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Playing America’s Games: Mascots and the Color Line

The afternoon of October 8, 2016 marked the Yale football team’s first victory, an incredibly close come back against Dartmouth. Students who made the trek to Yale Bowl were excited for the team, especially because the showdown was the 100th game since the schools’ foundings, but their cheers were short-lived. In an effort to commemorate the 100-game rivalry, Yale’s Athletics Department printed a program featuring a collage of eight game posters used in previous years. Nearly half of these posters contained racist images of Dartmouth football players depicted as Native Americans, harking back to the years when Dartmouth’s athletic teams were known unofficially as “the Indians.” This nickname was given to Dartmouth in the 1920’s and stuck until 1974, when Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees issued a statement calling for the end of the term’s use. One image on the game posters depicted a Yale football player lighting the clothes of a screaming Native American figure on fire and another showed a bulldog chasing another stereotypically drawn Native American man up a tree.

The collage of these images quickly surfaced on Yale’s social media network. The poster was first criticized in a tweet by Mary Kathryn Nagle, executive director for the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, and it was later reposted on the Overheard at Yale Facebook page where it was quickly shared among hundreds of students. The reactions were relatively unanimous: the collage clearly contained graphic images that promoted racial stereotypes, so how could the Athletics Department knowingly publish it?

In an interview with The Politic, Steve Conn, Yale’s Associate Athletics Director for Sport’s Publicity, insisted that “the intent was to honor the 100-game rivalry between Dartmouth and Yale by showing classic covers spanning the last 75 years…[they] were very upset that [they] didn’t notice some of the issues with the images.”

While it is possible that there was a disconnect between intent and reality, the game program also uncovered a larger social issue: the continued use of the Native American mascot. Many students spoke out to protest the published images on social media, and Steve Conn said that “[the Athletics Department] was notified by multiple sources” shortly after the publication. The Association of Native Americans at Yale also released a statement on Facebook, writing that they “condemned the production of racist images” and that “the promotion of racist mascots creates a non-inclusive learning environment for Native students.” The issues surrounding the controversy are salient. By viewing Native Americans in a stereotypical way, viewers subconsciously force cultural images and complexities into a single dimension that not only damage those in the native community, but also prevent understanding by non-Native groups.

The patterns of Native American stereotyping and mascots can be understood within the context of a history shaped by forced relocation, organized cultural eradication, and discrimination. In much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States adopted strict policies to authoritatively control the indigenous population. These policies resulted in American Indian Boarding Schools, efforts to Americanize Native American children by separating them from their families, and forced migration of indigenous tribes to west of the Mississippi River. By the early 20th century, sports teams had begun to shift towards racialized mascots, playing off of the adopted words and images of Native American life as imagined by European Americans. This practice led to the formation of many professional team names and logos including the Boston Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, and the Chicago Blackhawks. Contemporarily, the Native American mascot trend is popular enough that it can be seen at every level, from professional sports franchises to elementary school teams. Although the names used now are not typically thought of in their cultural context, they were often founded with racial discrimination in mind––mascots were fundamentally meant to be ideas that could be treated as symbolic properties to be played with and even mocked by people that could afford to do so.

In recent years, the issue of racialized mascots has sparked intense and divisive debate across the country. Proponents of current use often cite that the use of the names is more of an issue of political correctness than it is with racism, and that the mascots represent a tradition that should not be silenced. Other supporters of Native American mascots claim that the names exist in a state of respect, a state that focuses on positive traits associated with native communities such as bravery and pride. In a Sports Illustrated article, Karl Swanson, the vice-president of the Washington Redskins, wrote that the name “symbolizes courage, dignity, and leadership.” Despite such assertions, it seems that non-Native people continue to profit off of the stereotypes that racialized mascots promote, which often vilify Native people or contribute to an image of “savagery” that keeps the native community’s image frozen in history.

Critics of the use of Native American mascots also argue that there is fundamental issue with the association of ethnicity with a mascot by non-Native groups, as it places Native Americans in an invented media context that maintains notions of cultural superiority and perpetuates inaccuracies. Normalization of racialized mascots allows sports fans to attend games wearing face paint or headdresses without thinking twice. In popular media, the issue usually boils down to one of perceived offensiveness to the Native community, but this kind of analysis reduces the problem to one of opinion or emotion and ignores the long term effects of name use. The damaging impact of names and mascots often compounds other sociopolitical barriers the Native community faces by affecting Native American people’s ability to feel included or confident in their identity. They also reinforce mainstream stereotypes that prevent others from learning about native culture. In the wake of the Native American mascot controversy sparked by the 2014 proposal to change the name of the Washington Redskins, several institutions carried out social science research to explore the deeper psychological effects of the names and images in question. The accumulation of the studies found overwhelmingly that name use by non-Native groups significantly impacted Native American students feelings of worth and possibility of achievement. These findings resulted in over 115 professional organizations adopting policies that prevented the use of Native American names of symbols.

At a basic level, these stereotypical representations contribute to the development of cultural prejudice that runs counter to the educational mission of universities. In a similar vein, the continuation of racialized mascots in many contexts is incongruous with the philosophies that many Americans promote daily, including diversity and inclusivity. To some, it seems that the U.S. is a cultural melting pot that wishes it were made of only a single ingredient.

Although the issue of Native American mascots has died down relative to its publicity in 2014, it is still a political hot topic being pursued by groups on both sides. At Yale, the impact of mascots was brought to the fore by the printing of the football programs. In light of the reaction by students, the Athletics Department issued an apology to all Yale students, writing that they “did not mean to perpetuate stereotypes or condone them,” and apologizing for any hurt the publication caused. The apology was effective at accounting for the department’s choice and addressing the ongoing dialogue surrounding the Native American mascot. But with the political and social climate that has developed at Yale over the last two years, from the name-change proposal for Calhoun College to the dissolution of Yale’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter, it is rather surprising that those who oversaw the publication were not more cognizant of the potential impact the images could carry. The stakes of these issues should not be trivialized–they are nothing less than the understanding of Native American history and the distinction between tolerance and respect.

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