Tuesday, 19 February 2013

More on the Redskins and Indian Mascots

The following is by my colleague Alex Pearl; Alex is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and writes and teaches on Indian Law.

As mentioned here, the National Museum of the American Indian held a symposium entitled “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports.”  In this post I am limiting the discussion to the Redskins specifically and sports mascots generally.  I have to plug the comprehensive blog, Native Appropriations, which examines representations of Indigenous Peoples in popular culture generally, including sports.

I’ve lost count of how many times the two entrenched sides of the Indian mascots debate have made their arguments.  The arguments of the respective camps can be summarized as follows.  Pro-Indian Mascots: We are honoring you and we have a connection to the team name, if you are offended then that is political correctness run amok.  Anti-Indian Mascots: We are not being honored and your connection to the team name is ridiculous.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma (i.e., I’m an Indian).

            At the Symposium, one participant had this to say, “[i]f Dan Snyder truly thinks the word ‘Redskins’ is anhonorific, I challenge him to attended the next meeting of the NationalCongress of American Indians and try using that word to people’s faces.  Of course, Dan Snyder (nor anyone from the Pro-Indian Mascot camp) is coming to the Symposium or any other majority-Indian meeting. Which brings me to my point that the two sides are simply talking past each other.  They maintain mutually exclusive positions regarding a disagreement about a subjective value judgment. 

            I think there are opportunities for advancing the debate in an objective way.  There is research performed by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg and others that examine the effects of American Indian mascots on “aspects of the self-concept for American Indian students.” [Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots, available at http://www.indianmascots.com/fryberg__web_psychological.pdf].  Here’s the abstract findings from her jointly authored paper:

When exposed to Chief Wahoo, Chief Illinwek, Pocahontas, or other common American Indian images, American Indian students generated positive associations (Study 1, high school) but reported depressed state self-esteem (Study 2, high school), and community worth (Study 3, high school), and fewer achievement-related possible selves (Study 4, college). We suggest that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.

Dr. Fryberg was not at the Symposium held at the NMAI.   While I think the symposium does some good by focusing on the cultural gulf existing between Indian and non-Indian society, I think it would be more worthwhile for there to be greater emphasis on the type of research performed by Dr. Fryberg and others.  Moving the debate beyond “This mascot doesn’t honor me” to “This mascot causes empirically demonstrable psychological harm to Indian youth” is, in my view, preferred.  As an added bonus, studies like these may provide evidentiary support for the more recently filed action, Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., seeking to cancel the trademarks affiliated with the Washington Redskins

            As Sally Jenkins pointed out in her Washington Post article, many potentially influential people have raised this issue and suggested a name change.  However, the franchise, and accompanying branding and trademarks, is simply too valuable to change.  Unless there is a significant intervening economic event, like the Blackhorsecase prevailing, substantial fines by the NFL, or boycotts by fans and ticket holders the mascot is not going to change.  All this moral weight and scientific evidence will not trump the economic bottom line.

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