Dr. Chris Kraatz
Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy
Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
Cavanaugh Hall, Rm 331
425 University Blvd
Indianapolis, IN 46202
Abstract: The Truth About American Indian Mascots
The truth about American Indian mascots is that they cannot be morally justified. This is demonstrated by outlining the extent of the “mascotizing” of Indians in American culture, and then assessing the reliability of the various means at our disposal for morally evaluating this practice. In the end, the argument is that the only reliable avenue to ascertaining the truth about such mascots is listening to what representative groups of Indians have to say about them. Moreover, the opinions of such representative groups regarding the mascots that depict them are overwhelmingly condemnatory.
The Truth about American Indian Mascots
by Dr. Chris Kraatz
Schools that continue the use of Indian imagery and references…have simply failed to listen to the Native groups, religious leaders, and civil rights organizations that oppose these symbols…[T]he use of the imagery and traditions, no matter how popular, should end when they are offensive.
(United States Civil Rights Commission - April 13, 2001)
To “mascotize” a group of people is systematically to attach depictions of that group to commercial products, ventures or enterprises such that (1) the depicted group is defined by nationality, race, ethnicity or religion, (2) the depictions are designed by and profit only people outside the depicted group, and (3) the depictions are considered disrespectful, inappropriate, or stereotypic by a majority of persons within the depicted group.
The “mascotizing” of a group is to be distinguished from isolated individual cases of such depictions. For although individual cases of depictions fitting the above description may in fact be offensive or stereotypic, they do not systematically reduce the status of a group from “persons” to “mascots.” The infamous “Frito Bandito,” for example, had all of the above three properties. But it does not follow that Mexican-Americans have as a group been reduced to mascots. “Mascotizing” is a systematic reduction of group status achieved through a multitude of commercial enterprises. As this paper will argue, although there are a variety of mascots in American culture which depict different groups of people, American Indians are the only group to have been “mascotized” in this systematic fashion.
Due to their significant media coverage, sports teams are the most visible users of Indian mascots. It is no surprise, therefore, that most of the controversy surrounding Indian mascots involves sports teams. Major league teams receive most of the attention on this matter, but Indian mascots are not limited to teams of professional status. According to the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media, there are nearly 3,000 sports teams in the United States with mascots of Indian theme. This figure includes professional teams, college and university teams, high school and junior high school teams, and elementary school teams. These figures do not include “little league” teams for baseball, football, soccer, etc.
Despite the overwhelming multitude of sports team mascots in the United States, sports represents only a portion of the mascotizing of American Indians. There are significant areas of interest outside the sports arenas where this curious phenomenon can readily be observed, and discussion of the mascot issue would lack important insights were these areas not included. Automobile manufacturers, for example, often make explicit use of Indian names, images and themes. A casual perusing of the Kelley Blue Book can find at least ten recent models which confirm this, and this number grows significantly when motorcycles and recreational vehicles are included.
The task of enumerating the Indian names and images on grocery store products would be daunting indeed. Products including apple juice, margarine, beef jerky, chewing tobacco, and bottled water are but a few examples of those bearing Indian names and/or logos. There are alcoholic beverages with such names or themes on their labels; Crazy Horse has a malt liquor named after him (not to mention a stunning line of women’s clothing by Liz Claiborne). The Indianapolis telephone book has five different listings for “Cherokee” including a construction firm, a concrete supplier, a home remodeling company, a realtor, and a window manufacturer; “Indian” is used to name a church, a youth league, a food service, a country club and a golf shop; “Dakota” names a consulting group, an engineering company, a golf course and a retail watch company (the “Dakota Watch Company” is an inexplicable curiosity, as the Dakota have no word in their language for “time”).
Sports teams are a flash point for the Indian mascot controversy, but the central issue at stake extends into nearly every corner of life in America. There seems to be no kind of product or company that falls outside the scope of this pervasive use of American Indian names, images and themes. An attempt to list all the products, companies and teams which use American Indian names, logos, etc. would itself more than exhaust the limits of this paper. In light of the endlessness of this phenomenon, one cannot help but ask: “Is this a good thing?”
This question would perhaps be easier to answer if there were other readily available examples of systematic use of nationality, race, ethnicity or religious tradition in a way that is similar to what we have been describing. But there are no other circumstances or phenomena in American culture that could be considered even roughly analogous to this overwhelming commercial appropriation of Indians. Although it is often noted, for example, that there are sports teams that use names or images of other groups of people besides Indians, the way in which sports teams use non-Indian group names is fundamentally different from the way in which Indian names are used. Team names such as “Cowboys,” “Patriots,” “Senators” or “Cavaliers,” for example, do not constitute an analogous mascotizing of anyone for the simple reason that even though these names refer to groups of people, the group names are generic and do not refer in any significant way to nationality, race, ethnicity or religion. Names, however, such as “Seminoles,” “Chiefs,” “Braves” or “Fighting Sioux” refer explicitly to nationality, race, ethnicity and religion.
