How are Native Americans affected by stereotyping?


Last Updated: 8 years

In nations with histories where ethnic minorities were victims of persecution, oppression, slavery, or genocide, the dominant culture typically creates prejudicial attitudes toward the minority group as a justification for the actions of the oppressor group.


Stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and racism towards Natives exist in this context, a nation’s history built because of oppression and genocide (Cox, 1948; Trimble, 1988). As noted above, research on racism against Native Americans has received very little attention.

Little research exists on the role racial prejudice and stereotyping play as a barrier in the American Indian educational experience. Some research has demonstrated that when one group of experimental subjects is directed to inflict pain or harm to members of another experimental group of subjects, the “victim” group is routinely derogated and dehumanized verbally by the “oppressor” group (Davis & Jones, 1960; Glass, 1964; Worchel
& Andreoli, 1978).

By developing such negative attitudes toward their own victims, “exploiters can not only avoid thinking of themselves as villains, but they can also justify
further exploitation” (Franzoi, 1996, p. 394).

Negative stereotypes and attitudes toward Native Americans have served precisely the same function: to protect the historical oppressors from a sense of guilt over the atrocities committed on Natives and to justify further exploitation.

Native Americans as well as other ethnic minorities in America today “become acutely aware of the [negative] evaluations of their ethnic group by the majority white culture” (Santrock, 1997, p. 402).

In a study of identity formation among minorities, Phinney (1989) reported that African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans all suffer from negative stereotypes imposed by the dominant American culture, which denigrates precisely those
aspects of ethnic culture that minorities most prize.

Zakhar (1987) investigated the experiences of Native American in higher education. Archival, survey, interview, and observational data were used in the analysis. The study revealed that Native American college students encountered stereotyping and racism early in their formal school experiences. Students in the study confronted personal, institutional, and other forms of indirect racism throughout their college experience.

The study clearly indicated that the emotional and academic tolls were heavy for Native Americans at an urban university where they were the minority.

Huffman (1991) conducted a study on the experiences, perceptions, and consequences of campus racism among a sample of Northern Plains Native Americans. Huffman used both a quantitative and qualitative approach, with college students attending asmall Midwestern university.

He obtained information on cultural, social, academic, and financial problems encountered by Native American students. In addition, information was gathered on the experiences of cultural conflict, relationships with other Natives and non-Natives, evaluation of the positive and negative nature of the college experience, and major concerns/problems encountered in college.

Huffman reported that racism toward Native American students was most often expressed in the form of verbal attacks. He noted that the more traditionally oriented Native American students were more sensitive to racial comments. Non-Natives most often used name-calling and racial slurs arising from
prevalent stereotypes.

Although a small sample, the majority of the Native students interviewed (16 of the 22) related a perception of the campus setting as being in some way a
hostile environment. Some students related feelings of being an outsider and unwelcome by their college community.

Research regarding the adverse outcome of such negative stereotypes on the functioning of minorities in America is voluminous (see Spencer & Dornbusch, 1990, for an overview). Nowhere are such negative appraisals of minority groups more blatant than in the mascots and Native American names of sports teams that proliferate in the American education system.

While other minority groups in America must endure negative stereotypes, Natives are the only minority group that continues to have these stereotypes advertised in federally and state funded colleges and universities. It is argued that Native American mascots help to promote and perpetuate the dehumanizing stereotypes that developed among European colonizers centuries ago.

As such, they are harmful to both Natives and non-Natives. Natives endure the psychological damage of seeing cartoon-like caricatures of themselves embodied in the mascots, perhaps the ultimate in dehumanizing victims. Native American mascots may also harm non-Natives, for they perpetuate
stereotypes that impair students from learning accurate accounts of American history and Native/European American relations throughout the post-contact era (Pewewardy, 1999).

From a Social Dominance Theory (SDT), (Sidanius, 1993; Sidanius & Pratto, 1993, 1999) perspective, it can be postulated that the continued use of the Fighting Sioux logo and other Native mascots constitute a form of social dominance; acting as an “hierarchy-enhancing” force to maintain the inequality between the dominant group of European Americans and the subordinate group of Native Americans.

As the social dominance theory posits, the dominant group controls the allocation of resources, here the use of the “Sioux” name. The core premise of SDT states that organized hierarchies of socially constructed groups exist in societies and one or more dominant group enjoys disproportionate levels of power and status relative to one or more subordinate group.

This inequality is maintained through a psychological mechanism termed social dominance orientation (SDO), the degree to which group-based forms of
dominance and inequality are favored. SDO is considered to manifest itself through common factors, such as psychological tendencies for prejudice, cultural ideologies, and discriminatory behaviors, which combine to maintain social group hierarchies (Pratto, Liu, Levin, Sidanius, Shih, Bachrach, & Hegarty, 2000; Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle,1994).

