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Why the mascot issue is important for social justice and Native youth
Friday, December 06 2013
 
Written by Jamie Keith,
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why the mascot issue is important for social justice and native youth.jpgHundreds of protesters gathered outside the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis on Nov. 7 to speak out against the Washington mascot. According to Little Earth Education Director Sasha Houston Brown, the rally was the site of some clashes between football fans and Indigenous protesters.

“There were some very intoxicated white football fans getting in people's faces, mocking the drums, making fake war whoops, doing fake dances,” she said. “We can't say there's not an issue when that's going on.”

There are strong feelings on both sides of this debate. In social media posts that argue to keep the mascot, a common theme admonishes protesters to “get over it.” In Google + user Ron Brown's words, “this PC group of rejects have almost destroyed our society."

Another common argument in favor of the mascot is that it is an honorific. To this end, Washington team manager Dan Snyder invited Navajo Code Talkers to the team's game on Nov, 25. “The #Redskins celebrate & honor members of the Navajo Code Talkers,” read the team's official Twitter posts about the event.

Is this a superficial issue of offense, over sensitivity, or political correctness? If not, why do mascots and the popular depiction of Native Americans matter, not just to Native communities, but to American society as a whole?

“Their ignorance isn't just out of nowhere, it's reflective of the collective American ignorance,” said Brown of mascot supporters. “It just speaks to the more complex notion of the history of America and the history of First Nations and Indigenous people and the fact that America is still not ready as a society to take a hard look into our past and openly talk about what happened.”

Taking a hard look at history and future movements for social justice within both our education systems and society at large is at the core of the mascot debate.

“It's not about blame, it's not about shaming people, and it's not about white guilt, but it's about doing justice and speaking the truth about things,” Brown said. “We can't really have conversations about race and identity and cultural appropriation and mascots and imagery without looking at these core issues that are really central to the debate.”

Brown, a member of the Santee Sioux Nation, helped organize a Native youth march shortly before the larger protest.

“On the one hand, I thought maybe I shouldn't even get involved in this issue because there is so much going on in my community and I don't want to get pegged as someone who just talks about cultural appropriation or stereotypes,” she said. “But it was really when I thought about our young people and the ways that this does impact them and the ways it impacts us all [that I got involved].”

In 2004, several researchers conducted a psychological study on the impact of mascot imagery on Native American youth entitled “Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots.” This four-part study involving youth from different reservations found that “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.”

Brown feels that these are some of the most compelling reasons to advocate for mascot changes.

“You think about being a Native child and the only time that you see yourself in media is as a sports mascot or a costume or you see the rare very depressing news story,” she said. “It's all negative and they don't see themselves portrayed as they are and as they should be.”

This imbalance in the portrayal of Native people in the media takes its toll on Native youth across the country.

“Native youth have the highest rates of suicide among any ethnic population in the United States - the statistics are staggering,” Brown said. “I'm not saying sports mascots are directly causing suicide, but we have to look at the the messages [Native youth] are receiving, explicit or implicit, from dominant society around who they are and their own value.”

Brown says that one of the factors that contributes to these dominant stereotypes is a denial of the present lived experiences of Native people.

“When we talk about Natives, whether it's in a political climate or a social climate, it's from this past, romanticized Indian experience,” Brown said. “We don't talk about contemporaneity for Indigenous people and that invisibility contributes to things like having the Redskins be acceptable … When you have a derogatory racial caricature and name like the Redskins, it's somehow OK because [people] can't place it with a friend, a family member, a child that they work with on a daily basis. They can't place it within a relevant personal context, and so in a lot of ways that human element is completely void in the debate.”

The dehumanization of Indigenous people and communities has far-reaching consequences.

“When we look at some of the acts that are happening to tribal people on tribal lands, those can only take place as long as our cultures and people are seen as dehumanized and other,” said Brown. “In no other circumstances would you be contaminating the water, putting pipelines through, passing legislation where these communities can't even prosecute crimes that happen on their own lands.”

Brown says that as long as Native people are viewed as caricatured mascots, many of the more tangible issues and injustices Indigenous communities face will continue.

“When you have your nation's capitol's team named the Washington Redskins, that epitomizes the way that Native people are looked at and depicted in our nation and society,” said Brown. “As long as we continue to be viewed as a mascot, all of these issues will continue to persist.”


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