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American Indians used as mascots

This message was received from Jason Nelson, a student in the Stanford Graduate School of Business:

This note was forwarded to me today from a Texas Tribal Chairman. I have erased the name to conceal his identity, but I'm interested to hear what WAIS members think about this matter. As a Native American, I have mixed feelings about Indian mascots. For instance, I believe the Florida State Seminole is one of the most awe-inspiring mascots in collegiate athletics – and it is approved by the Florida Seminole Tribe.  On the other hand, I feel that the Indian caricature of the Cleveland Indians baseball team is insulting.

That said, many Native Americans are outwardly against all mascots. The message below struck home, as my brother - a tremendous athlete - pursued an undergraduate degree at Stephen F. Austin State University (Nacogdoches, Texas). This rural East Texas university is now under attack for a native mascot trinket awarded to the winner of a local football rivalry. Here is the message:

"You know that the Problem with Indian Mascots and Indian Nicknames is just not an issue in Texas it is a nationwide attitude and behavior. I urge all of you to write the President of Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas to support our Young people who are attending this institution. Our Native American youth, who have established a Native American Student Association have asked the school to do away with their Traditional Wooden Mascot called "Chief Caddo." The wooden false idol is treated as something holier than thou object.

This wooden idol is an award if the rivalry between the SFAU and adjoining Natchitez college. Now it is done only during this one game. Yet, both schools make a big issue of it. The Caddo have been contacted and have lodged their displeasure to this narcissitic and arrogant display, of the athletic dept at SFAU. I do believe we also have to lodge these complaints with the Natchitez School".

My comment: This brings up some important issues. Some years ago, Stanford went through this battle. The symbol of the football team was the popular Chief Lightfoot. He was discarded and replaced by the present symbol, a Tree. Alumni protested, but in vain. Now the Chief is forgotten, and the Tree is the idol.

There are much more important issues.  The aim of Natives seems to be to show that they are the first Americans, therefore more aristocratic than the latecomers, even the Pilgrims. In some countries, especially the US, there is an economic advantage in being classified as an Indian. These may include the right to run gambling casinos on tribal reservations. Sometimes there are political advantages. Simon Bolivar, who was probably a mulatto, once boasted in a speech "I too am an Indian!" to get the support of the Indians.

This brings us back to the WAIS discussion of history textbooks. In the time of Teddy Roosevelt, it was assumed that Indians were savages who must be assimilated or exterminated. When I came to the United States, the school of Frederick Jackson Turner prevailed. The ¨Turner¨ or ¨frontier¨ thesis held that modern American democracy was formed on the frontier, and that is why white America is such a splendid country. A common belief was that, whereas the Anglo-Saxons came to the New World to establish a stable society, the Spaniards came just to steal gold and return home. The magnificent colonial cities of Mexico are proof that this is unfair.

At Berkeley, the powerful Anthropology Department promoted the idealization of the Indian, although it really had its roots in the Romantic movement. Herbert Eugene Bolton encouraged interest in the Spanish missions, which put him at odds with the anthropologists and the campus liberals, who were the vast majority. The missions performed a great humanitarian service, but Bolton´s enemies despised the Catholic Church, and their view of the missions was grossly negative.

We have now entered a phase when white Americans who defeated the Indians are pictured as villains. This is exemplified in a magnificent documentary series "The Real West". In Canada the Royal Mounted Police are shown befriending and protecting the Indians. There is virtually no mention of the Spaniards. The Americans who conquered the West are depicted as rowdy, brutal people who, in their search for land and gold, used their technical advantage to virtually exterminate the Indians and the buffalo which were their source of food. I do not wish to go into the merits and falsities of this picture.

What strikes me is the importance of historical consciousness. I grew up in the shadow of a great medieval cathedral, and looking out of my window I saw a monumental statue of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, very different from the Indian mascots. History, going back to the ancient Celts, was in the air I breathed. People in the West of the US grow up in a very different atmosphere. The Indian Wars are recent, and there is not in the air the ancient history of Europe and Mexico. The historical consciousness of Mexicans has a time span comparable to that of Europeans. Their feel of history is different from that of the American West.

For this reason, the passionate arguments about Chief Lightfoot left me cold. Each year at Stanford there is a big Indian powwow. It would be interesting to find out how they feel about Chief Lightfoot (if they remember him) and Chief Caddo (whom they have probably never heard of). In general, it would be interesting to find out how they feel about the history of the West. In "The Real West", many contemporary Indian leaders were interviewed. They all gave an idealized version of their tribal past. In the whole TV series there was no mention of the fact that their horses and guns, even anything made of iron, came from the white man. They made the hunting of buffalo easier. Previously the Indians had to get the buffalo to stampede over a cliff, no easy task.

This inquiry could be extended to other American countries, from Mexico to Chile. In Mexico there are pilgrimages to the Pyramids, and in Peru President Alejandro Toledo held an Indian ceremony at Sacsahuaman. We plan to begin our history textbook project with Mexico.

Ronald Hilton - 10/5/01