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.