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Copyright ©2001 SDL International All rights reserved.

March 4, 2002
Editor
Sports Illustrated
Time & Life Building
Rockefeller Center
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.
          As scholars, 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.
          Moreover, Mr. 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.
          Perhaps this 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?
          Avoiding context, 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.
          Sports Illustrated 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.

Sincerely,
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

Kristi Allain
Erica Anderson
Jay Coakley
Laurel Davis
D. Stanley Eitzen
Al Figone
Michael D. Giardina
Pat Goldsmith
Jean Harvey
Cynthia A. Hasbrook, PhD
Kathleen Kinkema, PhD
Steve Mosher
Cornel Pewewardy
Vicky Paraschak
Michael Sagas, EdD
Earl Smith, PhD
Maureen Smith
Richard M. Southall, EdD
Charles Fruehling Springwood
Jane Stangl
Gwen N. Griffin, PhD
Lee Karalis
Dr. Sally Emmons-Featherston
Beverly Schueneman
Mary Sasse, PhD
Susan Kalter
Arnold Krupat
Susan B. Richardson
Drucilla Mims Wall
Paulette F. Molin
David Anthony Tyeeme Clark
Dr. MJ Hardman

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was last modified on Friday, March 15, 2002.