Psychologists Join War Against Racist Campus Mascots
Imagine, if you will, a tall, thin Black man, dressed in
Hollywood-inspired African warrior attire, bearing a scowling
countenance, and brandishing a spear. Now imagine this character being
used as the mascot of a college sports team — the Blackskins. At half
time, a White cheerleader dressed in full costume and Blackface, might
portray a Blackskin and run up and down the sidelines high-stepping in
a mock African war dance. His antics are imitated by spectators in the
stands who stab at the air with their crudely fashioned lances,
growling and screaming like fierce animals. Then, imagine all of this
is broadcast weekly to a nationwide television audience.
Are you feeling offended yet?
Sadly, for Native Americans across the country, there is nothing
imaginary about this indignation. Today, scores of public and private
colleges and universities still use Indian mascots and symbols for
their sports teams. While a handful of universities, such as Stanford,
Marquette, Eastern Michigan, Miami of Ohio, and Dartmouth, have dropped
their Indian mascots in recent years, these institutions are the
The decade-long struggle to remove Indian sports mascots from
college campuses and professional sports received a boost recently from
the psychology department at the University of
Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, which hosted a national conference on the
topic in April. By a vote of 33-5, the conference joined a long list of
individuals, associations, and academic departments nationwide who are
calling for the removal of Native Americans as mascots.
What’s significant about the UIUC department’s position, says
chairman Dr. Ed Shoben, is that it’s in line with the majority of
faculty at the university.
“The majority of the faculty believe that the use of [Chief
Illiniwek] is both offensive and inappropriate,” he says. Illiniwek, a
fictional chief of the Illinois people, is the University’s mascot.
In issuing its disapproval of the mascot, the psychology
department’s statement read: “The Department of Psychology believes
that it is in the best interests of the University for Chief Illiniwek
to be retired.”
However, the UIUC administration and board of trustees are on
record stating that the chief is not meant as an insult and in fact is
an effort to honor American Indians.
“I’ve said all I’m going to say on this issue,” says Susan
Gravenhorst, a member of the UIUC Board of trustees. “The board is
strongly in support of the chief. He’s an extremely important symbol
for the university.”
Shoben suspects the reason the mascot is kept is because many alumni supporters “have warm, fuzzy feelings about the chief.”
Honor or Indignity?
The nationwide controversy over Indian sports mascots was the focus
of an award-winning documentary, In Whose Honor?, that made its
premiere on PBS the summer of 1997. The documentary, produced and
directed by Jay Rosenstein, depicts the manner in which many of these
mascots entertain sports fans. In one scene, a gymnastically-gifted
chief does a make-believe Indian dance, in buckskin, barefoot, and in
full eagle feather regalia. In the background, fans whoop it up,
wearing headdresses and “war paint.” The program features interviews
with Native Americans who express their feelings about these
According to the documentary, the national protest against the use
of Indian mascots began at UIUC in 1987 after then graduate student
Charlene Teeters took her two children to a Fighting Illini football
Teeters, who is a Spokane American Indian, tried to prepare her
children for what they would see. But nothing she could have said
prepared them for the humiliation of seeing people in “war paint,”
wearing feathers, and carrying tomahawks. At the tailgate parties,
members of sororities and fraternities were doing “buck and squaw”
In the depiction of Chief Illiniwek, Teeters recalls witnessing the
mocking of something sacred — a caricature of a chief. The mocking, as
she saw it, was akin to “Black Sambo” or the “Frito Bandito” — images
that were done away with a generation ago.
“It was sacrilegious,” Teeters says. “They were culturally cross-dressing.”
What angered Teeters most was the idea that the partygoers saw themselves as “dignifying and honoring” the Indian.
“It was quite hurtful to see a chief reduced to halftime entertainment,” she recalls.
Teeters returned to the football stadium the following Saturday
with a placard that read: “Indians are Human Beings. Not mascots.”
“I became the object of hate crimes,” she says, recalling that her
children and those who joined her in the protest also became targets of
harassment. “It’s a common story. Every time a Native steps forward,
The protests eventually led to a national movement and the 1991
founding of The National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, which
is headquartered in Minneapolis. Under the leadership of Vernon
Bellecourt, the coalition held its first national conference on the
elimination of racist mascots the April gathering at UIUC.
