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Opinion: On the Issue of Indians and Mascots

Charles Fishburn, a one-time high school mascot for a high school sports program called the "Indians" in Spokane, shares his thoughts on the state Board of Education encouraging all schools with names referring to American Indians to replace t

Editor's note: This essay was written by Charles Fishburn, a member of the Colville Tribe, and published on his personal web site, fishburn.me. He invited Patch to share excerpts from the essay here. 

I am an American Indian, a member of the Colville Tribe, and as Jeanne Gustafson mentioned in one of her comments on Patch’s article, [] a former high school mascot for the North Central Indians in Spokane, Washington. While I only served as mascot for the high school for a single year in the late 80′s, I thought at the time that it was an honor to serve as mascot and to wear the traditional regalia that was hand-crafted and donated by the Spokane Tribe. Would I do it again? I don’t think so. It’s a bit difficult to elucidate sufficiently, but I’ll make an attempt.

Disclaimers from the Unarmed – That Means: “Don’t Shoot!”

Before delving into this discussion, let me first say that this is solely my opinion, and not necessarily representative of the opinions of the elders or elected council members of the Colville Tribe.

Let me also say that I do not consider myself to be a hyper-sensitive minority activist. I am not writing this to vehemently hammer my point into the heads of unsuspecting citizens. I am not writing this with the claim that my first-hand experience and cultural background trump the opinions of all dissenters.

I do believe that the American population, for the most part, tries to be non-offensive in this matter of labels. In an age of emphasized political correctness, however, I know that people don’t necessarily know which term, if any, is more preferred and which term(s) may be considered archaic.

Weren’t We Talking About Mascots?

..Let’s return to the topic at hand: the acceptability – or impropriety – of American Indian-inspired mascots. What’s wrong with “Indians”, “Braves”, “Chiefs”, “Warriors”, “Redskins” or “Totems”? To see the potential problems with these, it may be effective to consider a relatively simple counter-example.

How many people would be in favor of – or even just comfortable with – using a different non-caucasian/minority ethnic group for a mascot? Pick general labels first and consider the “Chinese”, “Africans”, “Maori” or “Jews”. Then maybe consider the “Zulus”, “Gypsies”, “Levites”, “Samurai” or “Sheikhs”. How about just going with skin “color”: “Blackskins”, “Brownskins” or “Yellowskins”? Now how appropriate do “Indians”, “Braves” and “Redskins” sound? What about the First Nations peoples separates them as exempt from this kind of exploitation?

I understand that in using the Native American as a symbol, most schools or organizations are trying, as a course of tribute, to conjure the spirit of honor and courage. I also understand, although it may sound cliché, that there is a measure of fond legacy attributed to the idea of the Native American as an indelible figure in the fabric of our country’s backdrop. And we certainly should recognize that as a mascot goes, the American Indian, like many other culture- or people-based mascots such as the Vikings, Saxons, or even Crusaders, has been chosen from an historical perspective. But we shouldn’t let that distance from the past equate to the validity of an implied separation between the people of yesteryear and their living descendants of today. Those people from “way back when” live and breathe across this nation through their successive generations. Yet many mascots claiming to commemorate them bring about more disdain. One look at the wide-grinning, round-nosed, red-faced logo of the Cleveland Indians and you see remnants of less culturally-sensitive and politically-correct times. That image neither represents nor honors me or anyone I know. On the contrary, it reminds me of old black and white cartoons with daft “Injuns” who were so stupid they could barely avoid tripping over their own moccasins, and it frustrates me.

Similarly, our pow wows and other celebrations are not models for athletic rally cries. Any sort of crowd pleasing, fever pitch-inducing action like the Atlanta Braves’ infamous “tomahawk chop” is like no Fancy Dance I’ve seen in my lifetime. The quasi-ominous chords in parallel fourths that typify a Hollywood-flavored cue that “the Injuns are a-comin’” are cheap imitations of the heart-pounding songs played around the drums at a pow wow, and don’t hold a candle to the sweet Honor Song my cousin’s son sang at my aunt’s recent funeral.

Getting to the Point

We come back to the point of honor. Don’t most of these mascots truly honor my people? One truth of this matter is that these mascot modes and models are mixed, and result in a confusing message of esteem and disregard that really should be much more clear. Are the Indigenous Peoples of this continent due proper acknowledgement, respect and protection like other culture groups or are they unwitting objects for mass entertainment?

In the end, I think to an extent that if you make a fool of one, you make a fool of all. The honor is nullified by the caricature, and the caricature ends up being a slight against the group. And I think that worse than any direct offense by the use of the American Indian and related symbols, it is the occasional and the potential casual, comic, or simply ignorant exaggeration of the prototype that reinforces the negative attributes of outdated stereotypes. It reflects an attitude that effectively marginalizes a minority group, and in turn, necessitates the transition away from Native American mascots.

To read Fishburn's complete essay, On the Issue of Indians and Mascots, please follow this link.

Greg Johnston (Editor) October 05, 2012 at 02:32 PM
Very thoughtful and well reasoned piece Charles. As for totems, petroglyphs and other images from the First People, a Yakama elder once told me they are not necessarily art, but sacred symbols to the tribes and that many feel violated when they are used by other cultures, especially for commercial purposes -- like She Who Watches or Kokopeli on coffee mugs. That really changed my perception of those images.
Anne Randall October 05, 2012 at 04:51 PM
Thank you, Charles, for valuable commentary. During my student days at Stanford University in the early '70's, concerns by Native American students led the student body to eliminate the use of the Indian mascot for all the reasons you state. The undergraduate vote named "Robber Barons" the first choice replacement mascot in recognition of what some thought was a less polished spin on Leland Stanford's legacy. Not surprisingly, university leadership didn`t like that label and went on to adopt a conceptual non-mascot (Cardinal, the color not the bird) and a dancing tree (reference to the tree that gives Palo Alto its name). The marketing machine will always find a way.
dawn duncan October 06, 2012 at 01:42 AM
My son is half Colville Indian, so I have a fairly good understanding of Native pride. In fact, I don't think I've ever come across any nationality or race that has more pride in their heritage than the Native Americans. That said, it seems a little overboard to me to begin a trend of changing mascots and/or team names that could possibly be considered offensive to some (not all) of the Native American race. Where would it end?? Do we need to change the names of teams such as the Cowboys for fear of offending cowboys, or change the names of every team named after an animal (Seahawks, Dolphins, Tigers, Lions, Cardinals, etc.) so as not to offend PETA or other animal activist groups?? What about the Pittsburgh Pirates?? Personally, I'd much rather see a mascot representing the Native American heritage than a mascot glorifying pirates and what they stood for.
Maria Bertelsen October 06, 2012 at 03:19 PM
@ Dawn Duncan~ You just compared Native Americans to animals for one, which there is no comparison. Second, if there were other cultures to be mocked like Jews, russians, Asians, mexicans, it would be a shame, and people would be embarressed and fight against it, but because it is Native Americans it is okay??? You do not know how it makes most if not all Indigenous people feel, when we see the mascots making a mockery, then it also makes some of the audience also make a mockery by screaming, Hey yayaya, hey yayayaya. Acting as if they are doing war dances, when these were spiritual real ceremonies to our people....

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