Why Native American-Themed Mascots affect Students of Today
Mascots depicting Native Americans are starting to become a thing of the past, because the ramifications affect those of the present. Joshua Hunt, a Tri-C student and vice chair of the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, a group that promotes respect for Indigenous people, gave a virtual presentation March 10 as part of the college’s Common Reading Spring 2021 speaker series. It focused on the harm caused when images of Native people are used as mascots.
The common reading book discussed at the end of the presentation was the There There by Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange. It is a work of fiction about Native Americans in modern times.
Stephanie Greer, Common Reading program co-chair of West campus, started off the program by stating that according to the Lake Erie Native American Council, about 28,000 citizens of northeast Ohio are Native, and they represent more than 100 tribal nations.
Hunt, who is an enrolled tribal citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, showed photos representing his modern life in Cleveland, such as celebrating holidays with his parents and sister, sitting with his wife, and holding his kitten.
Mascots perpetuate the view that Native culture and people are in the past, and “imply that we don’t exist in the present,” he said. “We are rendered invisible.”
Also, often only one culture is presented, usually plains people, when in fact, there are many different ones, such as the woodlands people or the Inuits in the north.
“Mascots eliminate and erase our diversity. It’s easy to discriminate if you think they are all alike,” Hunt said.
Another problematic aspect of mascots is that they perpetuate racist stereotypes, he said. He listed common themes such as the view that Indigenous people are “primitive, childlike and at one with nature” as well as “bloodthirsty savages” and “fierce warriors.”
Most other team mascots represent predatory animals or inanimate objects and Indigenous mascots are lumped in with them. “It is demoralizing and racist, to say the least,” he said.
Often, the image is just the head of the Native person.
“A Native head is a symbol of genocide,” he said, explaining white settlers were encouraged by some of their communities to kill Natives and would bring their heads in as proof to collect a cash bounty. People end up depicting that history “whether they realize it or not.”
He shared photos of various high school athletes and fans from different schools holding signs stating, “Trail of Tears, Round 2,” in reference to winning against a team with a Native mascot, and one picture of cheerleaders holding fake Native heads on sticks.
About 200 Ohio schools still have native mascots. “Our tax dollars are paying for this,” Hunt said.
Not only are these situations harmful to Native Americans but also non-Natives, he said, explaining using these stereotypes increases racist attitudes in people, including toward Asian-Americans.
Also, “negative feelings and distress,” are caused to Native children who experience this discrimination. This is adding burdens to an already stressed Native population. “They are vulnerable to suicide and depression,” Hunt said.
Trivialization of things considered sacred, such as religion, drumming and singing also occurs.
Another problem with mascots is that the images are controlled by those who are not part of the culture. Actual Natives have no control over the narrative.
A common comment from those is favor of the mascots is that they are intended to honor the culture, but that does not reflect how real Natives feel.
“Don’t tell me what honors me when you don’t know the first thing about me,” Hunt said. “We don’t honor people by harming them and these mascots harm us.”
He showed pictures of “Cleveland baseball team” fans who had painted themselves in red face, and shared quotes by fans wishing harm to present-day Native-Americans who opposed the team name.
Although taken off uniforms, the Chief Wahoo logo is still sold on merchandise, he said.
Hunt is please that the team is planning on changing their name.
The recently-formed Cleveland Indigenous Coalition, made up of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, the Lake Erie Native American Council and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society: Lake Erie Professional Chapter, met with Cleveland Indians team owner Paul Dolan and his staff, who asked them how Chief Wahoo and the team name had impacted them directly.
“Your team name and logo has been detrimental to my learning experience,” Hunt told him, referencing an incident where his classmates defended Native-stereotyped mascots.
Also, he has been hesitant to have a child because he or she would be raised in a city that has deemed it okay to have a Native-themed team name.
“Your team’s logo contributed to our decision not to have a child,” Hunt said.
The Cleveland Indigenous Coalition is still in contact with the team, he explained.