The national coalition, composed primarily of racial justice
groups, was initially formed to support the protests at UIUC. The focus
of the group is to eliminate such symbols and mascots not simply from
college and professional sports, but also from high schools and middle
schools and wherever else they appear in the media. Currently, the NCAA
has no policy on mascot names and has taken no public position on the
issue, according to an NCAA spokesperson.
Professional football’s Washington Redskins have been a primary
target of the coalition, which alleges that corporations cannot
copyright a name which is insulting to an entire group of people.
Teeters says the reason the Redskin name is so odious is that it
represents an era in which Whites used to he paid a bounty for the
number of “redskins” they collected — literally the skin or scalp of
But Teeters and the coalition face formidable resistance to their
cause A complaint filed by UIUC Students and staff with the U.S.
Department of Education — claiming a hostile environment — was
dismissed a couple of years ago after members of Congress from the
Illinois delegation objected, says UIUC law professor Frances Boyle.
“They had a meritorious complaint. [The dismissal] was completely
devastating for these students. It killed the movement until the airing
of the documentary,” says Boyle, who teaches international human rights
and is a former board member of Amnesty International USA.
The issue of removing Chief Illiniwek as a mascot or symbol for the
UIUC campus has been a subject for discussion within the campus’
psychology department since 1994, says Paula Ostrovsk, an alumna of the
university. At that time, members of the Clinical/Community Psychology
Program wrote to the American Psychological Association with the
concern that Chief Illiniwek as a symbol violates the 1990 APA
guidelines for providers of psychological services.
Psychology and Psychiatry Professor Gregory Miller, said that the
APA, which certifies psychology departments, did examine the issue and
opted not to decertify the department last year. Despite the
recertification, Miller, who spearheaded the recent vote, does indeed
believe the use of the chief constitutes a hostile environment.
“It’s not a matter of people trying to be intentionally mean, but
if something is disturbing to a minority of the population, it’s not
for the majority to decide whether it is or is not disturbing,” Miller
Other groups on campus that have urged abolishing the mascot
include the department of history, the school of life sciences, the
college of medicine, the counseling center, the center for African
Studies, and the UIUC Student-Faculty Senate. Like the psychologists,
the anthropology department recently put Out a scholarly statement in
opposition to the use of Chief Illiniwek.
“The Board of Trustees should listen to the experts on campus,”
Miller says, adding that there is no logical argument in support of
keeping the chief, other than inertia.
The local NAACP has also affirmed the national body’s opposition to racist mascots.
Ostrovsk argues that the chief is to UIUC what the Confederate flag
is to the South, explaining that many of the mascots and caricatures
have been symbols for sports teams since the turn of the century.
Among the powerful alumni forces in support of retaining the chief
is Governor James Edgar, Ostrovsk says. Nevertheless, the governor
vetoed a bill that would have made the chief the official symbol of the
university. This action has made Boyle hopeful that change may
eventually come about with help from the governor’s office.
“To keep the chief is to disregard the voice of a whole group,”
says Ostrovsk. “Everyone understands that if the voices of American
Indians are being disregarded today, tomorrow it will be other people
Catherine Davids, an administrator at the University of
Michigan-Flint and a member of the coalition, hopes that this movement
will eventually lead to the creation of a permanent museum that would
showcase all of the derogatory images to which native Americans have
“You can’t go anywhere with running into one of those images,” she says.
Law professor Boyle equates the use of the chief by the UIUC with
cultural genocide — the intentional destruction of a people’s culture.
“It’s like a Little Red Sambo,” he says, quoting an observation
first made by one of his students, an Apache who was verbally attacked
in class for drawing such a comparison.
Boyle has also been subjected to threats as a result of his activism on this issue.
“It’s a very hostile environment here,” he says. “Every time other people of color speak up, they get attacked.
“The truth is that the redneck types are getting signals from the
very top,” he continues. “At the homecoming tent, lawyers and judges
are dressed up in war paint and drinking. The psychological impact is
devastating. Whites are given the green light to be bigots and
racists…. Instead of [UIUC] being the flagship institution for the
state, it’s the Titanic going down in a sea of racism.”
Alcorn State University, a Historically Black institution is
currently reviewing whether to continue to use its mascot — the Braves
and Lady Braves.
“We’re very, very, sensitive to the issue and we want to resolve it
as soon as possible,” says Ralph Payne, director of University
Relations. The University is expected to decide after consultation with
students, faculty and alumni, lie says. “We want to bring the matter to
a close very soon.”
COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com