Across the country, activists are tearing down the visible symbols of white supremacy. Confederate monuments are one symbol. Like the statues of Confederate generals, Native American mascots of many schools are another.
These mascots must fall. Studies have demonstrated the adverse impacts of such mascots on today’s society: lower self-esteem for Native students, racially hostile learning environments for students of color, and distorted views of history for all students. Monuments to the Confederacy are reminders that our public culture says: Black lives don’t matter. Likewise, regardless of what official lessons schools teach about “honoring” Indians with “tasteful” imagery, the hidden curriculum of Native mascotry is that white fantasy is more important than Native reality.
Like monuments, mascots are not just symbols of a dark past, but barriers to a more just future. If schools and communities are to reckon with the past and present of systemic racism, and move toward a future of human rights, both monuments and mascots must fall.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, communities throughout the South erected memorials to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. These symbolized the Confederacy’s ability to snatch political, social, and economic victory from the jaws of military defeat, and accompanied a raft of new laws —the Jim Crow Laws— designed to ensure second-class status for African Americans.
At almost the same moment, schools, sports teams, and social clubs around the country began adopting stereotyped iconography of “Indians.” As the white folks wrapped themselves in the caricatures of the “vanishing Indian” and “noble savage,” actual Native Americans were being sent off to white-run boarding schools, as the founder of one school put it, to “kill the Indian to save the man.” While white children took the field with fake war whoops and tomahawk chops, Native children were forcibly assimilated to white culture — haircuts, military uniforms, Christian beliefs, and English language were all mandatory and enforced with violence. Coupled with the 1887 Dawes Act, which led to the loss of millions of acres of tribal land, Indian boarding schools represented nothing less than a genocidal assault on Native peoples. Native mascots perpetuate this legacy.
Indian boarding schools, like Jim Crow Laws, were eventually abandoned in the face of Native activism. The 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act codified the change, handing control of education back to federally recognized Tribes. Despite these legal changes, Native communities have continued to endure widespread and systematic discrimination, evident in statistics that indicate challenges to Native well-being.
Today, the toppling of monuments to white supremacy signals the possibility for deeper transformation. Some have been felled by protesters with the sledgehammer strikes of cries for change. Others have been quietly removed by city workers with power lifts and caution tape. Regardless, reclaiming these public spaces is a first step toward a dialogue that tells the truth about the past and present of anti-Black racism in America.
White intentions to “honor” Indians, no matter how sincere, can no longer obscure the damaging impact these mascots have on students and Native communities. School leaders can choose, as they recently have in Guilford, to abandon their use of Native mascots and open up a space for truth-telling and transformation. School boards can also choose, as they have in Killingly, to try and cling to their Native mascot, opening the door to a politics of division and resentment. Either way, the mascots will fall.
Glenn Mitoma is an assistant professor of human rights and curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut, and director of UConn’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.