Saturday, January 28, 2023
Jan. 28, 2023

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Jayne: Change Native mascots? Yes!


As changes go during this era of racial sensitivity, this seems like an easy one to make.

It’s not a discussion about rethinking law enforcement. Or a treatise on systemic racism. Or a debate about statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

No, this is simply about mascots for athletic teams and whether they should invoke Native American imagery. You know, like Chieftains.

That’s the nickname at Columbia River High School, and it often is accompanied by a logo featuring a Native American-looking man in a headdress of the school’s colors, purple and yellow. A recent petition, signed by more than 1,300 people, has been sent to the board of Vancouver Public Schools urging them to change the mascot. “We believe that the Chieftain mascot trivializes Indigenous people, their personhood, their cultures, and the trauma they’ve endured at the hand of colonialism and white supremacy,” the petition reads, in part.

You might agree, or you might not. Either way, that’s not really the point. No, the point is best articulated by Stephanie Fryberg, who said, “What we find is that among Native people, about two-thirds of them are offended by Native mascots.”

Fryberg should know. She grew up on the Tulalip Reservation north of Seattle, earned a Ph.D. at Stanford, and is a psychology professor at the University of Michigan after previously working at the University of Washington. And for years she has been studying the impact of Native American mascots on Native American people.

As she is quoted on the American Psychological Association website: “American Indian mascots are harmful not only because they are often negative, but because they remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them. This in turn restricts the number of ways American Indians can see themselves.”

And as she said during a phone interview: “We see decreased self-esteem, decreased community efficacy. For Native people, there are no benefits.”

That, probably, is the point that should be gleaned from renewed discussion about sports teams and Native American mascots. The NFL team in Washington, D.C., known as the Redskins for 87 years, recently announced it will change its nickname. Baseball’s Cleveland Indians are considering a name change, and the Atlanta Braves say they will retain their nickname but are evaluating the tomahawk chop frequently performed by fans.

Those are professional teams with national profiles. And proponents of the nicknames argue that those names are meant to honor Native Americans rather than denigrate them. The Cleveland Indians, in fact, were named as a nod to former player Louis Sockalexis.

But, as Fryberg said: “This is the difference between intent and impact. They may intend it as an honor, but the science doesn’t show that impact. It increases stereotypes of Native people being aggressive, primitive and savage.”

That makes sense. And it should override the concerns of those who regard something as simple as a nickname change to be a threat to our way of life.

One of the straw man arguments often put forth by proponents of Native American mascots is that they wouldn’t be offended if a team were named the Caucasians. Maybe not, but it would be silly, wouldn’t it? If there were a team with a logo of a stereotypical white American, it might be inoffensive to some, but it would be ridiculous.

So why do we allow school teams and professional teams to “honor” Native Americans? Why do we distill the experience of a minority population to something that diminishes their humanity? Maybe we shouldn’t.

“There are ways to honor Native Americans,” Fryberg said. “Name the school after them, or after a tribe.”

That seems to be a more appropriate honorific than a nickname or a mascot dressed as a Native American or a logo depicting how somebody imagines Native Americans to look. And it seems to be a simple change during a time of difficult questions about racial equity.