“Indian Mascots” promote racism and obscure history

by Albert Bender
News From Indian Country

The harm that “Indian mascots” generate has to do not only with the often clownish portrayals of Native culture that negatively impact Indian youth, but also with the stereotypes (all Indians wore Plains headdresses and were exclusively warriors) that overshadow the tremendous contributions Native Americans have made to the world stage of human drama and overall development.

Indians at the time they were noted as peerless warriors resisting European invasion, were at the same time much more – they were physical and social scientists, advanced agriculturists (2/3 of the world’s crops have Native origins), physicians (Aztecs built the first public health hospitals in the world and the U.S. pharmaceutical industry is based on Indian medicines), general surgeons (Indigenous surgeons in North America, Mesoamerica and South America were performing complex and delicate operations using anesthetics and antibiotics at a time when these practices were unknown in Europe), plastic surgeons (Aztecs performed plastic surgery when this was unheard of in European medicine), merchants (vast trade networks existed throughout the Americas), mathematicians (ancient Olmecs developed concept of zero and passed it on to the Mayas long before Europeans acquired it from India), architects, urban planners (large ancient Native cities existed), raconteurs, poets, engineers, astronomers (ancient Maya calendar is more accurate than the one in use today), anesthesiologists, cartographers, artists, metallurgists, optical technologists, road builders, brain surgeons (trephination was practiced in parts of the U.S., Canada and extensively in Mesoamerica and the South American highlands).


In addition psychologists, carpenters, stonemasons, plumbers (ancient Mesoamericans had personal and public restrooms – Euro-American colonists as late as the 19th Century still used outhouses – and as late as 1845 Boston passed a law that forbade bathing unless doctor prescribed), dentists (Mesoamerican dentists practiced preventive dentistry several hundred years before their European counterparts who didn’t even understand the concept until the mid-18th Century), scribes (the Toltecs, Mixtecs, Maya and Aztecs invented their own paper and produced books. The Toltecs produced a religious encyclopedia in A.D. 660), ecologists, orators, environmentalists, sportsmen (Cherokee and Iroquois stickball was the forerunner of lacrosse – Mesoamerican Indians played basketball 3,000 years ago, the forerunner of all modern games using bouncing balls), botanists, musicians and political scientists, complex governmental systems (U.S. federal system is based on governmental structure of the Iroquois Confederacy); Native people were all of the above and much, much more.

All this Native development was taking place at the time of the invasion and was brought to a screeching halt by hordes of warring Europeans who landed on these shores.

The bitter irony is that the “warrior” label is the main one white society wants to slap on Native people, while the Europeans, and their descendants the Euro-Americans, have been and still are the most warlike and bellicose population on this earth.

Euro-American persistence in holding on to mascot stereotypes is based on the power and practice of long established racism of taking everything Indians possessed – land, resources and even their very lives; white society, in general, is just so used to having its own way that it can tolerate no other. This is indicative of the “conquest mentality” of white Americans. In the same way the ancient Romans paraded their conquered opponents through the “Eternal City,” white America parades mascots, representing conquered Indians before non-Indian sports crowds. Implicit in this racist practice is the attitude that, although, Indians were great warriors, Euro-Americans still prevailed.

Although they claim they want to honor Indian warriors, those predominantly white schools and institutions touting mascots generally exhibit racial animus towards living, breathing, present-day Native Americans.

The use of Indian mascots goes back to the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse in 1909 when that institution first named its teams Indians. The 1920s saw an avalanche of colleges and professional sports teams adopting Indian names. The naming phenomenon was next taken up by thousands of high schools and junior high schools.

In the early 20th Century the mainstream media began to wistfully refer to Native Americans as the “Vanishing Americans.” With the Indian population having reached a nadir of around 237,000 and still dropping, it certainly seemed to Euro-Americans that Native Americans were marching into the halls of extinction.

Racist nostalgia decided to hold dear the memory of the rapidly “departing Americans” by resurrecting them as sports mascots, fitting tribute in the collective mind of white society to a defeated foe. Euro-Americans at that time never conceived an Indian population resurgence, and obviously never thought there would be Native Americans around to even express an opinion about Indian mascots, much less to oppose the same. But, history is full of surprises.

Suffice it to say that the Indian mascot concept eclipses the historic advancements and contributions of Native Americans. A history that is obscured by narrow, racist mascot stereotypes.