“Trojans,” “Spartans” and “Vikings” are popular sports team names that pick out groups according to nationality, race or ethnicity, but these are also fundamentally different from Indian mascots. These names do not depict existing peoples and cannot, therefore, affect the lives of those they depict (for better or for worse) – neither can they be regarded as appropriate or inappropriate by the groups in question. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Boston Celtics actually are examples of sports teams whose names and images depict an existing racial or ethnic group, but even these are significantly different from the cases of Indian mascots. The Celtics play in a city with a large Irish population, the Fighting Irish represent a university established and largely populated by Irish people. Although it may appear that these would constitute examples of mascotizing analogous to that of American Indians, they do not for the simple reason that they were thought up and instituted by the very people (or group) that they depict. There is no such Indian mascot that was similarly devised by Indian persons. Another relevant difference between these cases is that what Irish people say about the mascots that depict them is taken as decisive in establishing the legitimacy of the mascots. The team names “Celtics” and “Fighting Irish” tend to be quite popular among persons of Irish heritage, and this popularity is taken as a reliable indicator of the appropriateness of these names. But the fact that Indian mascots tend to be grossly unpopular among Indians is not taken as an indicator that there may be something inappropriate about them – if it were, then there would be no more Indian mascots. The only persons who defend the use of American Indians as sports team mascots are those who profit from the use of such images – coincidentally, there is no group of American Indian affiliation that profits even from a single mascot.
In searching for other instances of mascots that are similar in relevant ways, we always come up short. American Indian sports mascots are unique in that they have all of the following properties: (1) they depict groups of people based on nationality, race, ethnicity or religion, (2) they are designed only by and make a profit solely for people outside the group that they depict, and (3) they are considered disrespectful, inappropriate, and stereotypic by a majority of persons within the group that they depict. Even assuming that these points have been overstated and that there actually are several (or even one hundred) teams with non-Indian mascots that satisfy these same criteria, we still have no basis for meaningful comparison or analogy due to the sheer overwhelming number of teams with Indian names, etc. It is not only the name use that we are trying to address here, but also the pervasive scope of the phenomenon. There are thousands of Indian-themed teams in the United States, no similar situation exists for any other group.
This apparent uniqueness of the mascotizing of Indians can also be observed in the other areas mentioned previously. There are no automobiles named after other groups of people, Indians are the only people named in any way at all on various means of transportation.
The same is true concerning the labels on common grocery store items, and at this point the disparity which is coming to the fore becomes astonishing. The number of different items that are commonly found on grocery store shelves must certainly be huge, each requiring a name on the label. And yet, despite this enormous demand for names and images to go on product labels, the number of items one can find whose names or images depict the nationality, race, ethnicity or religion of a non-Indian group is almost nothing (with perhaps maple syrup, pancake mix, and frozen waffles being the sole offenders).
Regardless of what they are attached to, American Indian mascots (and product names) constitute a kind of cultural singularity in the United States. The undeniably unique and systematic character of this phenomenon is significant if for no other reason than that it demonstrates conclusively that the question of the Just or Unjust character of Indian mascots (and product names) cannot be answered by appealing to similar depictions of other groups – there are no other groups that are mascotized in this systematic way. How then are we to find the truth about American Indian mascots; their legitimacy or illegitimacy, their showing of respect or disrespect, their morality or immorality?
Owners of teams or products who are asked to explain their choice of mascot, name or logo often do so by contending that their choice is motivated by a desire to show respect to the group they are depicting. Indians (so the argument often proceeds) are a people of great courage and integrity, it is therefore a show of respect and honor to name a baseball team after them, or an SUV, or a line of clothing, or a malt liquor, etc.
Assuming that respect and honor really were the true motives in naming such a great variety of items and teams after American Indians, we might encourage (or even expect) a more even distribution of such use of group imagery and theme. After all, respect ought not be demonstrated only for Indians – all peoples deserve to be respected similarly. But a world in which groups are respected by being mascotized would be absurd and even comical. This is easily confirmed when we suppose even isolated instances of similar treatment of other groups. One never sees a “Jeep Grande Jew” on the highway, for example, but one regularly sees “Jeep Grande Cherokees;” one cannot drive a “Plymouth Holy Communion,” or camp in an “African-American,” but one can drive a “Plymouth Sundance” and camp in a “Winnebago;” neither can one purchase Martin Luther King, Jr. malt liquor or Angel Gabriel wine (as one can Crazy Horse malt liquor or Thunderbird wine); there are no Blackskins, Yellowskins or Whiteskins playing football anywhere, but there are Redskins. Tim Giago (Lakota), former editor in chief of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today puts it this way: "Would you paint your face black, wear an afro wig and prance around the football field trying to imitate your perceptions of Black people? Of course not! That would be insulting to Blacks, so why is it OK to do it to Indians?"
