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Monday, November 5, 2012

Native American Heritage Month: Book Review About Indian Mascots

As someone with Irish ancestors, I do not mind the “Fighting Irish” mascot of Notre Dame University -- so people of Native American descent should not mind mascots depicting Native Americans, right? I was able to quickly find weaknesses in my reasoning as Irish in 21st Century America are not in my estimation widely stereotyped; while, there are still pervasive stereotypes towards Native Americans. After reviewing Mascots That Honor Indians: The Audacity of a Dope For Suggesting Schools Change Their Indian Mascots by Edouardo Zendejas, I know that the reasons are much deeper.

By studying the book, I learned that Indians find it very offensive to have sacred Indian rituals performed at sporting events. As a people they may wear regalia or perform dances and rituals when they honor their heritage as they understand the special symbolism.

The tone of the book is predominately congenial and recognizes that many schools that use Indian mascots are ignorant as to how demeaning they are to Indians. After being enlightened, it is hoped that schools will select an alternate mascot to honor Indians.

Some may believe that the image of an "Indian Warrior" pays homage to the proud fierceness and competiveness of their past leaders. The text quotes, Barbara Munson, who is a member of the Oneida Nation and the chairperson of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association. Munson explains how some Native Americans feel about the use of "Warriors" as mascots. She said, “Yes we are proud of the warriors who fought to protect our cultures from forced removal and systematic genocide and to preserve our lands from the greed of others. We are proud, and we don’t want them demeaned by being ‘honored’ in a sports activity on a playing field.” She also has concerns that this image keeps Indians in the past and ignores their contemporary experiences.

Furthermore, Munson feels that focusing on tragic parts of the history when men fought as warriors for their survival ignores the beautiful aspects of their cultures during times of peace. She adds, Many Indian cultures view life as a spiritual journey filled with lessons to be learned from every living being. She also shares the attributes revered by many Native American cultures where their good men are patient, learned and gentle. In addition, She shares how many Native American cultures are child-centered and women are highly esteemed as mothers.

In the dedication, Zendejas recognizes the Indian students who have had to “endure the chants, tomahawk chops and other words and actions that mock and degrade their culture.” When I read this, I was not really aware exactly what a tomahawk chop is or why a Native American student would be so offended. A couple weeks later, my radar was up as I viewed a recent video of staffers of a politician who were doing the tomahawk chops. Their demeanor and their behavior seemed to overtly insult Native Americans.

In the book, there are illustrations of "Indian Mascots," which to me range from caricatures with negative images to warriors depicted in a noble manner. It also gives examples of mascots that honor the rich heritage of the Indian people are Omaha Nation High Blackbirds in honor of Omaha leader and educator Elmer Blackbird or Minatare Mustangs in honor of the horse skills of the high plains.

People may argue that their individual school may show respect in their behavior towards their Indian mascots. However, the book demonstrates how they cannot control the behavior of the other teams who may have signs or shouts with racial slurs suggesting their opponents go back to the reservation or relive the “Trail of Tears.”

In addition to suggesting that schools voluntarily change mascots, the book also shows how the curriculum of schools often fall short in teaching about Native American history. In fact, some of the students surveyed in the book seemed to draw their limited knowledge of Native Americans from the mascots and activities associated with the mascots at the events that they attended saying such things as “Indians paint their face.” Other students may recall a book report in grade school or a week or two on a given tribe in grade school, but nothing in the higher grades.

As I am in my forties now, I believe the cumulative effect of images is important and that we do need to start young in giving a fair and balanced history. Yet, our reasoning skills improve with age and we need to be exposed to the histories as we grow older so that we can process it on a higher level.

I had little familiarity with U.S. Indian Policy prior to reading the book. The book does give an overview of the various stages starting with the Indian Treaty Era and ending with the Indian Self-Determination Policy implemented by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. While people who knew very little about Indian history including myself are generally aware of grave miscarriages of injustice towards Native Americans. This book shares important landmark decisions and background regarding the United States Government as it relates to Native American Tribes. According to the findings of the book, non-Indians may have sympathy towards the past treatment of Indians but rarely think about Indian issues and many have stereotypical views. It said, “Few non-Indians understood that Indians have a distinctive legal status based on a long history of treaties.”

I knew Zendejas prior to his leaving Omaha with his family to complete law school at Brigham Young University. Upon his return, I was aware that he was a Chief Judge for the Omaha Tribal Court although I may have been sketchy on the exact title or details. While I was attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), I would sometimes visit with him in the hallways and considered taking his class. I believe I was only taking classes in my major at that point, but I do regret not taking his class. I am grateful that he published a book to help me begin the journey to fill this void. By reading his brief biography, I learned that Zendejas is a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska. His biography and the book made me aware that I seldom associate the name of my city (Omaha) with the tribe for which it was named. It has piqued my interest to learn more of this tribe and other tribes of North America.

I am probably not alone in wondering whether Indian or Native American is the correct term to use. In the book, I learned that neither term is politically incorrect or offensive. They do not derive their sense of identity from either term. As the book states, "Our sense of identity comes from our Tribal membership or affiliation, and our extended nuclear families."

Members of Native American tribes do not want stereotypes perpetuated by mascots, in books, media, or Hollywood. They also do not want a romanticized view of their history. They simply want opportunities to tell their own story.
(Editor's note: This article is in honor of Native American Heritage Month. To find out more, visit

- population-we™ blog post by Barb Bohan
© 2012 population-we, LLC
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1 comment:

  1. I am sharing a link to a full link of an essay by Barbara Munson about using Indian Mascots at sporting events. Such eloquence!