Schools Reconsider Indian Mascots In the Wake of World Series Furor
By Daniel Gursky
Angered by the spectacle of 50,000 chanting Atlanta Braves fans doing the "tomahawk chop" during this fall's baseball World Series, Native American activists and others are focusing new attention on what they see as the demeaning and exploitative use of Indian symbols for athletic teams.
Although attacks on the Braves, the football Washington Redskins, and other professional-sports franchises have provided their most visible forum, the critics of American Indian names and logos have also targeted a growing number of public schools, questioning the propriety of non-Indians' using Indian symbols to boost their teams. "The symbols are derogatory and stereotypical, and some of them are blatantly racist," said Faith Smith, the president of the Native American Educational Services College in Chicago.
The movement to get schools to change their Indian sobriquets has been under way for some time, but until recently its progress has been slow. Defenders of the logos argue that they celebrate, rather than belittle, the heritage of Native Americans.
Moreover, popular attachment to the names is strong. When a Michigan state panel recommended a few years ago that schools change their Indian mascots, only a tiny fraction of the public agreed and only two schools complied.
Still, the recent publicity has led schools to look at their symbols from a new perspective, and some are contemplating changes.
Last month, for example, a school district committee in Verona, Wis., voted unanimously to recommend that the school board change the local high school's Indian nickname. The board is expected to approve the change this month.
'It Makes Fun' of Indians
Schools have been debating Native American names and symbols since long before the Atlanta Braves become World Series contenders. In the early 1970's, both Dartmouth College and Stanford University responded to protests by dropping their Indian nicknames.
Over the years, a handful of other colleges and high schools have followed suit, but those account for only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of institutions around the country that use Indian symbols as school emblems.
What the antics of Braves fans did was give Indian activists like Cornel Pewewardy a new impetus to press their case. Mr. Pewewardy, the principal of Mounds Park All-Nations Magnet School in St. Paul, used the National Indian Education Association's recent annual conference to urge Indian educators to take a stand on the issue.
"Those who don't understand how the 'chop' and the mascots are demeaning are not in touch with how they affect native people," Mr. Pewewardy, the 1991 Indian Educator of the Year, said in an interview. "It makes Indian students feel like it's not good to be Indian because it makes fun of them."
Andrea Nott, a community activist in Naperville, Ill., who has worked to get a local high school to drop its Indian nickname, voiced similar sentiments.
"It's analogous to somebody dressing up as the pope, going out on the field, waving a cross, and performing a mock communion," she said. "That's how strongly Native Americans feel that their religious and spiritual identity is being abused on the football field or basketball court."
Ms. Nott pointed out that Indians consider feathers sacred. Feathers have to be earned before they can be worn, she noted, so the sight of a headdress-adorned school mascot offends Indians.
"I don't believe anybody's out to be malicious or deliberately racist," she added. "I just believe that our society has always condoned the idea that Indians are not humans."
Arguing that team nicknames honor and pay tribute to Indians, however, school officials and local citizens generally have resisted demands for a change of symbols.
"You will rarely find a community that says voluntarily, 'We will change our name,'" said Will Antell, the manager of Indian education for the state of Minnesota. "They have a lot of pride and some need for keeping the names."
In the Chicago suburb of Naperviiie, for example, Indian groups last year expressed their displeasure with Naperville Central High School's Redskins nickname. But, in a school-wide poll, 1,560 of 1,717 students voted to remain the Redskins, as did 64 of 83 staff members who responded.
"I don't think we're being offensive," said Principal Thomas Paulsen. "We felt it was appropriate to retain the name."
Even so, Mr. Paulsen also noted that the school has made some changes in response to the criticism. Officials have tried to eliminate any caricatured, cartoon-like depictions of Indians in favor a "proud, appropriate" image of a male chief in full headdress, he said.
In addition, not all Indians find the symbols offensive. Doyce Cannon, the principal of Cherokee (N.C.) High School, where more than 90 percent of the students are Native Americans, said he has no complaints about the use of Indian names. His school, in fact, calls its sports teams the Braves.