SDT and the mechanism through which it operates, SDO, is theorized to account for social statuses and academic achievement gaps between groups (Van Laar & Sidanius, 2001; Van Laar, Sidanius, Rabinowitz, & Sinclair, 1999), ethnic and cultural inequalities (Pratto et al., 2000), favoritism for high-status groups (Levin, Frederico, Sidanius, & Rabinowitz, 2002), and personal and institutional discrimination (Pratto, Stallworth, Sidanius, & Siers, 1997; Sidanius, Pratto, & Bobo, 1996; Sidanius, Pratto, Sinclair, & Van Laar, 1996).

Native American activist groups have called on professional and college teams to change their names referring to them as pejorative, derogatory, offensive, and racist, citing that the names themselves create more negative stereotypes and acts of discrimination against Native people (National Coalition on Racism in Sports & Media, 1999).

Professional and college teams often attempt to counter this with the argument that the names promote positive attributes of Native Americans such as pride and courage, the names and mascots honor Native people and help educate the public about Native American tribes (Sigelman, 1998). However, no published empirical research exists investigating if or how Native team mascots affect stereotyping, prejudice, or discrimination in either direction.

In addition, how the endorsement of team names and mascots by some Native people affect stereotypes, prejudice, and the in-group/out-group dynamics has not been investigated. In an area where cultural in-groups and out-groups exist, concepts derived from Social Identity Theory (SIT; Tajfel & Turner, 1979, 1986) namely the in-group bias (Mullen, Brown and Smith 1992) and out-group homogeneity effect (Judd & Park, 1990; Linville Fischer, & Salovey, 1989; Park & Rothbart, 1982) allow for the empirical study of prejudice and discrimination surrounding the team mascot issue.

The in-group bias refers to the tendency for groups to show favoritism toward members of their own social group over other groups. SIT posits that people are motivated by the need to feel positive self-esteem, which leads to the belief that the groups we belong to are better than other groups. It follows that people will evaluate in-group members, and by proxy themselves, more positively than members of other groups.

Several studies have consistently provided evidence that individuals provided more rewards and resources in the form of tokens to members of in-groups over members of out-groups (Allen & Wilder,1975; Ng, 1982). Mullen et al. (1992) found that individuals tend to evaluate in-group members more favorably than out-group members.

There is also evidence that in-group members are more likely to remember negative behaviors of out-group members (Howard & Rothbart, 1980). These studies suggest that individuals favor members of their own groups over members of other groups relating to interpersonal evaluation and in terms of resource allocation.

Out-group homogeneity refers to the tendency for group members to see their own group as more diverse and variable than members of other groups. Two current conceptualizations of the out-group homogeneity effect are mentioned here. Linville et al. (1989) propose a multiple exemplar model suggesting that variability judgments are formed in a process of recalling examples of group members they have encountered over time.

The out-group homogeneity effect occurs because of the greater range and degree of contact with in-group members; therefore, people have more in-group exemplars than out-group exemplars. Park and Judd (1990) propose that individuals estimate the variability of groups both on the degree in which members differ from the group mean and the degree in which members fit the stereotype of the group. Thus, when they see all members of an out-group
as similar to their stereotype for that group or when all out-group members are seen in the same way, the out-group homogeneity effect occurs.

Based on these concepts within SIT predictions can be made on what the effects of these social categorizations (i.e. non-Native vs. Native or pro-mascot vs. anti-mascot) will have on the level of prejudice and discrimination for these in-group/out-group dynamics.

According to SIT, in simple categorization situations (non-Native vs. Native) perceivers engage in social comparison processes, based on assessing perceived in-group/out-group similarities, while seeking positive distinctiveness for the in-group and thus obtaining a positive self-evaluation. This process, in which individuals engage in social comparison, accounts for the discrimination that occurs when evaluating members of other groups.

In a multiple categorization situation (non-Native vs. Native and pro-mascot vs. anti-mascot) SIT would predict an additive combination of tendencies to discriminate, with double in-groups receiving the most positive rating, double out-groups the most negative, and partial groups somewhere in the middle.

While social comparison maintains that the degree of similarity between the groups leads to the additive tendency to discriminate, partial group members are still discriminated against because they include at least one out-group factor (Crisp & Hewstone, 2000; Gardner, MacIntyre, & Lolonde, 1995).

Social Dominance Theory (SDT) extends the idea that the in-group bias and out-group homogeneity effect are an attempt to achieve positive group
distinctiveness; positing there may also be a desire for group-based forms of inequality and dominance. Thus, patterns of in-group bias also may serve the function of perpetuating existing group-based hierarchies (Sidanius, 1993; Sidanius & Pratto, 1993, 1999).