CLINGING TO A MASCOT
AT WHOSE EXPENSE
A Call to Change the Native American Mascot at Napa High School
As a professor of Humanities at Napa Valley College for the past eleven years and former high school social justice teacher for seven years, I have taught my students about the history of Native American communities and their representation. We have examined the effects of genocide, loss of land, forced relocation, and forced assimilation have had on indigenous communities over the centuries. The use of Native Americans as school mascots has been among the most enduring remnants of that historical dehumanization.
One of the best ways to make it easier on one’s conscience to kill, maim, and subjugate a community of people is by equating them with animals. It is important to notice that the majority of mascots at universities and high schools are animals—Bears, Panthers, Bulls, Eagles, etc. When a Native American image is found within a long list of animal mascots, the implication is that Native Americans are also animals or animal-like. This calls to mind how indigenous peoples throughout North America have been routinely depicted in public discourse as savage, barbaric, uncivilized, animal-like creatures. Furthermore, Dr. Andrew Jolivette (Atakapa, Opelousa, Choctaw, and Cherokee), professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, points out that the juxtaposition of Native American images with other mascots, such as the 49-ers or Pirates, groups of people within our past, suggests that Native Americans are also a “thing” of the past who no longer exist. In one sense, the continued use of Native Americans as mascots serves the function of subtly influencing the public to believe that Native Americans are either animals, animal-like, or extinct.
Secondly, when examining various Native-American mascots, one might see a spectrum of images ranging from red-faced caricatures carrying hatchets to stern-faced chiefs staring far off into the distance. Perhaps, some individuals may recognize how degrading the caricatures are. However, it is far more difficult to convince some that the serious, austere, mystical image of a Native American is also insulting and dehumanizing. Such individuals may argue that using a “dignified” image of a Native American is acceptable since it does not overtly mock Native Americans or Native American culture; some go so far as to say that it is a celebration of the warrior spirit of Native Americans. I argue that such images are still unacceptable since they present a romanticized, stagnant, monolithic depiction of Native Americans that prevents society from recognizing the diversity amongst the over five million Native Americans in the United States today. Dr. Melissa Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), founder of Cultural Conservancy and professor of American Indians Studies at San Francisco State University explained this best during one of her lectures: “Native Americans have been historically portrayed as subhuman—savages, barbarians, uncivilized, etc.—and as superhuman—stern-faced warrior, noble, one with the Earth—but never as human.”
Throughout my eighteen years of teaching, I have encountered students, parents, alumni who have made statements like, “Aren’t Native Americans just being too sensitive?” or “Why can’t they be happy we’re using their images? It’s an honor, right?” Such statements are seriously disturbing and cause me to question what exactly within our society continues to influence adolescents and adults to embrace these attitudes.
Based on the prevalence of Native American mascots throughout our history, it is important to understand that we have been collectively taught that narrow, distorted depictions of Native peoples are acceptable. This results in the normalization of such imagery. Since the images appear commonplace, the dehumanizing impact on Native peoples gets rendered nearly invisible—a key feature of an effective con.
Good liars and con-artists (not necessarily mutually exclusive) know that they can get people to believe their lies by making the phony appear genuine—incorporating some element of truth into a fabricated story. This is precisely the dynamic we see operating with Native American mascots—elements of what is believed to be true (but only based on limited knowledge) are taken and an image of Native Americans, divorced from reality, is created and placed on display. Over time, we see a headdress here, an eagle feather there, being unaware of the cultural and religious significance to their respective nations. One must ask how frequently this takes place at Napa High School through sports jerseys, rallies, flyers, etc. Gradually, a community internalizes the lie that such images are innocuous and/or honorable, without realizing they have been drinking poison and learned to love that poison.
Over the decades, some students and alumni come to associate these romanticized images with their personal memories and warm feelings of camaraderie and teamwork of games won and lost, of disappointments and struggles, of victories and celebrations, all taking place on Napa High School campus or in the name of Napa High School (i.e. away-games, etc.). The memories and the mascot grow intertwined. Gradually these individuals develop a greater love and respect for the created image as opposed to the real human beings who are the ancestral caretakers of the land—in our case, the Patwin and the Mishewa-Wappo.
Public statements were made by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2001 and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Executive Committee in 2005 denouncing the use of Native American mascots and nicknames. It is astounding to realize that, in spite of such statements, Napa High School, sixteen years later, is still debating whether or not to change its mascot—the Indians. In light of these statements and the numerous schools, colleges, and universities who have changed their mascots since 2001, continuing to hold on to such a mascot like the “Indians” is a blatant act of willful ignorance.
Let us not perpetuate a lie. Let us not cling to nostalgia at the expense of entire communities of people. Let us not reduce such a serious matter to the superficiality of political correctness. Let us stand in solidarity with the local indigenous communities of the Patwin and the Mishewa-Wappo, the Suscol Intertribal Council, the Sacred Sites Protection and Rights of Indigenous Tribes, with all Native American nations who have called for not only an end to the use of the Native American mascot at Napa High School, but also an end to its usage nationwide.
To show your support to change the mascot at Napa High School, please email your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org, ATTN: NVUSD School Board “Mascot” by May 9. No matter how long or short, please send. Also, please attend the NVUSD board meeting 4/6/17, 6-8pm at the District Auditorium, NVUSD, 2425 Jefferson St., Napa, CA 94558.
Copyright © 2017 Janet Stickmon