By Mike LevineSpecial to CSMS MagazineNative American mascots and nicknames can be seen everywhere in our society. People drive Jeep Cherokees, watch Atlanta Braves baseball fans do the tomahawk chop and enjoy professional and college football teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and the Florida State University Seminoles. Is the use of these symbols a tribute to the Native American people, or as some feel, a slap in the face to their honored traditions? Across the country, according to the National Coalition on Race and Sports in Media, which is part of the American Indian Movement (AIM), there are more than 3,000 racist or offensive mascots used in high school, college or professional sports teams. In New Jersey alone, there are dozens of schools that use Native American images and symbols such as braves, warriors, chiefs or Indians for their sports teams. In April 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended that all non-Native American schools drop their Native American mascots or nicknames. The commission declared that “the stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious or other group, when promoted by our public educational institutions, teaches all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, which is a dangerous lesson in a diverse society.” The commission also noted that these nicknames and mascots are “false portrayals that encourage biases and prejudices that have a negative effect on contemporary Indian people.” For years, Native American organizations have opposed the use of such mascots, finding them offensive and a racial slur against their people. Supporters of the nicknames believe they honor Native Americans focus on their bravery, courage and fighting skills. Karl Swanson, vice president of the Washington Redskins professional football team, declared in the magazine Sports Illustrated that his team’s name “symbolizes courage, dignity, and leadership.” And that the “Redskins symbolize greatness and strength of a grand people.” In the Native American mascot controversy, the nickname Redskins is particularly controversial and offensive. Historically the term was used to refer to the scalps of dead Native Americans that were exchanged for money for as bounties, or cash rewards. When it became too difficult to bring in the bodies of dead Indians to get the money (usually under a dollar per person). Bounty hunters exchanged bloody scalps or “Redskins” as evidence of the dead Indian. I believe that these mascots were started in a harmless way not intended to insult or offend anyone. Now they are a large part of tradition and history for Americans. My opinion is that these traditions should have never been started.I do feel that the mascots and caricatures depicting Indians in such a silly, insulting light can be damaging to young Native American Indian children. So what is the answer? It should be done away with and never should have been started. But where do we draw the line between what is harmless innocent fun and what is damaging, insulting and hurtful? I would like to think that my opinions would remain the same if my skin color were different. I feel that I would not think it was too offensive and insulting. But in fact, it is.Note: Mike Levine teaches literature at the University of Toronto. He wrote this piece exclusively for CSMS Magazine.Also see Indian Mascot: http://www.csmsmagazine.org/news.php?pg=20060625I142
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