation.
Dr. P — Acknowledges the violence and the resistance, both physical and psychological. Says his own career in academia was stalled because of this kind of resistance; that dominant culture did not want to read or review his papers. Says the resistance to the discussion can cause very real harm and damages to the lives of those pushing the conversation.
Lady –In OK, a lot of white people compare their feelings of viewing mascots such as the Vikings in a positive light, and wonder why the Natives can’t be likewise pleased/ flattered by the situation. She wants to know how to concisely address that.
Dr. P — Says he will provide online resources for her to look up.
S. George — Adds that a very short answer would be to point out that the histories and power dynamics of the cultures in question are very different.
Dude — Asks if, by erasing negative mascots, will we actually erase negative ideas about Native Americans in the media?
Dr. P & S. George: Response is summed up by them saying they don’t control the media, but believe the influence of such a change would be a focus on the more positive representatives that are currently overlooked/ overwhelmed by the negative representations that dominate the conversation.
S. George brings up two common ways people derail discussions: Trickster (the person is conscious of the issue, but pretends ignorance in order to spark a reaction). Van Winkle (the community/ person is stuck in an antiquated mindset/ era and is not aware of the issue).
Man — He talks about assigning papers to her students about the role of mascots, and references some Seminole College debate. (?)
Dr. P — (apparently in response to Seminole reference?) Says some Native Americans will buy into the mascot thing, and that’s an issue of politics and money. Basically the dominant white culture infiltrates the tribe and offers money/ favors to buy their tribal endorsement of the names/ images, which then makes it “okay”. This can cause inter-tribal conflict and is a problematic issue within the Native American communities.
Hippe chickie — Wants to know how she can honor lands and history without co-opting culture. Dr. P asks her to clarify, and she asks, “What if [she] goes to Pennsylvania, for instance, and started teaching and talking about the tribal lands and native cultures of the area — as a non-local white person, is she co-opting their history and culture by teaching about that land and history herself?
Dr. P — Basically says it’s fine, no problems. It’s remembering and honoring the culture/ history, and it’s fine to honor the histories and realities of the spaces we share.
[Personal Note: On that last question, I was super confused. I thought she meant, like, re-enacting tribal rituals, or maybe repurposing certain Native practices/ artwork for personal spiritual growth or pleasure, and I was thinking, “Uh, yeah, that’s totally problematic.” Then she busts out with talking about history as potentially problematic/ native approbation, and I was like, uh, okaaay . . .
Maybe the line is obvious to me, and that’s where my confusion lies, but there is historical memory and empathy, where you research and interview and cite stories and teach a balanced and truthful and often painful or confronting history that does not romanticize or idealize any specific culture or path.
Then there’s cultural approbation, where white guilt leads to painting whites as solely bad and all the cultures they colonized/ enslaved as solely powerless victims who were connected with the earth in an idealized manner.
This is still good vs. bad, we’ve just flipped the narrative from a conquering hero defeating savages (or rescuing noble savages) story to a narrative about the heroic victim eradicated by greedy, evil whites. Both narratives are one-dimensional and flawed in their presentation. For whites to ignore or deny their own histories in order to adopt one-dimensional idealized versions of the cultures and histories they have colonized, enslaved, and erased is not the solution!]