"We spend more time on winning ballgames than on the other stuff," Mr. Cannon said.
For leaders of the Cherokee tribe, the issue boils down partially to economics. The tribe's factory produces much of the Indian paraphernalia used by sports fans, including those in Atlanta and Washington.
"We believe in economic development," said the tribe's chief, Jonathan Ed Taylor.
"I think when people want to use a mascot of an Indian, they're building the Indian up," he added. "They're trying to find the best symbol for their school."
Some groups just take this thing too far," Mr. Taylor said. "We've got Indians starving to death" while people worry about sports fans waving tomahawks.
Responsibility To Educate
Jay Coakley, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who has looked at the issue of Native American names and mascots in schools, offers a simple explanation for why people cling so tightly to their symbols.
"It's grounded in years of unquestioned tradition," argued Mr. Coakley, the director of the Center for the Study of Sport and Leisure. "Logos and mascots get tied up with people's memory of their high-school experiences. Often, they're a symbol of some of the best times they had, when they shared common emotions at sporting events."
Even in the face of evidence that their symbol may be offensive or inaccurate, he said, people have a hard time giving up that affiliation.
If they are intent on keeping their Indian names or logos, Mr. Coakley and others maintain, schools with Indian names at least bear the responsibility of educating students about Native American issues.
"These are educational institutions, which ought to be encouraging and nurturing the minds of young people in the way that they deal with other people," said Ms. Smith of the Native American Educational Services College.
"We're really in trouble" when students' main exposure to Indian culture comes in the form of a sports mascot, added Mr. Antell of Minnesota. "We can do better than that with our kids by teaching them the truth about American Indian culture and tradition and religion. They get a false picture from watching these chants and the paraphernalia that people are using." Officials in at least two states, Michigan and Minnesota, have actively encouraged schools to change their Native American symbols.
Michigan: 'Shocking a Nerve'
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1988 compiled a detailed report on the subject that recommended that "any use of Indian names, logos, and mascots should be discontinued because racial stereotyping of Native Americans is prevalent and destructive."
The commission found that 62 Michigan high schools, or 9 percent of the state's total, used Indian names.
Nearly 60 percent of the schools' symbols, the report indicated, depicted a Sioux or Plains Indian wearing a full headdress. Yet the Sioux never even lived in the area that became Michigan, James Horn, the director of the commission's office of information services, pointed out.
Mr. Horn further noted that many of the logos, symbols, and other trappings associated with Chiefs, Warriors, Redskins, and other such names seem to come from a single mail-order catalogue, which explains the sameness among school emblems.
The Michigan report's recommendations drew little support, however. One newspaper survey found that only 4 percent of those polled agreed that Indian nicknames should be changed.
"We shocked a nerve in the state of Michigan when we came out with that report," Mr. Horn recalled.
The report also failed to elicit much concrete action by school leaders. Only two high schools changed their names, one from the Red Raiders to the Raiders, the other from Eskimos to Jayhawks.
"The commission thought it was offensive, and the kids went along with that," said Walter Jenkins, the principal of Detroit Northern High School, whose teams are now known as the Jayhawks. "I can't speak for other schools, but we felt it was the right thing to do."
Movement in Minnesota
Minnesota, which has a large and vocal Native American community, has shown more willingness to move away from Indian team names.
Responding to a 1988 resolution by the state board of education, 20 of the state's 51 schools with Indian-related names have changed or say they plan to change.
About 15 schools say they will not change under any circumstances, according to Mr. Antell, while the rest have said they will study the matter further.
Although Wisconsin is considering following the lead of its neighbors by encouraging schools to change their Indian names, few other states have examined the issue.
Mr. Coakley of the University of Colorado, for one, does not anticipate a national tide of protest developing against Native American mascots.
"The organizations that promote the interests of native groups certainly have a higher priority than dealing with the name used by some high school," he said. "But it is going to be an issue from one area to another where some local Indian-rights groups make it a symbolic focus for their group."