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16.8.05

Native American Mascots

The NCAA's recent decision to ban Native American mascots has prompted some discussion on a message board I frequent. Inevitably, someone asked why it's offensive to be the "Indians," but not, say, the "Vikings." I replied:

The difference between Native mascots and other human mascots is the social prejudice they intersect with. Imagine I came up to you and poked you gently in the shoulder -- that would be no big deal, right? But when you poke me gently in the shoulder, I'll fall over screaming in pain, because I have a really horrible sunburn. Native Americans have been, and continue to be, discriminated against, stereotyped, stolen from, and prevented from defining their own identity. That's the metaphorical sunburn that even the more innocuous Native mascots are poking. On the other hand, most other groups used as mascots have healthy shoulders. As a person of Swedish descent, I'm not bothered by blond-braided, horned-helmeted caricatures of Vikings, because I've never been stereotyped or discriminated against for being Scandinavian. They don't remind me of being called a "frickin' blondie" or being asked when I last raped and pillaged, because those things never happened.

For many Natives it's not so much the inherent offensiveness of the mascots that's the problem. It's who gets to make the decisions. Native Americans have a long history of having their identity defined by non-Native people. So having a bunch of white guys decide their team will be the Indians, and coming up with a logo, will be problematic no matter how PC the resulting mascot is. You get a similar phenomenon in archaeology. If a white archaeologist goes to a tribe and says "I'm digging up your ancestral site now," the tribe is likely to say "like hell you are," and fight to stop the excavation. But if the archaeologist says "hey, I was thinking maybe we could work together to dig up this site," then the tribe will be very likely to cooperate with the excavation.

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