For over four decades, American Indian organizations, individuals, and their allies have sought to eliminate the use and abuse of American Indian imagery in the marketing and promotion of athletic teams in school and professional settings. Through consciousness raising, legal challenges, public protest, and reasoned discourse, American Indian plaintiffs have attempted to get relief from a constant barrage of images that undermine the ability of Native peoples to be seen as human beings rather than objects to be used in the entertainment of the masses. More than 100 organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association, Native American Journalists Association, the Society of Indian Psychologists, and the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, have supported the discontinuation of these images on the grounds that they encourage stereotyping that negatively impacts the health and well-being of American Indians in schools and workplaces by perpetuating false and misleading representations that form the basis for mistreatment and disrespect of American Indians in the past and in the present while guaranteeing a future of the same.
And progress has been made. According to Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Huldogee Mucogee), two-thirds of educational institutions have ceased the practice of using American Indian imagery as anchors for brand identity, community bonding, and team spirit. In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) took the position that while member institutions could not be barred from using American Indian imagery, NCAA championships would not be held on campuses where American Indian imagery was used in the marketing of sport teams and teams with American Indian imagery would be required to cover it up in order to compete in NCAA championships. Recognizing Indian sovereignty, the NCAA's policy on Native American mascots also allowed for schools to retain their American Indian imagery if a namesake tribe gave permission. In May of 2012, Oregon became the second state after Wisconsin to prohibit Native American mascots, nicknames, and imagery in public schools.
For all of the progress that has been made, there remains a stalemate between mascot supporters who believe these images honor American Indians and opponents who regard these images as racially offensive and insensitive. Last Friday, on the anniversary of the passage of the Dawes Act of 1887, an act that set in motion a U.S. government policy of assimilation designed to dismantle tribal governments and strip American Indians of identity, land, and culture, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) challenging the use of American Indian mascots by 35 public high schools in that state. This complaint seeks to unlock this stalemate by taking the assessment of this imagery beyond the scope of public opinion and situating it in the realm of demonstrable harms done to American Indian children. The MDCR complaint is based on an emerging body of research documenting the impact that this imagery has on the students who encounter it in schools. As noted in the complaint:
A growing and unrebutted body of evidence now establishes that the use of American Indian imagery reinforces stereotypes in a way that negatively impacts the potential for achievement by students with American-Indian ancestry. The negative impact on this minority of students is NOT associated with malicious intent, or even benign negativism. In fact the impact of even "positive" stereotyping ... produces a similarly detrimental impact (MDCR complaint, 2013, p. 5).
Citing the work of Stephanie Fryberg, an assistant professor of social and cultural psychology at the University of Arizona, the complaint hinges on an understanding that American Indian children do not benefit from depictions of "braves," chiefs" and "Indians" in educational settings. To the contrary, often among the least represented and most at-risk groups in school systems, American Indian children experience a negative impact on their self-esteem, levels of confidence, achievement, and community worth. Non-Indian children, in turn, experience a boost in their levels of self-esteem after seeing these images. Educated within "mascot" cultures, non-Indian students foster expectations of how American Indians should behave, look, and act, not as a result of having dealt with American Indians before but as a result of stereotyping that rarely depicts American Indians in roles as bankers, doctors, educators, film-makers, journalists, lawyers, musicians, and politicians, but as representatives of a dying people depicted as fierce and fighting "warriors."
Through the creation of an unequal learning environment that deprives American Indian children access to an education free of impediments to success in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the MDCR has called upon the OCR to issue an order to end the use of American Indian mascots, names, terms, graphics, and/or other imagery to protect the welfare and safety of children entrusted to the care of educators in primary and secondary schools.
In contemplating what this complaint means, a consideration of the experiences of American Indian children affected by this imagery on a daily basis in schools offers insight as to the harms reported by Fryberg and other researchers. Consider those too fearful to even disclose that they are, in fact, American Indian because they do not wish to suffer the distress of fulfilling the script laid-out before them as a result of a stereotyped world-view of feathers and war whoops. Consider the peer-pressure American Indian children encounter to "fit" in and not rock the boat by challenging the traditions of face painting, feather wearing displays that distort and disfigure their culture, religion, and heritage. Consider the profound effects on an American Indian child's sense of confidence to be in hiding while being in plain view, seen and yet unseen. Consider the awkwardness an American Indian child feels walking into school and watching as other students wipe their muddy shoes on the head of a "chief," embedded as it is in a doormat. Consider a gifted American Indian athlete's dilemma when contemplating whether to try out for a team because of the offense that will have to be endured by being required to wear a uniform with an acknowledged racial slur on it.
Whether the imagery represents a violation of any particular civil rights law or more profoundly the laws of common decency, this complaint asks again, in another way, that educators (coaches, administrators, fans, marketers, parents, public policy makers, teachers) reflect on the dynamics around these images. The test of the notion that this imagery fosters an atmosphere of honoring American Indians is refuted by the troubling reality that less than 50 percent of American Indian children nationally graduate from high school. Recent statistics reveal that in some parts of the United States, suicide rates among American Indian youth is between 9 and 19 percent more frequent than those found among other youth groups.
At its most fundamental, the MDCR complaint raises the question of why there would be such energy devoted to protecting an American Indian image or a mascot rather than the welfare of American Indian children. There is a connection between the forces unleashed with the signing of the Dawes Act in undermining the fabric of American Indian communities and national identities and the harms done to the psyche of American Indian children through the misappropriation and misuse of American Indian imagery by schools and athletic teams. The OCR can take significant steps to address the unequal environment in which American Indian children grow up and learn by banning these images.