April 25, 2002

Masking the Stereotypes

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I don’t understand why Native American mascots are bad. When I go to a sporting event, I’m supporting the team, not the mascot. Anyway, we are just honoring Native Americans and we have had our mascot for so long that it has become a tradition that won’t be terminated just because a few people don’t like him. Those mascots represent how Native Americans used to live, so if it was true back then, it can’t be demeaning now. If you ever felt a twinge of guilt about being a fan of a team that has a Native American mascot, that might be the train of thought that ran through your head. That is, after all, what you have read and heard in school and in the news.

When you were little, most likely the only thing you learned about Native Americans was that they wore headdresses and buckskin, carried a bow, played the drum, smoked a peace pipe, rode a horse, and chanted. This is the only version of Native Americans that most of us know today, so when you see it on the field, you assume that a mascot that embodies that likeness is just representing the truth.

The Washington Redskins have come under fire from Native Americans, and the reasoning that the owners use to defend their use of their mascot is that they are honoring these people and just preserving a tradition.

Native American mascots are still around today because the vast majority of America does not see anything wrong with them. They will continue to remain until this belief is changed.

I took a class about Native Americans last semester and am currently enrolled in one now, so I’ve heard a lot of different opinions on this subject. Most non-Indian Americans see no problem in using these mascots, mainly for the above reasons. They ultimately fail to realize that Native Americans are offended by the mascots.

Native Americans don’t like them for many reasons. Among others, the mascots are cartoonish, they embody stereotypes that are associated with Native Americans, and they dehumanize them by grouping them along with the animals that are also used as mascots. Since the majority of the U.S. is white, opponents of mascots have tried to demonstrate how insulted Native Americans are by their use in this role. They ask if anyone would be offended if a team was named “the Washington Whities” or “the Houston Palefaces.” Most people answer that they would not be offended by these names. We have never felt oppressed in our history, and thus we do not consider these terms derogatory because they have never been used in such a manner against us.

I may be giving too much credit to our country, but it would seem that in today’s society if a group of people told an individual that the name he was using to describe them was seriously offensive, he would immediately stop.

Native Americans are not dealing with an individual on this issue, though. They are dealing with a sports team, an organization committed to making money. In the case of the Redskins, Native Americans have approached every owner for the past several decades and asked him why he would not change the mascot.

Every time, the owner has rattled off something similar to the first paragraph of this column.

The real reason they won’t change the mascot is because they don’t want to lose money. Opponents say that fans will not care if their team gets a new mascot. They say that the team won’t lose money in the long run because fans will want to buy the jackets, shirts, hats, and souvenirs with the new mascot on it.

Owners are not convinced of this. You simply cannot guarantee that fans will like the mascot or won’t mind throwing out the old offensive one.

Additionally, owners often come under intense scrutiny when a team does poorly. They are blamed if too much money is spent, if too little is spent, or if they cut the payroll significantly. Basically, if anything out of the ordinary happens, the owners come under fire and the fans get angry.

The owners don’t want to make the fans angry because they won’t come to the games, and they won’t buy souvenirs. The fans have not taken a universal stand against Native American mascots. They have not staged huge protests outside stadiums. The money has not stopped coming in. The owners won’t change the mascot based on what Native Americans tell them because they believe that the fans will react negatively and reduce the team’s income.

On April 2, 1999, a group of Native Americans won a case filed against the Washington football organization under the federal trademark law that prohibits trademark registration of words that are offensive or disparaging.

The three-member panel of judges determined that the Native Americans had proven that the term “Redskin” was offensive and, according to the 145-page document, the “registrations would be canceled in due course.”

The case was appealed soon after that decision. But someday in the near future, a handful of judges is going to have to decide once and for all if the term “Redskin” will endure. What Native Americans are hoping is that if the decision is upheld, the trademarks would be canceled and devalued and the team would change its name.

If the judges do uphold the decision, and the name is suddenly changed, the fans will be angry because they won’t understand why the name was offensive in the first place.

All Native Americans have to do is convince the U.S. that the mascots are offensive. The difficulty in this task is that to achieve this end, most non-Indians will have to go on faith. They will not be able to realize just how offensive these mascots are because they have grown up believing that the mascots were just the opposite.

The U.S. will have to take their word for it.

Hopefully it soon will.

Archived article by Katherine Granish