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Sam Sommers: The Native American Mascot: Tribute or Stereotype?

In yet another chapter of a continuing debate, the State of Oregon announced last week that its public schools must discontinue the use of Native American nicknames and mascots. The Board of Education gave state schools until 2017 to stop using team names such as "Indians," "Chiefs," "Braves," and "Redskins." Other names such as "Warriors" will still be permitted, provided that no imagery is used referring to a particular tribe, custom, or individual. Predictably, reaction to the order has been mixed.

Supporters of the ban assert that even if the schools that use them harbor no ill-intent, the images themselves are caricatures that perpetuate stereotypes. Opponents of the ban suggest that these names celebrate, rather than disparage Native American culture. And fans of the slippery slope argument would ask what, then, of the other sports nicknames that make reference to a particular group of people, whether in terms of region of origin (Vikings, Fighting Irish, Celtics), religion (Quakers, Saints), or occupation (Boilermakers, Engineers)?

For many people the debate comes down to one question: tribute or stereotype? And some would suggest that this is a question best posed to Native Americans directly, including the NCAA, which has previously ordered schools to change their nickname unless they can demonstrate approval from the local tribe in question.

But there’s also another, arguably more compelling way to answer this question: look to the data. What, specifically, are the psychological implications of these nicknames and mascots?

A few years ago, researchers at Arizona, Stanford, and Michigan conducted a series of studies to find out. Their first experiment found evidence to support the idea that sports mascots can be a source of pride in Native American communities. In this study, high school students on an Indian reservation in Arizona who read a brief paragraph about the use of these mascots (accompanied by a photo of Chief Wahoo, the smiling logo of the Cleveland Indians) subsequently used more positive words when asked to write down their first thoughts that came to mind in describing Native Americans.

This finding indicates that mascot representations are not always regarded as negative — and that surveys of members of Native American communities may very well indicate explicit support for the nicknames. But the question remains, what of the psychological effects of these mascots on Native American individuals? On this count, the data are not so kind to the pro-mascot case.

FULL ARTICLE HERE: Sam Sommers: The Native American Mascot: Tribute or Stereotype?.

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