A discussion on Native American mascots


The annual conference on American Indian history and culture was held in the Union at SDSU on February 22 and 23. The goal of the conference is to provide a forum in which the voice of the Native peoples of our region can be heard. Another feature of the annual conference is the student paper sessions, which brings me to the topic of Indian Mascots.

The presenters in the student paper session this year were all SDSU students and this was the one portion of the conference where non-Indian participants were invited to speak. Five groups and one individual gave presentations on a variety of interesting topics. The last group spoke on the Indian mascot issue. You might expect that given the nature of the conference, this final group would have been speaking against the use of Indian mascots. This was not entirely the case.

The group that presented on the Indian mascot issue actually gave two presentations. The first, while not entirely pro-Indian mascot use, questioned whether or not it was really necessary for sports teams to abandon their use of Indian mascots. The second group presented the view that Indian mascots should be abandoned. Much has been written about the pros and cons of this issue, and the students’ presentations gave an overview of those issues, which for space concerns I will not attempt to reproduce.

Another feature of the conference is a panel discussion among elders. The discussion following that session introduced the idea of two choices with respect to cultural issues. The first choice is to simply accept the cultural values that have been passed on to you through your education and life experiences. The second choice is to critically evaluate what the implications of your own cultural values are and to consider what similarities and differences your values have with other cultural groups, and to consider how those differences and similarities may be influencing interactions between the groups, and perhaps even to consider what impact the interaction of cultural groups has in shaping our own historical moment.

The first choice is easier. You can just take life as it comes and go through your day-to-day routine. It is the choice that followers make. The second choice is more difficult, and requires that an individual venture outside of his or her comfort zone. It is a choice reserved for leaders. This choice relates directly to higher education.

When we are small children, our parents are usually our heroes. We want to grow up to be just like them. Then, when we go to school, we are exposed to mainstream views which we tend to accept without critical thought. When we get to college, and are now adult learners, we have the opportunity, and even the expectation, that we will begin to question things. Will we just do enough to get by and get a degree or should the institutions practice the critical thinking which they require of their students with respect to cultural issues? That does not mean that they should automatically conclude that Indian mascots should be abandoned. It simply means that they should critically evaluate the use of their mascots.

If we critically evaluate the usage and find that the usage offends a group of people and may have a negative impact upon them, the choice changes. The easy option of simply continuing as in the past now has implications of its own. Support of Indian mascots at that point can now be held either with the specific intention to offend, or with the willful suspension of the critical evaluation.

I think we should expect better from sports teams at all levels, and particularly from higher education institutions that are supposedly teaching their students to think more critically. How can such colleges expect and require their students to think critically if they, as an institution, are willfully suspending critical thought with respect to Indian issues?

I was previously a fan of the Washington Redskins professional football team. I might be again if they would change the name to the Washington Hogs in honor of the nickname carried by some of their own players during the height of their past glory years. If colleges and universities are truly trying to honor someone with their mascot, why do they have to borrow Indians? Is there nothing in their own past that they are proud of?

In any case, as the conference coordinator, I am happy that the discussion on Indian mascots became a part of our conference, and I would like to express my thanks to all of the students that participated in the student paper session. It is my hope that you will take the issues you have started exploring and continue to pursue them with a critical eye towards the cultural implications that are inherently involved any time we look at a contemporary issue related to Indians in American society.

David AlexanderCoordinator for the 14th Annual SDSU Conference on American Indian History and CultureAssociate Professor and Reference Librarian