Native-themed mascots still ruffling feathers off the field

While the eyes of the sporting world are focused on Vancouver as the Winter Olympics pick up speed, the Vancouver School Board has passed an interesting motion urging school districts across British Columbia to ban sports mascots that promote Aboriginal stereotypes. The trustee who introduced it cited a statement from a continent-wide movement to kill such mascots that “trivialize and humiliate” Aboriginal cultures and experiences:

It explained that in some cases the sacred practice of becoming a warrior is associated with high school pep rallies or royalty in homecoming pageants, which carry racial overtones of “playing Indian” at high school events. It also criticized using native dress, tomahawks, feathers, face paints and symbolic drums and pipes inappropriately and using generic names such as Indians, Braves or Chiefs or specific tribal names.

This movement isn’t new, and it may be an attempt by the Vancouver School Board to foster good public relations at a time when Aboriginal people across the country are debating the validity of the Olympics taking place on traditional territory. But it’s clearly still an issue that divides fans and schools, and worse, offends Aboriginal people on a lot of levels in many cases.

There’s a substantial list of examples at the high school, collegiate and professional levels. If you’re unfamiliar with a lot of these, Wikipedia has a decent entry about it, but I’d also recommend checking out websites from the groups linked to this aforementioned “movement”, like The Alliance Against Racial Mascots and the American Indian Movement’s National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. Native advocates first started billowing smoke (no pun intended) into the mainstream airwaves about some of these offensive images, names, and practices back in the early 1990s, but clearly that smokescreen of awareness has never really scrubbed the attitudes of the people behind them.

People who think it’s okay to use Native mascots argue it’s done respectfully, that teams and schools have valid ties to an Aboriginal heritage that they honour, or that anything offensive has been altered to be more politically correct. Granted, many schools have made changes, and in 2005 the NCAA even restricted using Native American mascots at tournaments. But in the big leagues, this “tradition” is alive and well.

Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians
Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians

As long as these mascots and monikers maintain at the professional level, kids of all colours will grow up thinking it’s okay to trivialize Aboriginal culture. Chances are, most kids in the United States are oblivious to the Aboriginal plight to begin with. Chief Wahoo will always come to mind when their teachers mention “Indians”. They’ll grow up thinking “Redskin” is a legitimate term. And they’ll bust out the Tomahawk Chop the next time they cheer on the Braves. So school boards across the continent can keep trying to sweep these mascots under the rug, but until the pros set an example they’ll never die.

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