How to Talk About Native American Mascots

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11 mins read

Thanks to years of outreach to Maine schools by tribal leaders, Maine’s LAST Indian-themed mascot was finally retired in March 2019. And, in May of the same year, Maine became the first state to pass a law banning Native American mascots at all public schools. Many still remain in other states, as well as in professional sports leagues. Want to help retire them all? Navigating discussions about Indian-themed mascots is notoriously difficult and time consuming, but communities that invest the time to listen and learn from Indigenous peoples invariably find their communities strengthened as a result. Most who have been a part of these discussions find the same issues and arguments raised, regardless of the community. In collaboration with representatives from the Penobscot Nation, we’ve compiled the most common arguments below, with suggestions for ways to respond.

1. “The mascot honors our state’s tribes.”

While many assume that using Native American imagery to illustrate fighting strength honors Native people, the only way to know for sure is to ask Native people themselves. On this, tribal leaders in Maine and around the country have been very clear: Indian-themed mascots do not honor them. In fact, they do the opposite. As the National Congress of American Indians states, “rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful, perpetuate negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples, and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples.”

2. “It’s our tradition.”

It’s hard to justify how non-Native people can claim that their tradition involves referring to themselves as “Indians,” while dismissing Indigenous people who claim the term for themselves. After generational struggles against efforts to eradicate all traces of their culture, family bonds, language, and land claims, the traditions that come with being a member of a Native tribe are considered sacred, not entertainment. In fact, most schools adopted Indian-themed mascots decades after their founding, so in many cases the real tradition likely involved having no mascot at all.   

3. “I’m of Scandinavian descent and I raise cows, but I’m not offended by the Vikings and the Cowboys. Native Americans shouldn’t be offended either.”

While folks should note that Vikings and cowboys are not races of people, and neither experienced oppression and genocidal policies at the hands of our government, the more important point is that it should always be up to the group being portrayed to determine if the portrayal is offensive.

4. “One time a Native American said he liked our mascot.”

It does happen sometimes, but it’s pretty rare and should not be taken as consensus of Native opinion. There are also groups out there, like the Native American Guardians Association (NAGA), that claim to represent Native interests, but actually exist (and are heavily funded) to defend the significant financial interests of professional and collegiate sports teams that use Indian-themed mascots. NAGA representatives have been condemned by many tribal leaders as frauds and corporate shills in disguise. But even if the group was legitimate, why import people from out-of-state to give an opinion on how Native Americans feel when your state’s own tribes have already made their feelings clear? 

5. “If we get rid of the Indian mascot, they’ll also make us change the name of the town or get rid of the Indian statue and town seal. Where will it end?”

Retaining Indigenous references in town names is considered respectful by Native Americans, and serves as a daily reminder that we are all living on Indigenous land. While statues and town seals do little to promote understanding of and respect for existing federally recognized tribes, they are also less likely to cause lasting harm. Indian-themed mascots, however, do

6. “Come on, our Indian mascot doesn’t actually harm anybody.”

Actually, it does. Studies show that using such mascots lowers “the self-esteem of American Indian students.” The US Commission on Civil Rights has “called for an end to the use of Native American mascots in non-Native schools because they teach all students that stereotyping of minority students is acceptable.” The American Psychological Association publicly called for “the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots,” saying that these “mascots are teaching misleading, and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.” When students and community members view Native Americans in this cartoonish way, it not only enables the erasure of authentic historic and current native culture, it also validates bigoted speech and actions among adults as well as young people. Indian-themed mascots are also opposed by the National Congress of the American Indian, National Indian Education Association, National Education AssociationUS Commission on Civil RightsAmerican Psychological AssociationAmerican Sociological AssociationAmerican Counseling AssociationNAACPUnited Methodist Church, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association

7. “Replacing all the uniforms and gear will be too expensive.”

The good news is that there are organizations out there, like Adidas, that want to help schools retire Indian-themed mascots. Other schools have done a gradual replacement of their gear. There are plenty of options, and plenty of school administrators and coaches in Maine who have experience navigating this kind of transition.

8. “If you don’t live here, don’t tell us what to do.”

As long as Native children can attend schools with Indian-themed mascots, and those schools’ teams can compete against Native students, the threat of harm and discrimination remains, affecting more than current town residents. It’s not just Native students that are harmed by these mascots. As a 2014 report by the Center for American Progress found, studies show that these mascots undermine the educational experience of all studentsparticularly those with little or no contact with indigenous and [American Indian/Alaska Native] people.” 

9. “We got rid of the feathered dancing guy years ago. It’s a name, not a mascot.”

We applaud teams and schools that have done away with the fake costumes, dances, hatchet gestures, and whooping. It’s a big step, but if the name remains, there’s still work to do. When a name is used like a mascot, it poses the same harm. Non-Natives claiming “We are the Indians!” is like Jewish people saying “We are the Muslims!” or vice versa. Being an “Indian” is more than a mascot, more than a name, and more than distant ancestry. Being a member of a federally recognized Indigenous tribe comes with expectations, hard work, responsibilities, and a whole lot of trauma. Your town’s residents have plenty to be proud of. Claiming to be a race of people that they aren’t is not one of them.

10. “Don’t Native Americans have more important problems to worry about?”

If you happen to live on planet Earth right now, there is no shortage of important problems to worry about. Fortunately, humans are pretty great at multitasking. Most of us can even work on global, national, local, household, and personal problems all the same time. But one thing’s for sure: the harder we work to resolve problems together, the faster we’ll get them done.

Want to retire a mascot in your own town, but don’t know where to start? 

  • Look for a #notyourmascot chapter near you. There may already be efforts underway that you can support. If a chapter doesn’t exist, they can tell you how to start your own. 
  • Reach out to the leaders of the federally recognized tribes that are closest to you. Follow their lead, and support and amplify their efforts. 
  • Speak at school board meetings (better yet, run for your local school board).
  • Launch a petition to gather local support. 
  • Submit a letter to the editor of your local paper.

Originally posted on Suit Up Maine. Re-posted with permission.


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Suit Up Maine is a statewide, all-volunteer, progressive, grassroots group of more than 5,400 Mainers that seeks to create and foster a more informed and engaged electorate. We raise awareness of and advocate for policies and legislation that promote equity and equality in civil rights, social justice, health care, the environment, education, the economy, and other areas that affect the lives of all people. We are beholden to issues and action, not parties or politicians, and we aren’t engaged in fundraising. Suit Up Maine fosters collaboration among our state’s progressive groups and organizations to collectively connect, educate, and motivate Mainers to rise in non-violent resistance to a regressive agenda.

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