These outrageous examples of product names and team mascots could not be established as respectful or appropriate by simply noting that they were chosen by people with innocent motives. If the motive of the owner of such a team or product were to be taken seriously, then wouldn’t the motive of profit deserve significant consideration? We would be wise to remember that team mascots (as well as product names and logos) are motivated principally by profit. Names are chosen to sell, period. Appealing to the motives or attitudes of those who chose these mascots or product names is not a helpful tool in answering the question of the respect or disrespect, the morality or immorality of such depictions. Respect as a motive is untenable, profit as a motive creates suspicion. Motive tells us something about the owners of these teams or products, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the mascots or images they have chosen.
Whence comes the truth about American Indian mascots? The truth is not ascertainable by way of any comparison to other similar phenomena. The motives of people endorsing these images are irrelevant at best - profit oriented at worst. Are not the only relevant voices left to listen to the voices of Indians themselves? If so, then it follows that the truth about mascots and other images can only be ascertained by way of consulting the groups that are so depicted. Only the voices of the groups depicted are to be considered as authoritative.
What do we hear about the mascot issue when we listen to American Indians? So strong is the unanimity of representative organizations in condemning the mascotizing of Indians that once we become aware of it, nothing seems to count as an informed opinion on this matter unless these voices be included. Consider, for example, this statement from The Society of Indian Psychologists of the Americas:
We are concerned that the continued use of Indian symbols and mascots seriously compromises our ability to engage in ethical professional practice…it establishes an unwelcome academic environment for Indian (students, staff, and faculty) and contributes to the miseducation of all members of the (campus) community regarding the cultural practices and traditions of an entire ethnic group.
The National Congress of American Indians has this to add:
[T]he NCAI denounces the use of any American Indian name or Artifice associated with Indian mascots; and calls upon all reasonable individuals in decision making positions to voluntarily change racist and dehumanizing mascots.
(Resolution MID-GB-93-58, June 1993)
Similar positions have also been expressed by The National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media, Kola, The American Indian Movement, and The Institute of American Indian Arts.
Whether or not someone is harmed by a practice can be very informative as to whether or not that practice can be morally justified. This idea does not necessarily bind us to a Utilitarian approach to the problem. It seems that even the stiffest of Kantians would have to acknowledge that the practice of mascotizing treats rational beings as merely a means to an end. But if it is further established that mascotizing is significantly harmful to Indians, then the practice is certainly shown to be unjustifiable in a more comprehensive way. Not only is it the case that American Indians accrue no profits or benefits of any kind from being mascotized, but it is also widely asserted that there is great harm suffered as a result of this. The United States Civil Right Commission has echoed this theme from the claims of the above organizations in its 2001 statement:
The use of stereotypical images of Native Americans by educational institutions has the potential to create a racially hostile educational environment that may be intimidating to Indian students. American Indians have the lowest high school graduation rates. The perpetuation of harmful stereotypes may exacerbate these problems.
It is important to note here that the reasons used to support the claims of Native groups (that Indian mascots are harmful) need not themselves be compelling to non-Indians. The is surely an idea that many non-Indian Philosophers and academics will find hard to swallow, but what Indian groups say about mascots that depict them is compelling because it is said by Indians. Many people do find the reasons in support of their claims to be strongly supportive of the position that mascotizing is harmful, but to debate this point would betray a misinformed treatment of the subject. What we have established here is that native groups occupy a privileged position with respect to providing a moral assessment of mascots that depict them. They occupy this privileged position not because they offer compelling reasons for what they say, but rather because no other groups can reasonably be understood as being similarly competent to render such an opinion. There are no other groups in similar circumstances with respect to being mascotized, and those who benefit from or own Indian themed commodities can only be taken as offering assessments motivated by profit. That leaves Native groups as the sole voices of authority on this matter.
This short summary should serve to consolidate the points that have hopefully been demonstrated. First, through a multitude of commercial ventures, Indians have been mascotized in American culture. Second, in estimating the moral status of this mascotizing, the only reliable avenue for ascertaining any truth is the consultation of representative groups of American Indians. Third, an opinion informed by what such representative groups of Indians have to say is unable to include any notion of the justifiability of Indian mascots. Mascotizing reduces persons to charicatures, it reduces intrinsic worth to financial worth, it creates an environment of ignorance and intimidation.
The force of these arguments is expressed in a simple and direct way by Barbara Munson (Oneida): "When someone says you are hurting them by your action, if you persist - then the harm becomes intentional."
[I am deeply indebted to American Indian Cultural Support http://www.aics.org/
for providing much of the information and references in this paper.]