Controversy over Native American Mascots


Last Updated: 8 years

One issue creating tension is the use of Native American team names and mascots. This is especially true in college communities with Native team names and images where Native Americans are the largest minority group.


Native Americans as Sport Team Mascots

College/university and professional sports team’s symbols and mascots are highly visible. Most often, fans take the values attributed to sport symbols seriously. A certain symbolism is projected by athletic team nicknames in general. In most cases, athletic team’s names are animals, objects, or natural phenomena.

Symbols can be positive such as bravery, courage, and strength, or negative such as brutality, fury, violence, and viciousness. However, most often Native Americans mascots and team names are symbolized with the more negative traits (Nuessel, 1994; Fuller and Manning, 1987).

Nuessel (1994) states that the “traditional image of Native Americans in the print and non-print media depicts the indigenous population as brutal, savage, inhumane, and uncivilized” (p. 109). This negative reflection of Native American people and culture results in a highly controversial issue.

Two of the ten most popular college and university team nicknames and mascots refer to Native Americans; Indians and Warriors (Nuessel, 1994). Although Franks (1982) found the most common college and university nickname was the Eagles, all nicknames associated with Native Americans in combination far outnumber the Eagles.

The most frequently used Native names are Indians, Redman, Warriors, Savages, Braves, and Chiefs (Nuessel, 1994). Even though the nickname Warrior can be associated with others besides Native Americans, the logos that accompany this nickname typically depict a caricature of a Native American.

In addition, many team nicknames relate to specific Native American groups such as the Illini, Hurons, Choctaws, Apaches, Pequots, Sioux, Chippewas,
Blackhawks, and Mohawks (Nuessel, 1994). According to Davis (1993), Native American mascots emerged in the early 1900’s at a time when Native Americans civil and legal rights were ignored.

Despite the efforts of various groups (e.g., American Indian Movement (AIM) & White Earth Land Recovery Project) to end the depiction of Native American images by athletic teams, these names remain popular around the country. Awareness has increased recently among colleges and universities concerning the reactions to their Native-related athletic team nicknames and a number of universities/colleges have changed or are considering changing their nickname (Fuller and Manning, 1987; Nuessel, 1994).

For example, Native American students at Stanford University and Dartmouth College were successful in getting their former school nickname “Indians” changed. Native American students at Dartmouth College declared the name “Indians” was an “offensive distortion of Indian culture and history that was sometimes sacrilegious.” (Fuller and Manning, 1987, p. 61).

Dartmouth officials were persuaded by their  Native students and no longer wanted to perpetuate a negative and stereotypical distortion of Indigenous peoples.

Some verbal and even nonverbal behavior displayed by team fans and game attendees, such as the “tomahawk chop”, are examples of stereotyping perpetuated by Native mascots. Many generic or cartoonish Native American paraphernalia are sold to fans such as plastic tomahawks and turkey feather war bonnets or ceremonial bonnets. Many Native American tribes and individuals find such items and behavior offensive.

The use of plastic toys and inappropriate gestures mock ceremonial objects and spiritual rituals that Native people hold in deep respect. Nuessel (1994) suggests the most offensive mascot to Native Americans may be Chief Illiniwek of the University of Illinois. Nuessel writes “this derogatory, stereotypic personification of American Indians, always interpreted by a white male, often employs facial kinetic gestures (menacing waves of a tomahawk, war dances), and paralinguistic utterances (war whoops) to mimic an American Indian chief (p.109).”

The official position of the University of Illinois is that the chief honors Native Americans, asserting that the mascot’s costume is hand made by Native Americans and that the dance is authentic. University officials stated “the chief is not an invention, mascot, or caricature, or sacrilegious, but an honorable, authentic reproduction” (Slowikowski, 1993, p. 26).

However, Slowikowski reports the University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek never existed in any Native American tribe, nor does his dance “replicate any authentic dance that a specified tribe would’ve performed” (p. 26).

In 1991 and 1992, large groups protested against the use of the terms “Redskins” and “Braves” during the Super Bowl and World Series, respectively. Davis (1993) analyzed the protests, investigating the media coverage related to this movement. A list of arguments for and against the use of Native Americans as nicknames, logos, and mascots was presented.

Anti-mascot proponents argue the use of mascots, logos, paraphernalia, and related fan actions perpetuate racist stereotypes of Native Americans and their respective cultures. For example, as noted above, the Native American as the “bloodthirsty savage” who holds traits such as wild, aggressive, and violent is perpetuated by the use of Native’s as mascots (Davis, 1993).

LaDuke (1999) argues the “invention” or depiction of Native Americans as aggressors is particularly offensive because it distorts the historical reality.

