Mascots, Stereotypes, And Attitudes
Mascots And Stereotypes

Does it seem to you as if the topic of "mascots" is in the news more and more? No...probably not. In fact, unless you are familiar with American Indian issues, you might still believe that mascots are nothing more than that silly costume worn by the guy at your local high school football games. Or maybe you would be more likely to associate the image of the Indian "warrior" that appears on the team helmets with being a "mascot." In either case you would be correct, for they are both mascots as well as costumes.

A costume? That sounds harmless enough. But what is a costume? Isn't a costume just a visual representation of something that isn't really there?

Ghosts, zombies, monsters. Barbarian warriors, knights and wizards. Fantasy; things that don't really exist. These are things that could be associated with costumes and mascots. What U.S. holiday is centered around the donning of costumes? Halloween! A night of fun and costumes! Make belief and mischief! How much braver we are in our masks of anonymity. It's psychological - it's a proven fact. Aboriginal cultures have taken advantage of this for years. A warrior wearing a mask could count on psychologically disturbing his enemies and would of course benefit from witnessing the reaction to his fierce or perhaps otherwordly appearance. Pure psychology, a play on the human mind and its fears.

The mascot of the football team we spoke of earlier serves much the same function. Oh sure, there is (ideally) no literal life and death battle to be fought on the ballfield, but the implication is there. The team identifies with that "Indian symbol." To them, it represents everything they have been taught to believe about American Indians. Fierce warriors, savages, untamed, takers of scalps, mighty Chiefs - LOOKOUT OPPOSING TEAM, THE REDSKINS ARE HERE!!

If the mascot is a human in costume, there are other considerations. Now not only is there a symbol - a living mascot - there is entertainment as well. How the crowd LAUGHS when their "Indian warrior" does his "war dance," leaping to and fro. How they roar when he falls down, "killed" by imaginary bullets or arrows. If the crowd is paticularly playful they might even give up a "war whoop" and play along with the show. They will of course all know that this is the proper thing to do because "all Indians did it." Didn't all Indians believe in and do everything the exact same way?

If the event described above is a professional sporting event, alchohol will flow freely, perhaps adding to the fun. A drunken fan or two might even launch into his or her own rendition an "Indian war dance." But hey, it's all in good fun and a good time is had by all.

Well...no...not by all.

If you had never heard of the mascot issue before you read these words, you might find it surprising to hear that the use of American Indian mascots is insulting and racist - it's institutionalized racism. It's true, the scenarios given above are NOT "good fun" situations. They are demeaning and insulting to an old culture. The "war-dance" is a mockery of a sacred dance. The wild dancing and leaping is no different than donning a monkey suit, screeching, and declaring that such actions are an attempt to honor the old culture of some far off African Tribe. YES...it is THAT insulting, that racist.

If you had never heard of the mascot issue before you read these words, ask yourself a question: Do you still believe that the above scenario(s) are "all in good fun" and show "honor" to American Indians?

Ignorance

"You are ignorant." It sounds like an insult, doesn't it? But it isn't, not really. It simply means "to lack knowledge." If you are ignorant of a topic, you have no - or very little - knowledge of the topic. If you don't know how to - for instance - fly an airplane, you lack the knowledge of how to do so - you are ignorant inasmuch as flying an airplane is concerned.

Fear. We have all known fear. We have all been afraid at some time or another. Why? Ultimately, the "why" can be defined like this: We experience fear when we are confronted by occurrences that we are not familiar with. Imagine that we are suddenly in the midst of a stone age culture. We encounter stone age people. They approach us, and as they do so they begin to emit shrill shrieking noises. We fear their approach. Why? Because we think that they might be going to kill us! It's only natural to fear a group who comes toward you shrieking, right? We've all been taught - we've learned - that this is not "normal" behavior and we quite naturally fear an impending assault.

Now consider this: We really have no idea what the intentions of the shrieking stong age people are or why they shriek as they approach us. In reality, this shrieking could be a stone age tradition, a customary way of greeting strangers. We would not know this, there is no way we possible could. Why? Because we are ignorant - don't have knowledge of - the ways of the stone age culture. We automatically judged their actions by our own cultural experience, our way of doing things, and we have misjudged them completely.

We met people. We applied cultural norms to them because we are ignorant of their culture. We feared them. Ignorance breeds fear.

We are afraid. We might attack the stone age people before they can get at us. If we attack, and if we manage to escape, we will never know that we were being greeted. All we will really have done is open the door to hate. We will hate them for trying to attack us. They will hate us for attacking them.

We were ignorant. Ignorance breeds fear. Fear has led us to attack members of a foreign culture; now we share mutual hatred. By our actions we have created a new concept. Racism. Racism is caused by ignorance, fear, and hatred.

At one time in America, everyone "knew" that a person of African descent was incapable of gaining an education because they were simply too stupid to learn. At one time everyone "knew" that American Indian males were "too lazy to work." Everyone knew that American Indian women were "sq%&ws and only good for "one thing," also.

Most of this "knowledge" has been laid to rest today, even if it does linger. Still, one would be hard pressed to find a sporting event which boasted an African warrior doing an imitation of a sacred African Tribal dance as a playful act. Why? It's ridiculously racist, of course, and is nothing more than a disrespectful show.

Yet American Indian culture is still mocked, and the institution of racism which is "Indian" mascots continues.

We are living 500 plus years after encountering the stone age culture. As time past, our ancestors who originally met the stone age people embellished the tale of first contact. We now have our own little mythology concerning these people. We know that they were savages, likely to attack for any reason. We know that they were fierce warriors. We CERTAINLY know that we are more civilized - better - than those barbarians that were here before us. We know that the last Tribe of stone age folks was subdued long ago, and that anything like a pure Tribal culture is extinct.

Yes, we know that the descendants of that stone age people intermarried with some of our own and that a few of their fullblood people are still around. We know that they are now members of our own modern society. We have a vague idea about their culture and spiritual beliefs - all based on early observation and the work of a few long dead anthropologists who recorded what they saw. We're fairly confident that we have a good grasp of what the people were like and what they believed.

But we don't, won't, and can't really know the entire truth. We don't know that the beliefs still exist and that the people have never lost their identity as a people, or their unique cultural sensitivities. We can't know, we are not a part of the culture - we are ignorant of its truths.

We have our own ideas. They are wrong, but they're based on the cultural experiences given to us by our ancestors.

Therefore, we can't know that the use of a mascot is racist. We don't want to know. We can't believe it. It's all in good fun, and after all, it's only a symbol. The only thing we can do, if we want to learn, is listen to the people that are directly affected - the Indians - if we can grasp the reality that there are still Indian people and cultures extant.

But still, you say...it's ONLY a symbol. What could possibly be so upsetting about an emblem that it can be considered so evil and racist to an ENTIRE race or group???

Hmm...ever hear of a swastika?

COPYRIGHT 2000, OUR RED EARTH and/or Bob P.
Permission to reproduce this work in its entirety is granted, provided that source of origin is credited.
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