May 4, 2011

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to Hold Hearing on “Stolen Identities: the Impact of Racist Stereotypes on Indigenous People”

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will be holding an oversight hearing tomorrow on the depictions of Native peoples in American society and the effect they have on these communities and the American public in general. The Committee will explore how Indian mascots, common caricatures and prevalent mis-portrayals have far-reaching impacts on the identity and sense of self-worth of Native peoples and negatively impact how all Americans perceive and relate to each other.
“Our hearing is about the real harm that is done to all people, Native and non-Native alike, when mascots, movies and images reinforce the stereotypes and the lines that divide rather than unite us,” said Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
WHAT: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing on “Stolen Identities: The Impact of Racist Stereotypes on Indigenous People”
WHEN: 2:15 pm, Thursday, May 5, 2011
WHERE: 628 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Live video and witness testimony will be provided at
Panel I
THE HONORABLE TEX HALL, Chairman, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, and Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, New Town, ND
MS. SUZAN SHOWN HARJO, President, The Morning Star Institute, Washington, DC
MS. CHARLENE TETERS, Professor, Studio Arts, Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, NM
Panel II
MS. STEPHANIE FRYBERG, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
MR. CHASKE SPENCER, Actor/ Producer and Partner, Urban Dream Productions, New York, NY
MR. JIM WARNE, President, Warrior Society Development, San Diego, CA
Wild West shows, Hollywood films, and Indigenous based mascots have shaped the perception of Indigenous peoples for over one hundred years. Early media forms generally presented Native Americans either as noble yet submissive warriors or as bloodthirsty savages. Emerging from these shows and films were Native American mascots. Research shows that Native American mascots have negative effects on Native students’ self-esteem and sense of worth and that exposure to Native American team mascots increases a person’s negative stereotyping of other races. The awareness of the impacts of these stereotypes, actions of governments, and the emergence of Indigenous actors and directors has greatly contributed to overturning a century of harmful stereotypes.
Origins of Indigenous Themed Mascots
In the early 20th Century the mainstream media began to refer to Native Americans as the “Vanishing Americans.” With the Indian population having reached approximately 237,000 and still dropping, it certainly seemed to Euro-Americans that Native Americans were headed towards extinction. It was during this time when the majority of Indigenous themed team names were selected. The first use of Indigenous based mascots goes back to the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse in 1909 when that institution first named its teams Indians. Many other universities followed suit in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The naming phenomenon was next taken up by thousands of high schools and junior high schools.
Estimates of the number of schools with Indigenous themed mascots vary greatly, ranging from 1,400 to 2,600 to innumerable depending if primary schools are included in the count, although numbers are decreasing each year due to the retirement of nicknames and mascots. A 2005 analysis of school nicknames in the Clell Wade Coaches Directory revealed that the ten most popular team names are, in order of frequency, Eagles, Tigers, Bulldogs, Panthers, Wildcats, Warriors, Lions, Cougars, Indians and Trojans. Seven of these names are wild predatory animals, and Trojans and Warriors are persons trained to kill or human predators. If all Indigenous-based nicknames like Braves, Chiefs, Redskins, and others are accumulated into a single category, they total 1,368 and become the most popular names in the country.
Voluntary Abandonment of Indigenous Themed Mascots
When the University of Oklahoma eliminated its mascot Little Red, a student wearing an Indian war bonnet, buckskin costume, and moccasins, many other universities followed suit. During the 1970’s a number of schools abandoned their offensive American Indian mascots in favor of non-offensive alternatives. Some of these schools include Dartmouth, Stanford, St. John’s, Syracuse, Marquette University, Minnesota State University in Mankato, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
A 2005 policy adopted by the NCAA led to the continuation of the removal of offensive mascots. Their policy prohibits member institutions from participating in NCAA-sanctioned postseason events if the institution maintains a mascot, moniker, nickname, or logo that was offensive to Native American citizens. The NCAA went further and identified a list of schools that it placed on notice of being in violation of this new policy. Some of those schools included Alcorn State University Braves, Central Michigan University Chippewas, Catawba College Indians, Florida State University Seminoles, Midwestern State University Indians, University of Utah Utes, and the University of Louisiana-Monroe Indians. Several identified institutions immediately took action to remove their names from the NCAA’s list of hostile and abusive imagery. Carthage College, Midwestern State University, William & Mary, Southeastern Oklahoma State University as well as others elected to change their discriminatory American Indian imagery in an effort to comply with the NCAA’s new policy.
The 2005 NCAA policy allowed for an appeals process giving university administrations an opportunity to keep their Indigenous themed mascots. The NCAA made a determination that if member institutions could provide support for their continued use of American Indian mascots, then they would be removed from the postseason ban list and could continue using their mascot. The determining factor in the appeals process is whether or not local tribes approve of or are supportive of the use by the university. The NCAA has granted appeals to schools including Florida State University and the University of Utah.
Studies on Impact of Indigenous Based Mascots
Scholars focused attention on Indigenous-based team names during the 1990s by publishing research in an array of disciplinary journals. In the past two decades there have been many anthropological, sociological, literary, and educational studies of the ways in which athletic team names distort and disparage Indigenous people, their histories, cultures, heterogeneity, and distinctiveness. In addition, psychologists and educators have linked depression and educational underachievement among minority students to the use of stereotypes prevalent in contemporary society.
The research of Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, Psychology Professor at the University of Arizona, demonstrates that exposure to American Indian mascot images has a negative impact on American Indian students feelings of personal and community worth, and achievement. In a 2003 study, she showed mascot images to Native American high school students and white college students. The results of her study indicated that exposure to American Indian mascots lowered the self-esteem of the Native American students but not of the other subjects. The NCAA incorporated the study into its investigation of mascots and said it contributed to the decision to ban American Indian mascots.
Research by Chu Kim-Prieto, a Professor of Psychology at The College of New Jersey, shows that exposure to Native American team mascots increases a person’s negative stereotyping of other races. She launched two surveys, one at The College of New Jersey and one at the University of Illinois. In her study, Professor Kim-Prieto sought out to see if simply observing and reading about the Native American sports symbol would increase respondents’ prejudices about Asian-Americans, an unrelated racial group. Her study suggests that one stereotype may enhance another, regardless of the race being depicted. Jesse Steinfeldt of Indiana University documented the high level of hurtful rhetoric that is flowing freely in cyberspace whenever communities try and mount a defense of their race-based nickname and logo. His study investigated racial attitudes about American Indians that are electronically expressed in newspaper online forums by examining the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo used for their athletic teams. Steinfeldt analyzed over 1,000 online forum comments. The findings of his study indicated that a critical mass of online forum comments represented ignorance about American Indian culture and even disdain toward American Indians by providing misinformation, perpetuating stereotypes, and expressing overtly racist attitudes toward American Indians.
Contact: Jesse Broder Van Dyke
Contact Phone: 202-224-7045
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