Many Native people view the European Americans as the aggressors, raiding Native American lands and oppressing indigenous people. Another argument against the use of team mascots suggests that Native Americans are only part of the past, thus obscuring the lives and issues of contemporary Native Americans.

Davis states that, “according to some of the activists, recognizing and understanding the lives of present-day Native Americans both challenges
the stereotypes and in some ways provides evidence of past oppression (p. 13).”

Other arguments include the offensive nature of imitation or misuse of symbols that have religious significance to some Native American people. Perhaps the most common argument though, is that they negatively influence the self-image and self-esteem of Native Americans, especially Native American children (Davis, 1993).

Individuals supporting the continued use of Native American symbolism as mascots, argue the use is an honor and tribute to Native Americans, because they are viewed as people associated with bravery, strength, pride, and a fighting spirit (Davis, 1993).

Additional arguments cited by Davis include the idea that the use does not intend to offend Native Americans, that not all Native Americans object to their use, and that there are other mascots modeled after other ethnic groups such as the Vikings and the Irish and that people from these groups do not find these offensive.

Some individuals also stated that because they support Native Americans in general, it is acceptable for them to use a Native mascot. Sigelman (1998) investigated public attitudes toward the Washington Redskins professional football team.

Telephone surveys were completed in the Washington DC area and nationally. Sigelman reported that very few members of the public felt a need to change Redskins name. However, significantly higher numbers of ethnic minorities, those more educated and those who were not Washington Redskins fans supported a name change.

Washington Redskin officials defended the name claiming it “reflects positive attributes of the Native American such as dedication, courage, and pride” (Sigelman, 1998, p. 318).

Supporters of the Redskins name and logo further suggested the name implied positive elements such as bravery, wisdom, and spirituality. Based on the survey, Sigelman suggested supporters were blindly engaging in racial stereotyping and if they did realize their participation was discriminatory, they downplayed the significance.

A similar study by Fenelon (1999) was conducted in the Cleveland, OH area regarding the Cleveland Indians baseball team’s mascot “Chief Wahoo”. There were distinct European American, African American, and Native American trends seen in the results.

Despite continued protest by Native Americans, European Americans agreed that the symbol should remain under all conditions, whereas African American responses were generally neutral. More than half of the European Americans refused or failed to empathize with the Native American perspective and did not recognize “Wahoo” as offensive.Additionally for Euro-Americans, the mascot was not associated with racism (Fenelon 1999).

More recently, a national telephone survey was conducted that was published in Sports Illustrated (Price & Woo, 2002). The poll conducted by the Peter Harris Research Group for Sports Illustrated interviewed 351 Native Americans (217 living on a reservation and 134 living off) as well as 734 “sports fans.”

The results of the poll indicated that 83% of Native Americans responded that professional teams should not stop using Native nicknames, mascots, or symbols, and 79% of “sports fans” also agreed with that statement.

The pollsters further report there is a difference in opinion between Natives on or off the reservation. It was reported that only 67% of Natives living on the reservation agreed that professional teams should not stop using Native names and mascots, while 87% of Natives living off the reservation agreed that pro teams should not stop using nicknames and mascots that represent Native Americans.

In response to the question regarding the use of Redskin (as in Washington Redskins), it was reported that 57% of Natives living on the
reservation did not object to the name and 72% of Natives living off the reservation did not object. With such large percentages of the Natives polled in this study apparently supporting the use of Native American nicknames and mascots, or at least not finding them offensive, the authors suggest there is a near “total disconnect” between Native American activists and the general Native American population.

However, interpretation of the poll may not be so straightforward. Using race (Native American) as an independent variable investigating individual differences is not good science (Dole, 1994; Fairchild, 1991; Helms, Jernigan, & Mascher, 2005; Smedley & Smedley, 2005; Zuckerman, 1990), which nearly nullifies the results at worst and calls for extreme caution at best.

This relates to the methodology of how Native Americans were identified on or off the reservation. How were the participants identified as Native American: through census reports, by surname, or self-report? This information was not reported in the Sports Illustrated article. Additionally, the external validity is further questioned because of the lack of information about the sample regarding geographical location of those living on the reservation or off.

More question arise such as how many reservations were polled? Where were the reservations located? Which tribal affiliation were the Native Americans? What was their acculturation level or cultural identification?

The authors implied that Natives living on the reservation were more attached to the culture, but this may not necessarily be true. Further related to the polling of Natives on or off the reservations is the issue of economic status and who may or may not have telephone services. Another concern relates to the cultural appropriateness and competency of a phone poll.

Many Native American people have a mistrust of research in general and therefore may have provided affirming responses to such questions. These are just a few issues that need to be addressed before a real interpretation of the poll can be made of whether or not Native Americans in general find the use of Native team names and mascots offensive.