Apr 10, 2015 - How Native American Mascots Affect All Native Americans, By Ma’Ko’Quah Abigail Jones
In 2011, I was a student at Haskell Indian Nations University and worked as a Kansas House of Representatives intern. I remember an instance where I was sitting outside of a meeting that was discussing the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation developing a golf course on their reservation land. They were discussing this with the Joint Committee on State – Tribal Relations. During a break in the meeting, I overheard lobbyists and other state representatives discussing the idea of a tribe developing a golf course. “What do Indians know about golf?” I heard one of the representatives say to the lobbyists, as they all laughed at the notion. What I heard with my own ears is how the ignorance of misinformed policymakers impacts their decision-making. This memory has impacted my life ever since.
As a graduate student of environmental law and policy, I reflect on that day in the State House. I wonder now how policymakers perceive tribal issues. In my research, I learn and work with tribes who have very sophisticated practices when it comes to managing their own natural resources. This past summer I worked with the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Natural Resources Division. I was able to learn about how they implement oral history into their modern practices of dredging their wild rice lakes in order to maintain high water quality standards. They rely on the memories and stories of elders and put them into practice when they manage their reservation resources. To the Ojibwe, wild rice is a natural resource that is integral to their culture and existence as a People. They work hard to protect the rice. One of their managers has said, “when we protect the rice, we protect the environment around it.” This is true for many tribes. In this sense, tribes are inherently environmentalists.
I have read and heard many people debate the mascot issue. For Native Americans, it is usually downright offensive and racist, or it’s a distraction that does not focus on the real issues that are affecting tribal communities. As an educated student with a background in political science, I am able to see the direct connection between the misrepresentation of the mascot and its influence on how policymakers perceive Native American tribal issues.
First and foremost, the mascot is dehumanizing. It’s dehumanizing in the sense that it oversimplifies Native Americans into plains-style, buckskin wearing, “one with nature”, shamanic war whoopers. It is not representative of non-plains Indian tribes and it caricaturizes plains traditions, practices and regalia (e.g. headdress). When you dehumanize, you deprive of positive human qualities. This is how the overwhelming presence of the mascot impacts our society. When you dehumanize a group of people then you don’t necessarily have to care about what happens to them nor do you have to engage with them. They become “the other.” When policymakers are only exposed to movie representations of Native Americans, history textbook blurbs, casino related dialogue and/or poverty porn then they have a very limited understanding of what issues are affecting tribes the most. They are not able to relate to tribal issues because their inaccurate perception of Native Americans makes us so foreign to anything that they know about the world. Then they get elected to office and are put in charge of developing policies that directly impact tribal communities.
Images, such as the Washington Redskin, create a stereotype. Stereotypes foster and promote prejudice. It allows uninformed people to prejudge Native Americans and our interests. I attend a law school for my Masters degree. I am constantly surrounded by uninformed people who will one day become lawyers and policymakers. Most of them are not malintentioned nor averse to learning about tribal issues, they just don’t know about Native Americans. This is where the problem lies.
A psychological study conducted in 2008 stated that, “stereotypes are cognitive tools that people use to form impressions of others.” (Fryberg et al., 2008) This study also stated that, “one consequence of this…is that the views of most Americans about American Indians are formed and fostered by indirectly acquired information (e.g., media representations of American Indians).” (Fryberg et al., 2008) This is how the mascot issue affects the American population, not just Native Americans. It misinforms the public who might not otherwise know anything about Native Americans. The American public is who elects our leaders. It’s the American public who become our policy makers and court justices. It’s the American public who are elected and put in charge of arguing tribal issues, creating policy that advocates or marginalizes Native communities, developing a national budget that either allocates more funds or restricts funds to the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education. It’s also the American public that becomes state legislators who choose to create partnerships with tribal governments or ignore them. Some policymakers hire tribal liaisons or work with tribes in order to inform their decision making, but not all of them. In fact, a lot of them do not. They rely on their own information and what is presented to them, regardless of where it came from.
The point that I am making is this: the mascot issue isn’t just a distraction, it is a symptom of the larger problem of the ignorance regarding tribal issues. The mascot issue is a critical problem for all Native Americans and its continued use and prevalence in the media only serves to further promote prejudice and ignorance. When tribes want to be heard and advocated, they need an informed audience. When tribal governments assert authority over their natural resources they need to know that the partners that they seek to work with are not just informed by the old image of the noble savage with one tear rolling down his cheek. Tribes want better environmental standards, they demand safer technologies and they want to be seen as the authority over their own natural resources. Reducing Native Americans to historically inaccurate caricatures does not help and, in fact, hinders the work of nation-to-nation relationships between tribal, state and federal officials.
Activists that advocate the discontinued use of the mascot and activists that work to stop the environmental degradation on Indian lands are fighting for the same thing. They are fighting for their humanity. They are fighting for representation and for their voices to be heard. These groups are not alone. Those who do not see the mascot for the harmful racist stereotype that it is does not see how America continues to view Native Americans, as inhuman.
Ma’Ko’Quah Abigail Jones
Masters of Environmental Law and Policy (MELP) Candidate, class of 2015
Vermont Law School
Ma’Ko’Quah Abigail Jones is a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and a graduate student at Vermont Law School. She is a Masters degree candidate in the Environmental Law and Policy program. She received her B.A. from Dartmouth College in 2014 in Government and Native American Studies. She graduated from Haskell Indian Nations University in 2011 with an A.A. degree.