Feb 8, 2013 - Indian Mascots Impact More Than a Game by Brandon Ecoffey
Indian Mascots Impact More Than a Game
By Brandon Ecoffey
Originally Printed in Native-Max Magazine
During the four years I spent at Dartmouth, it was not uncommon to encounter an individual or a group of individuals who would go out of their way to take a swipe at the Native American community on campus.
These transgression would namely come in two forms; either in the wearing of the old school Dartmouth Indian head apparel, or at sporting events when we would be forced to endure hearing the chant of “Wa Hoo Wah! Wa Hoo Wah!” Of course neither of these were directed at us for they were, according to those wearing the jackets and those shouting, “simply expressions of their support for good ole Dartmouth athletics.”
Having grown up on a reservation in South Dakota, I had never encountered this version of personal or institutionalized racism before. Sure, I was used to getting pulled over by off-reservation police once they recognized the first two digits of my license plates which showed that I was from Pine Ridge. I was accustomed to being followed around stores by employees whom held an expectation of thievery, and I had come to expect to not be welcomed at certain public and private institutions around the state. It is just how things work in western South Dakota.
This mascot thing, however, was something new to me and I sought to understand the nature of it and later the impact that the misappropriation of Native culture has had on our communities.
The earliest misrepresentations of Native peoples can be linked to the stories relayed by early explorers of the new world to their financiers in Europe. As history progressed, images of Native people were conveyed through the writings of people like Locke and Rousseau, through the field reports of the early journalists who rode with Calvary expeditions, and eventually distorted and mass produced by Hollywood and early professional sports teams.
The legacy of misappropriating Native culture through imagery and written description is one that is rich and well ingrained in the American psyche. Unfortunately, it is a phenomenon that is still alive and well today.
One of the main arenas in which it has become widely accepted and deemed okay to mock Native American cultures is in the world of sports. It is hard to deny this when, on Saturdays during football season, you can see a white guy dressed up as an “Indian,” a black kid doing the tomahawk chop, and an Asian kid banging a plastic (yet authentic) Native American drum, all at the same game.
For those committing the acts I can understand where you are coming from, for I have always been just a bit envious of the old man who would wear the Denver Broncos barrel and suspenders at the old Mile High Stadium in Denver. I am a sports fan at heart but I am an Oglala Lakota first and, like it or not, my people are impacted when our culture is misrepresented in this way.
The argument in favor of Native American themed mascots always comes from two fronts. The first is that these images actually “honor” Native Americans. If you want to honor Native peoples, ask your senator to honor treaty rights. The other argument is that there is not the same backlash from the Irish community about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish mascot. I would respond that there isn’t a backlash from the bovine or feline community either.
In reality, the difference that many people fail to realize is that the stakes are higher for us as Native people than for any other group of people. Native Americans are the smallest segment of the population yet we account for the second highest rate of incarceration of any population in state prisons nationwide; we have the highest rates of diabetes per capita; we suffer the highest rates of suicide of all races; and we live in some of the poorest communities in all of America.
So how do mascots and the social issues that exist in our communities relate? It is quite simple really. The lack of accurate representations of Native peoples in the media allows for these false and misleading images to dictate public perception of Native people, and consequently the discourse surrounding legislation and potential business opportunities for Indigenous nations.
The true impact of mascots on Native communities is not defined in that awkward moment when an actual citizen of an Indigenous nation bumps into a painted and feathered Redskins fan at an NFL game in DC. The impact is felt when that same Native person, who is actually a powerful lobbyist, goes to work and is asked if she still lives in a tipi. The impact is felt even further when she returns home and sees that funding for suicide prevention has been cut, and her cousin has fell victim to the epidemic of teen suicide that is running rampant on reservations across the United States.
Native American people are hyper-sensitive to the misappropriation of our culture as a result of our refinement as statesman and politicians. Often our outrage is mistaken as reckless pride, but if you were to truly understand the stakes we play for, you would quickly realize it is a must that you look beyond the face paint and listen beyond the chants to know who we really are.
Brandon Ecoffey is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Nation. He studied Native American Studies and Political Theory at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. He is currently a staff writer for Native Sun News Weekly.