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Americans are starting to come to terms with the insidious nature of racism — in the way we act, how we speak about others different than us, and yes, even our team mascots. It’s a hard thing to realize that many of the things people took for granted or were seemingly “normal,” probably weren’t normal for every American.

Take, for instance, Native American mascots.

Native American mascots are fairly commonplace throughout the country, especially at the middle and high school level. Colleges have them, too. Even some professional sports teams — the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, and the Cleveland Indians — embrace Native American team mascots.

First, let’s be clear what a mascot is. Merriam-Webster defines a mascot as “a person, animal, or object adopted by a group as a symbolic figure especially to bring them good luck.” It’s no wonder many can’t see the harm in having a particular racial group represent their school’s team — in their eyes, it’s seemingly meant as a compliment. Pro-mascot advocates suggest that such symbols are meant as an honor and should actually make indigenous peoples of the Americas feel good about themselves.

Given that practically anything can be used as a team’s mascot — for instance, Ohio State University uses a poisonous nut, the buckeye, as its mascot — it’s hard to imagine that mascots as symbols are honorable in and of themselves. Being chosen to represent a school or team’s pride or spirit needs to take into consideration how the person being so “honored” feels about it.

For instance, if a small town in Indiana wanted to honor a local industrialist from the 1920s who helped make their town into what it is today, it’s unlikely the town would proceed making her a mascot of the town’s team without first checking with her (or her descendants). It would be the epitome of selfishness and self-righteousness to believe that person’s (or their surviving family’s) opinion on the matter shouldn’t carry the most weight.

No matter how well-meaning a mascot’s image or symbol may be, all mascots have one thing in common — stereotyping the very thing it is symbolizing. So even if Native American mascots are meant to be complimentary and honorific, they do so at the expense of providing our fellow citizens with a very shallow, cardboard cutout of what values are embraced and symbolized by that people.

In the case of the American Indian, Fryberg et al (2008) suggest that even positive stereotypes can have unintended, harmful effects. Furthermore, they also noted that few Americans have any direct, personal experience with actual Native Americans. So for most Americans, their view of Native Americans is directly influenced by the information we acquire from what is available — such as stereotyped team mascots.

But those mascots don’t represent very much about current Native American values or culture. They are a hollow symbol of poorly conceived stereotypes decided upon decades’ ago, usually by white men.

There’s been some psychological research into how Native American mascots affect students — the very people who the mascots are intended to help motivate in school and team spirit. Fryberg et al. (2008) conducted a series of four experiments to examine how students reacted to American Indian mascots.

How do these kinds of mascots impact Native American students? They found, in short:

Exposure to American Indian mascot images has a negative impact on American Indian high school and college students’ feelings of personal and community worth, and achievement-related possible selves.

American Indian students also reported lower personal and community worth when they are exposed to other common characterizations of American Indians (i.e., Disney’s Pocahontas and negative stereotypes such as high alcoholism, school dropout, and suicide rates).

The researchers believe these negative feelings come from the lack of many American Indians found in everyday life, whether it be in books, on TV, in the movies, or even on social media.

We suggest that the negative effects of exposure to these images may, in part, be due to the relative absence of more contemporary positive images of American Indians in American society. Specifically, American Indian mascots and other common American Indian representations do not cue associations that are relevant or useful for students’ identity construction.

Virtually every other minority has other places to turn and be reminded of their self-worth and value. Native Americans all too often have only mascots and shallow characterizations (care of Disney) in which to turn to.

It doesn’t help that schools reinforce these images and stereotypes even after they’ve changed mascots. Kraus et al. (2019) found that in one university setting, in over 50 percent of the school’s classrooms and other public spaces and on over 10 percent of university apparel, the offending Native American mascot remained, reinforcing the prejudice and stereotyping.

Finally, the researchers note something we should all take into consideration — the potential harm it brings to Native American children: “The studies suggest that American Indian mascots have harmful psychological consequences for the group that is caricaturized by the mascots.”

Most teenagers and children don’t feel all that close to a school’s mascot. It’s a symbol meant to help get them energized for (mostly) team sports. They don’t have a lot invested in the symbol. And if told the symbol is actually causing psychological distress to classmates, I suspect most would be okay with finding a less offensive symbol.

Adults, however, seem to have a harder time with this sort of change. Recently on my hometown’s Facebook group, adults argued endlessly when a teenager suggested it was time for the local school’s American Indian mascot to go. Virtually none of the argument discussed the mental and psychological health of the children in school. Instead most of it focused on adults’ feelings about the mascot (and none of the people discussing the mascot were actually Native American).

Mascots are intended to be a symbol of shared unity and pride. If mascots become a symbol of division and older, stereotyped ways of looking at people that are different than you, then they aren’t really doing a very good job any longer. When that happens, it’s time to take a serious look at replacing a divisive mascot symbol with one that enhances and encourages unity and community pride.

For further reading: Mascot Nation: The Controversy over Native American Representations in Sports