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Copyright ©2001 SDL International
All rights reserved.
|March 4, 2002
Time & Life Building
New York, NY 10020-1393
To the Editor:
In its March 4, 2002 article, "The Indian Wars," Sports Illustrated
missed a splendid opportunity to offer a balanced and insightful discussion
of Native American mascots, the politics of race, and public opinion.
Instead, it opted to present a shallow and sensational story that obscures
many of the key issues, while hampering efforts for dialogue.
who have devoted much of the past decade to studying mascots, we were dismayed
by Mr. Price's apparent lack of familiarity with many excellent accounts
of the history of mascots, several of which have explained how and why
Native Americans support mascots. Why did Mr. Price not contact any
of the recognized experts to illuminate the survey results?
If the editorial
and writing staff at Sports Illustrated had sought input from individuals
who have spent a considerable amount of time researching issues related
to mascots within the context of race and social power, you most likely
would have been advised not to use a poll or to shape it another way.
Certainly, scholars could have told you that the results you found were
not surprising at all given the questions you raised. Your representation
of the data as somehow surprising distorts the record on all sides.
Those advocating for the elimination of these images have never argued
as a group that all Native Americans agree on this issue. Further,
because the magazine chose not to disclose exactly how the poll was done
and how subjects were approached, serious questions are raised about the
integrity of the findings that have been represented so definitively and
authoritatively by Mr. Price and Ms. Woo.
This is particularly
true when the findings from the Peter Harris Research Group poll are considered
in light of those found following a survey conducted by Indian
Country Today in August of 2001. In their August 8th publication,
the editors reported that 81% of respondents "indicated use of American
Indian names, symbols and mascots are predominantly offensive and deeply
disparaging to Native Americans." Seventy five percent of respondents
expressed a belief that American Indian imagery used by non-Indian schools
should be seen as a violation of anti-discrimination laws while 73% of
respondents also expressed a belief that these images contribute to a hostile
learning environment. Most assuredly, in the interest of fair and
accurate reporting, your readers should have at least been informed that
this poll existed.
The very fact
that one of the questions seeks opinions about team nicknames from other
ethnic groups is another area fraught with error. The problematic
dynamic of representation within the population versus representation within
the mascot collection is never addressed. At the college level, there
is only one Fighting Irish. That's it. There are 88 mascots
with American Indian referents at the college/university level. At
the high school level, 1217 mascots allude to American Indians, only 46
make reference to the Irish. And yes, the Irish-American population
is much higher than that of Native Americans by a wide margin. Irish-Americans
have had access to significant political power within the United States,
Native Americans historically have not. The Fighting Irish
is a symbol chosen by the students at the University of Notre Dame, many
of whom were of Irish descent. The same cannot be said for American
Indian mascots, the vast majority of which are White inventions chosen
by White schools at the time of their adoption. To encourage comparisons
of these images as if they were equal is to miseducate your audience.
Price seems uninterested in the context. Nowhere do the historical
forces that make it possible for Indians (and not other ethnic groups)
to be chosen as mascots enter into the discussion, nor does a consideration
of the ways in which such images imprint who Native Americans understand
themselves. Why is it acceptable to do faux Indian dances at half-time?
Would blackface performances be greeted as warmly by Sports Illustrated
or its fans? We sincerely doubt it.
myopia is not a surprise. Most Americans cannot see Native Americans
for who they really are and too often can only recognize imagined versions
of them. This in turn has serious implications for how Native Americans
come to know themselves and appreciate images of themselves.
Your readers should be informed and reminded about the reasons for Native
American ambivalence about these images, the long lasting effects of government
boarding school education designed to "take the Indian out of the Indian"
and to make Indians ashamed of who they were.
For all the
pretense that these images are harmless, we are left to wonder at how much
good these images have done over time. Why is it that the very school
systems that so enthusiastically embrace American Indian imagery for sport
teams more than any other racial or ethnic group are places where American
Indians meet with widespread difficulty and failure. It is the case
that American Indian children are among the highest risk students in school
systems today, dropping out in alarming rates.
As an organization,
you demonstrated that you find nothing wrong with these stereotypes given
the way the article is visually presented to the public. Out of the
six pictures you elected to publish, five of them are of Indian stereotypes
or fans engaging in stereotypical behavior with the remaining one
being the Stanford tree. None of them are of a Native American.
If you genuinely wished to offer a balanced perspective, why are the stereotypes
the only images readers see instead of Billy Mills or Mary Gross or Suzan
Harjo? If you genuinely wished to offer an even-handed perspective,
why were there no images of Native Americans being spat upon or harassed
for protesting against these stereotypes or being handcuffed and thrown
in jail for protesting (which has happened on more than one occasion, as
a case in point, at Jacobs Field in Cleveland)? Of course, the answer
to this question is that the imagery you selected made "good copy"; that
the imagery is consistent with the goal of the magazine not only to inform
but to entertain. And by doing so, you have exploited Indians as
they have so often been exploited.
From the start
of the article, it is clear that Mr. Price will not seriously engage anti-Indian
racism. Billy Mills' experience is trivialized because the participants
have differing understandings of the racially pejorative term, "Chief."
If an African American athlete had a similar experience would Sports
Illustrated or its readers so easily set aside race? Indeed,
why does Price not detail the terror often associated with mascots: the
intimidation and humiliation many Native Americans experience in association
with mascots, the terror invoked as supporters post anonymous flyers threatening
critics or more commonly when they wear tee shirts emblazoned with dehumanizing
words and images, such as the Sioux Suck and worse in North Dakota?
history, race, and terror, Sports Illustrated has done much to legitimate
the tyranny of the majority and, we fear, advance dangerous notions of
race and entitlement. It has suggested that if members of marginalized
and oppressed groups consent to their marginalization and oppression, then
such images and names are okay. If the majority endorsed segregation
and its consequences during the Jim Crow era would they be acceptable?
If blacks supported slavery would it be a justifiable institution?
If Jews saw nothing wrong with the Third Reich would we not still want
to suggest its actions were reprehensible and problematic? Unfortunately,
in the end, "The Indian Wars" encourages Americans to avoid thinking critically
about the history and significance or race.
could go a long way toward redeeming itself and toward taking accountability
for this article by asking leaders like Billy Mills and Charlene Teters
to offer a rebuttal or response to this article in an upcoming edition.
C. Richard King
Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D.
List of sociologists and sport sociologists from the United States and
Canada who endorse this statement/essay
D. Stanley Eitzen
Michael D. Giardina
Cynthia A. Hasbrook, PhD
Kathleen Kinkema, PhD
Michael Sagas, EdD
Earl Smith, PhD
Richard M. Southall, EdD
Charles Fruehling Springwood
Gwen N. Griffin, PhD
Dr. Sally Emmons-Featherston
Mary Sasse, PhD
Susan B. Richardson
Drucilla Mims Wall
Paulette F. Molin
David Anthony Tyeeme Clark
Dr. MJ Hardman