Education Opinion

Is Your School Mascot Insulting Someone?

By Nancy Flanagan — March 02, 2013 3 min read
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I am pretty much the walking embodiment of political correctness. I think that a lot of what’s sarcastically labeled “PC” is also, deep down, morally correct. When it comes to school mascots, however--and the ongoing lawsuit-based drive to rid high schools of their Native American/Tribal/American Indian mascots and nicknames--I find myself wondering if this battle isn’t the elevation of form over substance.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that America has been maligning, ignoring and mistreating its citizens who lived here first, for four or five centuries now. And I believe that schools should take responsibility for teaching good citizenship, and nurture respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all peoples. But frankly, I’m a lot more worried about the Pilgrims-as-heroes “Thanksgiving story” curriculum, beginning in kindergarten. Glossing over those smallpox-infested blankets and mass slaughters in American History textbooks is more offensive than the little cartoon guy with a hatchet painted on the gymnasium wall.

First off--aren’t all school mascots kind of outmoded, the product of a more clueless time when community and collegiate fellowship was wrapped up in football games and boola boola-ing?

It was once considered clever to name your school team after a predominant ethnic group or historical reference. In my neck of the woods, that resulted in the Catholic Central Crusaders, the Christian Warriors and the Hope College Flying Dutchmen. (I know--the irony.) Awareness has--thank goodness-- increased since the time those jaunty monikers were dreamed up. They were a product of a less perceptive time, but the mascots were chosen to build identity, not to denigrate.

My undergraduate alma mater--Central Michigan University, which sits right next to a reservation--came to a peaceful understanding with neighboring Chippewa tribal leaders, and “Fire Up, Chips!” is still the order of the day. And just try to convince a Notre Dame grad that the “Fighting Irish” is a racist appellation. It’s not easy to draw a bright line between what is and isn’t offensive.

It’s more important that students understand why “redskin” is an ethnic slur than winning lawsuits forcing schools to abandon traditional mascots. Ongoing legal skirmishes over American Indian-based mascots might even be a distraction from understanding the real history and outcomes for tribal people. Exploring the history of a school nickname could become the ultimate, place-based teachable moment for a school district, and deciding collectively to make changes a golden opportunity for real community.

Maybe school mascots--if we have to have them-- should change periodically to reflect the times. Not only changes in ethnographic sensitivity, but changes in the school’s mission and student body. Better to have students choose their own cool, present-day avatars, than have nostalgic geezers who graduated 50 years ago defending their right to be a Chieftain in perpetuity. Maybe this self-naming should even be part of the regular curriculum, a new tradition.

Names do matter. Which is why we ought to be paying attention to another insidious trend in school policy-making: selling off naming rights to public school facilities. What happens when a school board converts ye olde stadium from The Dog Pound (go Bulldogs!) into First National Bank Stadium, for a few thousand bucks? Are we willing to sell off tradition, for the right price--even as we do passionate battle over a silly nickname or logo? Just asking.

I now live in a county with four small public districts, each with their own athletic traditions and points of pride. Leelanau County is also home to a piece of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa reservation, and a thriving casino and conference center. Last year, the Comets, Wildcats, Lakers and Norsemen had their joint prom at an Indian casino. Seems like a win-win to me.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.