Beall: Eliminate Native American mascots

BY MIKE BEALL | OCTOBER 07, 2013 5:00 AM

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The NHL season is upon us, which means Iowa City is filled again with a plethora of Chicago Blackhawk jerseys. Team spirit is fine, but another Blackhawk season raises the old question again: Why are these and other uses of Native Americans as mascots socially acceptable? 

These mascots — Blackhawks, Redskins, Indians, etc. — are used to reinforce savage-warrior stereotypes of Native Americans that date back to the arrival of Europeans in North America. Many commentators trot out anecdotal evidence of Native Americans who say these nicknames don’t offend them, but generally speaking, the theoretical arguments for keeping Native American mascots around are weak. If teams used other minorities and stereotypes as mascots, they would be instantly vilified and forced to change.

You may argue that other ethnicities are used by teams all the time, which makes it OK for the use of teams such as the Minnesota Vikings, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Boston Celtics, and Montréal Canadiens.  The problem with this argument is that other ethnicities are used entirely differently.

The difference between these teams and the Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, etc., is that those teams were founded by those groups of people.  The Vikings are based in Minnesota, a state with a large Scandinavian ancestry that takes pride in having this sports team represent them. The Boston Celtics are based in Boston, which has a large Irish-American population. Likewise, Notre Dame is a university founded by Irish Catholics. The Montréal Canadiens were, you guessed it, founded to represent French Canadiens in Montréal. There is nothing wrong with these mascots, names, and logos because the people they are representing use them. 

This is a way for people of similar backgrounds to come together to support the local team. Teams with Native-American logos, on the other hand, have historically used these as negative warrior stereotypes to rally largely white fan bases behind the “noble savage.” This is not OK. 

You may argue that these nicknames are used respectfully, but there is no respect. Anyone who has been to a live sporting event, whether it includes alcohol or not, knows how fans act toward the opposing team. The person next to you or maybe you and your friends yell obscenities and insults.

If you have ever been to a game that includes one team with a Native American mascot, it gets much worse. Simple curses turn into hate speech. Shouts of “Scalp the Indians” are common. This is not respect, and neither is a drunken idiot in war paint yelling fake chants.

You may argue that it’s simply tradition, but tradition is never enough reason to keep something around. Other forms of discrimination towards Native Americans used to also be tradition. While sports teams have created mock ceremonies for sporting events, Native Americans have often been discriminated against and not allowed to perform religious ceremonies. Such discrimination could hardly be written off as tradition.

But forced use of Native American mascots is not so different from other kinds of discrimination. Ultimately, it is a continuation of the forced assimilation that has characterized the history of the Native American in the United States. Their land was taken, and they were forced into “civilized society.” Many refused to do so and wanted to retain their own identity and sovereignty.

The use of Native Americans as mascots is an attempt to bring this independent identity into mainstream culture, a continuation of forced assimilation. Native American mascots don’t honor Native Americans, they merely capitalize on the one asset that couldn’t be stolen — their identity.

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