Legislative efforts to eliminate native-themed mascots, nicknames, and logos: Slow but steady progress post-APA resolution
By Jesse A. Steinfeldt, PhD, Lisa Rey Thomas, PhD, and Mattie R. White, MS
APA resolution calling for the immediate retirement of native-themed mascots
In August, 2005, the American Psychological Association Council of Representatives adopted the APA Resolution Recommending the Immediate Retirement of American Indian Mascots, Symbols, Images, and Personalities by Schools, Colleges, Universities, Athletic Teams, and Organizations (APA, 2005). The adoption of this resolution represents the courage, dedication, and grit of many who engaged in complex and difficult discussions with APA governance and membership. Of most concern to those opposed to the adoption of the resolution was the scarcity of scientific evidence of the harm perpetrated on American Indian and Alaska Native people by the use of Native-themed mascots, nicknames, and logos. One has to wonder at the irony of this concern. Academic institutions have a long history of ethnocidal, if not genocidal, practices directed towards Native people beginning with the boarding school era (Brave Heart & DeBruyn, 1998; Witko, 2005) and continuing today where Native people are subjected to racism, stereotyping, and marginalization in many, if not most, academic settings. Thus, this scarcity of scientific evidence makes sense — why would a Native community agree to participate in research conducted by the very institutions that have, and do, perpetrate harm on their members?
Still, this is a journey of hope and commitment for those psychologists and allies dedicated to the right of all people to be psychologically healthy and to live in our society free from violations of civil rights. Of note is the recent increase (albeit slow and inadequate) of American Indian and Alaska Native psychologists who are developing research partnerships with Native communities that are responsive to the research needs of the communities and inclusive of the issues surrounding the impacts of racism, stereotyping, prejudice, and, yes, Native-themed mascots. As these research partnerships move forward, we will continue to see more scientific evidence emerging in the literature that addresses the harms experienced by Native communities as well as the strengths and resiliencies that have kept Native communities healthy. The APA Resolution Recommending the Immediate Retirement of American Indian Mascots, Symbols, Images, and Personalities by Schools, Colleges, Universities, Athletic Teams, and Organizations represents an important step in this journey of hope and commitment. This brief article will describe recent legislation that is another important and historical step on this journey toward the eradication of Native-themed mascots, nicknames, and logos.
American society is inundated with stereotypic representations that appropriate American Indian culture (Merskin, 2001). One need not look further than the aisles of a grocery store (e.g., Land o' Lakes Butter), the local YMCA (e.g., Y-Princess camps), cars on the street (e.g., Jeep Cherokee), the floor under one's feet (e.g., Mohawk carpet), or simply turn on ESPN to see the highlights of the Washington Redskins game. These omnipresent images perpetuate misinformation and stereotypes about American Indians, including the stereotype of the noble savage, the bloodthirsty savage, and that American Indians are a historic race that only exists in past-tense status. These stereotypes threaten the psychological functioning of American Indians and remind American Indian communities of the narrow view that society has of them (Fryberg, Markus, Oyserman, & Stone, 2008).
One of the most prominent mechanisms of perpetuating societal stereotypes and misinformation about American Indians is the use of American Indian names, culture, and imagery in sports (King, Davis-Delano, Staurowsky, & Baca, 2006). According to scholars from a variety of disciplines outside of psychology, sports-related representations of American Indians (e.g., Redskins, Braves, Indians, Fighting Sioux) are problematic because they:
(a) misuse sacred cultural symbols and spiritual practices;
(b) perpetuate racist stereotypes of American Indians;
(c) deny American Indians control over societal definitions of themselves; and
(d) create a racially hostile environment for all students (Baca, 2004; Fenalon, 1999; King, Staurowsky, Baca, Davis, & Pewewardy, 2002; Pewewardy, 1991; Russel, 2003; Staurowsky, 2004; Staurowsky, 2007; Williams, 2006, 2007).
In 2005, the American Psychological Association validated these interdisciplinary contentions by passing a resolution recommending the immediate retirement of American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations because this practice:
(a) undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities;
(b) establishes an unwelcome and hostile learning environment for American Indian students;
(c) has a negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children;
(d) undermines the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture; and
(e) may represent a violation of the civil rights of American Indian people (APA, 2005).
Emerging psychological research (e.g., Fryberg et al., 2008; Kim-Prieto, Goldstein, Okazaki, & Kirschner, 2010; Steinfeldt & Wong, 2010; Steinfeldt et al., in press) has supported this resolution by investigating and reporting the negative psychological effects of these race-based mascots, nicknames, and logos.
In spite of emerging psychological research and institutional condemnation (in addition to APA, over 115 professional organizations have produced similar resolutions), the longstanding omnipresence of stereotypic images of American Indians in society (Merskin, 2001) creates the impression that these images must be acceptable (King et al., 2006). These images in sport have been hegemonically woven into the fabric of society, often disallowing a discussion about the possibility that this practice could be offensive, racist, or harmful to American Indians. Thus, although research and education are essential components for effectuating long-term attitudinal change, legislative enforcement is needed to penetrate this hegemony so that education, research, and the perspective of others can become a part of the discussion. There are a variety of legislative mechanisms that have been designed to effectuate change at multiple levels of sport in society. For example, at the level of professional athletics, a lawsuit has challenged the trademark of the Washington Redskins. At the collegiate athletic level, the NCAA enacted a policy in 2005 that prohibits teams with Native-themed mascots from participating in postseason play. However, at the level of high school, middle school, and grade school athletics, there has been no state-wide legislation to address this issue-until now.
