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About.com's Race Relations Guide explores both sides of the ongoing debate about use of Native American symbols, figures and slogans in sports - Print

About.com's Race Relations Guide explores both sides of the ongoing debate about use of Native American symbols, figures and slogans in sports - Printer FriendlyDo We Honor When We Use Native American Indian Images and Mascots?

From Susan Pizarro-Eckert,Your Guide to Race Relations.
Are Native Mascots Right or Wrong?
Starting in February, 2006, the NCAA will prohibit sports teams from using Native American "Indian" nicknames and logos on team uniforms and via team mascots in postseason events. Beginning in 2008, it will also prohibit cheerleaders and band members from using Native American images, nicknames and logos as well. As it now stands, at least 18 schools are affected by this policy change.

Incorporating Native American images, logos, mascots and rituals into team sports is a long standing tradition in the U.S., and recent policy shifts have polarized the American response - with some welcoming the change and others vehemently opposing it.

Take, for example, the case of Florida State University: their Mascot, "Chief Osceola," will no longer be allowed to perform at games - a tradition that's been in place since 1978.

While the NCAA has deemed such representation of Native culture "hostile and offensive," Governor Jeb Bush feels this stance is "ridiculous" and that such representation instead honors Native culture.

Let's take a closer look at the issues on both sides.
To Honor...
Those who support continued use of Native American Indian mascots, logos and images argue:

* Such use furthers our appreciation of Native American culture.

* It's a long standing tradition that should be respected, besides it's only a game.

* Native American names tend to be used in a positive manner and as a compliment.

* Having Native American Indian names for teams is the same as having teams like "The Fighting Irish" or "The Vikings."

* Some Native Americans don't feel offended. In fact, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has formally signed on and supports use of the mascot by FSU.


Are Native Mascots Right or Wrong?
To Offend...
Those who lobby against use of Native American Indian mascots, logos and images argue:

* In response to claims that some Native American Indians, such as the Seminole tribe in Florida, support use of mascots, the following is pointed out:

o About 75 percent of the Seminole population lives in Oklahoma, not Florida.

o There are actually three Seminole tribes in Florida, and only one tribal government - the one which uses the name "Seminole Tribe of Florida" - has formally supported use of the "Chief Osceola" mascot.

o Curiously, just prior to getting the Seminole tribal endorsement (which occured in 2005), Florida State announced the establishment of scholarships covering 80% of tuition costs for "Seminole Scholars" recruited from reservations (along with a number of other incentives).

* An Indian Country Today survey showed that a full 81% of respondents felt use of Native American Indian names, symbols and mascots are "predominantly offensive and deeply disparaging."

* The subtext - the messages underlying the manner in which these images are portrayed - are clearly negative. Even young people get the message. For example, take this comment by an eighth Grade student writing about his school's mascot in 1997: "We simply chose an Indian as the emblem. We could have just as easily chosen any uncivilized animal."

* The American Counseling Association deems such use of Native American images and symbols to "create a hostile environment for their [Native Americans] development and dignity."

* Headlines often render derogatory images: "Redmen on the Warpath;" "Redmen Scalp Braves;" The Braves "hung the Redmen."

* Hank Aaron - a baseball legend - points out the inequity of the situation: "Would we think of calling teams names such as the "Chicago Caucasians," the "Buffalo Blacks," or the "San Diego Jews?" Could you imagine people mocking African Americans in black face at a game? Yet go to a game where there is a team with an Indian name and you will see fans with war paint on their faces. Is this not the equivalent to black face? Although the thought of changing tradition is often painful, the sting of racism is always painful to its victims."

* In 1950, The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes (including Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), And Seminole Nations), announced:

o "...the use of derogatory American Indian images such as mascots by public schools perpetuate a stereotypical image of American Indians that is likely to have a negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children."

o Such use "contributes to a hostile learning environment that affirms the negative images and stereotypes that persist in America about American Indians."

o "American Indians as mascots is a negative means of appropriating and denigrating our cultural identity that involves the display and depiction of ceremonial symbols and practices that may have religious significance to American Indians."

o Their perception that such use "would be considered intolerable were other ethnic groups or minorities depicted in a similar manner."

o On April 13, 2001, the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a Statement on the Use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols that:

+ Called for an end to the use of American Indian images and team names by non-Indian schools.

+ That stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious or other groups when promoted by public education institutions, teach all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, a dangerous lesson in a diverse society.

+ That schools have a responsibility to educate their students.

+ They [schools] should not use influence to perpetuate misrepresentations of any culture or people.


Where it stands...
Since an overwhelming majority - 81% - of this particular ethnic group admits they are offended by these practice, it is my opinion that it is incumbent upon the American people to reflect on their behaviors and to truly assess for themselves whether or not the damage cause by these practices doesn't outweigh the benefits of maintaining the status quo. It is a curious thing when a dominant oppressor tells a group with less social power, a group it has conquered and almost obliterated, that they have no right to feel offended, violated or insulted by its trivial use of their religious and cultural practices. Perhaps, in this case, it is this very perspective - the basic role of social power - that we, the majority of Americans, are sorely lacking.

As it stands, FSU has an opportunity to appeal the NCAA decision, so long as they do so by February 1st.

Given that this ongoing debate is decades old, it remains to be seen just how much and how fast change will come.

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