By David P. Rider, Ph.D.

One of Psychology's most respected authors, Erik Erikson (1968), noted that minorities throughout the world have struggled to maintain an ethnic identity, even when forced to co-exist within the context of a dominant culture. In nations where ethnic minorities were historical victims of persecution, oppression, slavery, or genocide, the dominant culture typically invokes prejudicial attitudes toward the minority group as a justification for the actions of the oppressor group (Cox, 1948; Trimble, 1988).

Laboratory research readily demonstrates that when one group of experimental subjects is directed to inflict pain or harm to members of another experimental group of subjects, the "victim" group is routinely derogated and dehumanized verbally by the "oppressor" group (Davis & Jones, 1960; Glass, 1964; Worchel & Andreoli, 1978). By developing such negative attitudes toward their own victims, "exploiters can not only avoid thinking of themselves as villains, but they can also justify further exploitation" (Franzoi, 1996, p. 394).

Negative images and attitudes toward American Indians have served precisely the same function: To protect the historical oppressors from a sense of guilt over the atrocities committed against Indians and to justify further exploitation. Indians as well as other ethnic minorities in America today "become acutely aware of the [negative] evalutions of their ethnic group by the majority white culture" (Santrock, 1997, p. 402). In a study of identity formation among minorities, Phinney (1989) reported that African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians all suffer from negative stereotypes imposed by the dominant American culture, which denigrates precisely those aspects of ethnic culture that minorities take pride in.

Research on the adverse outcome of such negative stereotypes on the functioning of minorities in America is voluminous (see Spencer & Dornbusch, 1990, for an overview). Negative appraisals of non-whites in America lead to perceptions among minorities that employment avenues are cut off and that success is out of their reach.

Nowhere are such negative appraisals of minority groups more blatant than in the mascots and Indian names of sports teams that proliferate in the American education system. While other minority groups in America must endure negative stereotypes, Indians are the only minority group that has those stereotypes advertised in government-funded public schools. Indian mascots help to promote and perpetuate the dehumanizing stereotypes that developed among European colonizers centuries ago. As such, they are harmful to both Indians and nonIndians. Indians endure the psychological damage of seeing cartoon-like caricatures of themselves embodied in the mascots, perhaps the ultimate in dehumanizing victims. It is no coincidence that Indians have the highest suicide rate, school drop-out rate, and unemployment rate of any group in the United States.

Indian mascots also harm nonIndians, for they perpetuate stereotypes that impair students from learning accurate accounts of American history and Indian/white relations throughout the post-contact era.


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Phinney, J. S. (1989). Stages of ethnic identity development in minority group adolescents. "Journal of Early Adolescence," 9, 34-49.

Santrock, J. W. (1997). "Life-span development." Sixth edition. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark.

Spencer, M. B., and Dornbusch, S. M. (1990). Challenges in studying minority youth. In S. S. Feldman and G. R. Elliot (Eds.), "At the threshold: The developing adolescent." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Trimble, J. E. (1988). Stereotypical images, American Indians, and and prejudice. In P. A. Katz and D. A. Taylor (Eds.), "Elimination racism: Profiles in controversy" (pp. 181-202). New York: Plenum Press.

Worchel, S., and Andreoli, V. M. (1978). Facilitation of social interaction through deindividuation of the target. "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology," 36, 549-556.
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