On May 5, 2010, Wisconsin made national history when Governor Jim Doyle signed Senate Bill 25 (WI SB-25) into law. As a result, Wisconsin became the first state to enact legislation that intends to offer a fair process to address the use of race-based mascots, nicknames, and logos in schools. Prior to this legislation, if a community member were to raise the issue that a school's Native-themed mascot, nickname, or logo is offensive or produces negative psychological outcomes, their claim is often rejected — often in a hostile manner — by the local school administration, community, and school board. Even if one were to be granted a hearing-and presented an armory of legitimate evidence — the school board often chooses to reject their claim, usually based on their own desire to maintain tradition and based on false contentions that this practice honors American Indians.
However, this new legislation seeks to change this dynamic so that members of racial or ethnic minority groups no longer bear the burden of proof in matters where they face racial discrimination and educational disenfranchisement. According to WI SB-25, if a resident of a school district files a complaint that indicates that the school mascot, nickname, or logo promotes:
(b) pupil harassment; or
(c) stereotyping, this law now requires the matter to go to an external third party (i.e., State Superintendant, Department of Public Instruction) where a more legitimate process can conceivably occur.
In this process, scientific evidence can be held up against contemporary arguments of honor and tradition that are often used as trump cards in the discussion at the local level about why the race-based mascot, nickname, or logo should be retained. It is important to note that this law does not directly ban race-based mascots, nicknames, or logos. Instead, this law intends to initiate a fairer and less biased process to critically examine this issue. If this process determines that a school district's mascot, nickname, or logo does promote discrimination, pupil harassment, or stereotyping, then the school district can be fined up to $1,000 per day until they remove the mascot, nickname, or logo in order to be in compliance with the law.
Legislation such as WI SB-25 can be considered a complementary extension of APA's 2005 resolution, and this legislation can be used as a template for other states to initiate a fairer process to evaluate if the practice of race-based mascotery promotes discrimination, pupil harassment, and/or stereotyping. This process is important because people who raise this issue to the local power structure often face discrimination and retribution for their complaints, and the local school board often minimizes the issue and claims that American Indian communities should focus their attention on more serious issues they are facing (e.g., alcoholism, Type II diabetes). However, according to Davis (2002), if mainstream Americans can't understand the problem of Native-themed mascots, nicknames, and logos, they can't understand sovereignty or other issues affecting the quality of life for American Indian communities. As it relates to psychologists, an awareness of the marginalization of American Indians through the practice of race-based mascotery can help mental health professionals examine their own stereotypes and gain a more comprehensive understanding of their American Indian clients by including unique aspects of their reality that may contribute to their worldview and even their presenting concerns (Steinfeldt &Wong, 2010).
In sum, emerging legislative enforcement (e.g., WI SB-25) can enhance the effectiveness of professional organizational resolutions (e.g., APA, 2005), scientific psychological research, and educational efforts that aim to end the use of mascotery. As a result, it becomes a reasonable question to ask — in 30 years, how will we look back at this period of history, and how will we judge our society's continued engagement in this racist practice of appropriating another culture for use as sports mascots, nicknames, and logos? Similarly, it seems so obviously objectionable when we use hindsight to look back at the period in our history when Blacks were not allowed to drink from the same drinking fountains as Whites. However, it is important to understand that at the time, this too was a practice that was hegemonically woven into the fabric of society — it was seen by the majority of people as part of the normal order of society, and it took legislative efforts (e.g., Civil Rights Act) to accelerate the process of change. Thus, legislation like WI SB-25 can be an important component of a multifaceted approach to encourage people to stop the practice of appropriating and marginalizing another culture through the use of race-based mascots, nicknames, and logos. Doing so can hasten the process by which this contemporary practice becomes a historical footnote about stereotypes and civil rights violations, rather than an ongoing practice of stereotyping and violating the civil rights of a group of people.
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Steinfeldt, J. A., Foltz, B. D., Kaladow, J. K., Carlson, T., Pagano, L., Benton, E., & Steinfeldt, M. C. (in press). Racism in the electronic age: Role of online forums in expressing racial attitudes about American Indians. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology.
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Jesse A. Steinfeldt, PhD is a Counseling Psychologist of Oneida descent and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Indiana University. In addition to receiving clinical training at the Oneida Behavioral Health Center and conducting research on the psychological effects of Native-themed mascots/nicknames/logos, Dr. Steinfeldt has given presentations on race-based mascotery at both Tribal Colleges and Predominantly White Institutions (PWI). Jesse's professional identity is also influenced by his degree in Sport Psychology and his interests in counseling student-athletes and training graduate students to provide psychological services within the athletic domain.
Lisa Rey Thomas, PhD (Tlingit) is a Research Scientist at the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington and has 20 years of experience working with American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities with a focus on community based and culturally grounded research that emphasizes strengths and resiliencies. Dr. Thomas serves on numerous committees and task groups, including the American Psychological Association's (APA) Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs (Chair, 2007), APA Div 18 Psychologists in Indian Country Section (Chair, 2007-2009), Immediate Past Co-Chair for the Native Research Network, and Member-at-Large of APA's Division 45 Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues. She is a member of APA Divisions 18, 27, 45, and 56, is also a member of the Society of Indian Psychologists, and serves on the planning team for the 2011 and 2013 National Multicultural Conference and Summits.
Mattie R. White, MS, MEd is the Assistant Athletic Director for student services at Indiana University (IU) and a first-year doctoral student in the IU Counseling Psychology program with plans to specialize in Sport Psychology. Mattie received both her bachelor's degree in journalism (2002) and master's of education (2004) from Ohio University, and completed a second master's degree in athletic administration (2008) at Indiana University. Prior to coming to IU, Mattie served as the Assistant Director of campus programs for multicultural life at Macalester College where she was responsible for campus wide multicultural programming, advising all cultural student organizations, and overseeing the Cultural House.