Ever since Europeans first colonized North America there has been an ongoing struggle between native and non-native peoples. Even now after many bloody wars have been fought and land claims settled there continues to be many issues that need to be resolved. One such issue is the racist and stereotypical portrayal of native people in modern media. Although depictions of native people for entertainment purposes can sometimes be dignified and honouring, nevertheless such depictions are usually derogatory towards native people because they are culturally offensive, racist, and stereotyping.
On the forefront of the issue of native images in modern media is the use of native names and logos by sports teams. Many professional and amateur sports teams use native names and logos that create culturally offensive depictions of native people. In recent years attention has been brought to such use, and despite severe protest teams continue to refuse to change their attitudes towards the use of these offensive images. Ted Turner, media magnate and owner of baseball s Atlanta Braves, contests that the use of Native American names and symbols is not meant to be offensive to native people but instead is meant to honor them (New York Post).
Joseph P. Gone, a native writer for New York Magazine, does not believe that such portrayals are honouring towards native people. In his article Chief Illiniwek: Dignified or Damaging, a follow-up to the movie In Whose Honor: University of Illinois Chief Illiniwek, Gone points out that the University s portrayal of the Chief is manifested by several inaccuracies. Gone goes on to say: For decades the University promoted and the students believed that the cheifs dance was an authentic form of some Indian tribal celebration.
Whether or not the Chief s Dance was originally derived from a Lokota ritual, it was adapted early on for sports events and currently resembles no traditional or contemporary expression of dance known to native people (New York Magazine). The use of native dress, chants and dances are not only historically incorrect but they are also a misrepresentation of native people. Jeff Thomason, author of Native Issues:2000 and Beyond, analyzes the stereotypical misrepresentation of native people by contending:
Teams that use Indian logos and mascots show us only the prototypical stereotype Indian: one that wears war paint, and dances wildly to a fanciful drum beat during halftime. Each of these are defining characteristics of the Indian stereotype that has been spoon-fed to the American public for over a century through such media as newspapers, books, cartoons and especially Hollywood westerns (64). Many different mediums of entertainment are used to perpetuate common stereotypes relating to native people. Movies, television and books are among the worst culprits for this type of stereotyping.
Until recently it was not uncommon to see a movie or television show that depicted native people as stupid or savage. Terms such as heathen, brave and squaw were often used when referring to Native Americans. One of the common themes in modern media is the depiction of Native American s as the enemy. Francis Wood, a native activist, writes in his book Beneath the Cloud: Issues facing Modern Natives Not only are native people commonly depicted as the enemy, which was partially true, but they are also shown as the aggressor which history tells us is quite untrue (39).
Wood goes on to say Movies and television have a long history of false portrayals of natives, instead of recognizing that there are many different tribes, each with their own diverse culture, they lump all of us together into a prototypic Indian savage (67). Other common depictions of native people show them as warlike, stupid, and savage. Hollywood is one of the primary forums for such stereotyping. Indian images are created in Hollywood by filmmakers whose primary interest is to make money.
People making decisions today had theses stereotypes perpetuated by such blatantly racist films as The Searchers(1956), The Unforgiven(1960), and White Commanche(1968) (Mihesuah 9,10). Even Children s programming is riddled with hurtful stereotypes. Rick Reilly, writes of on such stereotype in an article for Sport Magazine saying, Turn on TNT during the Thanksgiving season and you ll see an unambiguous mockery of the dimwitted, hook nosed, tomahawk-weilding, broken-English-speaking redskin who was the primitive foil for the antics of Bugs Bunny (56).
Devon Mihesuah, a University professor and expert in Indian relations, analyzes a more recent children s film Pocahontas saying that it epitomizes Hollywoods Commercialized approach. The heroine absurdly sings with forest animals, is clothed provocatively, and blessed with a Barbie doll figure (10). A major complaint of native people is the lack of positive Native American characters in movies and television. Many native children grow up without the option of a positive role model of their own kin. Alvin M. Josephy Jr. writes of the stereotypes commonly associated with natives commenting:
One of the enduring characteristics of Indian-White relationships has been the susceptibility of non-Indians to thinking about Native Americans as stereotypes. They have been regarded successively as noble savages, subhuman demons, untrustworthy thieves and murderers, stoic warriors, inferior and vanishing vestiges of the Stone Age, depraved drunkards, shiftless, lazy, humorless incompetents unable to handle their own affairs reducing them in the non-Indians’ mind to something faceless, akin to the trees and wild animals that the builders of the American nation felt compelled to clear from the land.
One common place that young people look to for role models is sports. For many young natives though, that is not an option. The world of sports contains many racist images that are hurtful to native people. Jeff Thomason writes of his own Childhood experience saying, If you’re growing up and you are constantly being bombarded with the mascot image of the noble savage or the savage throwing something with an angry look on his face, that’s promoting a racist stereotype. (115) Many names and logos are racist because they create, support and maintain stereotypes of a race of people.
When such cultural abuse is supported by one or many of society’s institutions, it constitutes institutional racism (Smithy 77). Paul Joseph contends that is not important whether the image is positive or negative but is hurtful because: The logos keep us marginalized and are a barrier to our contributing here and now. Depictions of mighty warriors of the past emphasize a tragic part of our history; focusing on wartime survival, they ignore the strength and beauty of our cultures during times of peace. Many Indian cultures view life as a spiritual journey filled with lessons to be learned from every experience and from every living being.
Derek Smithy, in an article for Sports Illustrated, analyzes the mascot of baseball s Cleveland Indians saying: “Chief Wahoo” promotes a negative stereotype of Indigenous Peoples. This red-faced, hooked nosed, grinning buffoon does not resemble any indigenous person. The single red feather is a sacrilegious use of what is a sacred object for many Indigenous Peoples. Although some believe the logo to be cute or inoffensive, it treats an entire race of people as an inane cartoon (78). For many native people the characteristic that makes the use of such images racist is not the images themselves, but the context they are being used in.
Native author Paul Joseph argues that you would never see sacred objects related to other religions being used to promote a professional sports team so why should native religion be treated any differently? Joseph goes on to say, We see objects sacred to us – such as the drum, eagle feathers, face painting and traditional dress – being used, not in sacred ceremony, or in any cultural setting, but in another culture’s game (97). Those that support the use of Native American names and logos truly believe that they are not doing any harm. They contend that they intend to honour the Native American culture.
However, the base of their main arguments is incorrect and by denying the harm they are adding to the problem (Gone). One argument that supporters of native mascots use is majority rules. This argument does not apply because the issue is moral not political. George Dodds, native activist and author, believes that As such, its merits must be assessed by means other than counting heads or any other method which might facilitate the tyranny of the majority (228) Dodds adds I have yet to see a clear and cogent rationale for retaining the mascots which addresses these issues from a moral framework (232).
The main argument for the use of Native American mascots is worthiness of intent. While many supporters, Joseph Gones says, probably do mean to honour Indian culture in some limited but meaningful way Gone adds, I am incapable of receiving such goodwill through the mediums of mascots because all I can perceive is images that do native people more damage than good. Even though in some instances the depictions of native people in modern ntertainment can be positive, in most cases images used are culturally insulting, racist and serve only to perpetuate stereotypes. That no harm was intended when the images and logos were first used may be true. It is also true that Native people are saying that the stereotypes are harmful to their cultures. When someone says you are hurting them by your action, if you persist; then the harm becomes intentional (Dodds 232).