Why Indian Mascots and Costumes Are Never Okay

by Holly Fetter, ’13

From “Stanford Indians” sweatshirts to Indian-themed parties to reunion weekend paraphernalia featuring Indians skinning wildcats, it seems that we all need a little reminder of why it’s absolutely never okay to use Native American culture and people as costumes or mascots. Full disclosure: I’m a White girl who dressed up as Pocahontas for Halloween when I was 4, but I’ve since come to appreciate why it’s not okay to use an ethnic group to make parties and games more interesting. Here are just a few reasons why appropriation is inappropriate:

  • By using a caricature of an “Indian” to represent a team, you’re reducing an entire group of people to a mascot. That’s entirely dehumanizing, and offensive. It also speaks to the level of oppression and invisibility of Native people in U.S. culture: we would never use any other ethnic group as a team mascot, as it would be seen as blatantly racist, and yet a debate about whether or not to use the “Indian” image persists.
  • Depictions of Native Americans in mascots and costumes relies on ridiculous stereotypes of what indigenous people look like, thus reinforcing those stereotypes. I shouldn’t have to explain that not all Native people are tomahawk-wielding warriors, but that’s the image of Native peoples that remains in the American imagination. Did you know that you have Native American classmates? Do they walk into class every day wearing headdresses and beaded jewelry? Nope. But because authentic representations of Native American identities are often overlooked (particularly on our campus), these sorts of tired images are reused and reinforced, dominating most Americans’ perception of what a Native person should look and act like. These images also serve to relegate indigenous peoples to the past, as an ethnic group that has died out and cannot possibly exist in modern U.S. culture. But guess what? They do.
  • Native people tell us that these depictions of their culture is offensive. So let’s listen to them! Those of us who don’t identify as Native Americans are not the arbiters of what’s offensive and what isn’t. (If you want to hear what a Native person has to say about why it’s not okay to dress as PocaHottie, check out Stanford grad Adrienne K.’s awesome open letter).

Now I get that some of you aren’t trying to be racist. Maybe you just like the aesthetic of Native culture (as seen on the racks of Urban Outfitters), or you’re trying to be retro and hip by bringing back the old Stanford mascot. When students petitioned to eradicate our Indian mascot in 1972, the Ombudsperson tasked with delivering the letter to the university’s president added her own take. She believed that despite their intentions, students and administrators alike were still responsible for letting the problematic Indian caricature live on without questioning its use. “All of us have in some way, by action or inaction, accepted and supported the use of the Indian symbol on campus. We did not do so with malice, or with intent to defile a racial group. Rather, it was a reflection of our society’s retarded understanding, dulled perception and clouded vision. Sensitivity and awareness do not come easily when childish misrepresentations in games, history books and motion pictures make up a large part of our experience.”

Yeah, it’s hard to unlearn the image of the Native woman as depicted in our favorite childhood Disney movie. It’s difficult to see Native American people as doctors and professors when we’re so used to reading about their “savage ways” in our middle school history books. But we’ve got to make an effort to respect and educate ourselves about Native American culture, so that we can have a part in ending the violent erasure and ridicule of an entire ethnic group. The painful irony is that today is Indigenous People’s Day, an alternative to Columbus Day that reminds us of the genocide of Native Americans resulting from Columbus’ supposed “discovery” of this land. Let’s all take time to reflect on the images of Native culture that we’ve encountered, and make a commitment to ourselves and to our indigenous peers that we will stop honoring “Indian” mascots and Halloween costumes and start honoring the real histories and traditions of Native peoples in the U.S.

To learn more about Stanford’s process of eliminating the Indian mascot, please visit Denni Woodward’s account on the Native American Cultural Center’s website.


Holly is a Senior majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. 

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25 thoughts on “Why Indian Mascots and Costumes Are Never Okay

  1. Jay says:

    I think you need to get a life but thanks for your picture icon I will be using it as an example of what people should wear to my cowboys and Indians party 🙂 thnx!

  2. Leprechauns aren’t real and I don’t care if that Irish Catholic school changes it’s name but Native Americans are a real race people who are equal to every other ethnic group and deserve to be treated as equals. No other RACE would allow a racial slur to be used for a mascot of a school.

  3. Anonymous says:

    So, here’s what your article and comments are advocating… American ranchers (Dallas Cowboys), Italians (USC Trojans), Greeks (Michigan State Spartans), Argentinians (UCSB Gauchos), Irish people (Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Boston Celtics), and just about any other ethnicity get to be mascots, but American Indians don’t.

    Basically any race/ethnicity can be included in a group except one.

    Let’s see, what does that remind me of? Oh yeah– racism!

  4. Pottering says:

    You write that “By using a caricature of an “Indian” to represent a team, you’re reducing an entire group of people to a mascot.” ever heard of the Green Bay Packers? Are packers reduced to mascot only status because of Green Bay’s decision? Likewise “Brewers”. Are Celts upset by the Boston Celtics? Do Indians rage against the Cincinnati Bengals? Do real life coyboys hate the Dallas NFL team name? Do Scandinavians get upset about the Minnesota Vikings? The whole of Canada must be up in arms about the Montreal Canadiens? I won’t even mention the Yankees. Why is Philadelphia allowed to mock those who got the declaration of independence signed in 1776?

  5. Anonymous says:

    When I was younger, my favorite thing to dress up as was a ninja. Was it wrong to do so because it enforces negative stereotypes about Japanese people? I don’t think so.

    Is it wrong to dress up as any one of the other non-white Disney princesses too? If a girl dressed up as Jasmin (Arab), Mulan (Chinese), would you feel equally offended as you are by people dressing up as Pocahontas? If not, why not?

  6. Burnell says:

    In this thread: A lot of people comparing Caucasian subgroups to entire races.
    Look, stereotypes are bad for everyone, but please check your privilege. There is a difference here.

  7. Me says:

    All I have to say is Indian mascots causes others to suffer, plain and simple. When you next decide to prioritize your personal thrill over someone else’s well being, remember you do not live on an isolated island. Your actions carry weight. If you wish to harm others with your costume, go right ahead since that is your freedom as a human being. However, it’s a shame you would wear an Indian costume or support a team with an Indian mascot because it really does negatively effect contemporary Indians, it really does. People, do no harm please.

  8. Anonymous says:

    To me this is really an issue of how selfish is a person going to be with his/her freedom to dress up and select a costume for any given occasion. At some point one has to acknowledge that Native American mascots do negatively impact contemporary Indian peoples in one way or another–just ask. (Certainly, some Indians feel more strongly about the issue than others.) But, just remember that your choice to wear an “Indian” costume causes suffering. Take that into consideration, and then decide whether you will prioritize your own thrill over another human being’s needs. Just be mindful of others, guys. That’s all I have to say.

  9. Holly says:

    Let me clarify that my piece should be read within the context of Stanford University. And in response to the argument about the Spartans, the Knicks, etc. – those are either obsolete occupations or depictions of the racial majority in the U.S., not minority ethnic groups that continue to be subjected to systematic discrimination and erasure.

    • Anonymous says:

      I just take fault with the very title of the piece “Why Indian Mascots and Costumes are NEVER Okay”. Why, is dressing up as an 1860 Apache warrior any more racist than dressing up as a 1860 Oklahoma cowboy? The argument that it reinforces stereotypes is mute; I think it is pretty baseless to think dressing up in feathers and headbands means that you think Native Americans of 2012 aren’t capable of being doctors and lawyers. With that logic, dressing up as a cowboy from the same era means that that person also thinks people in Arkansas all still wear chaps and use lassos. There is no denying that many Native American cultures in America did wear feathers and war paint–I don’t see why dressing up in a way that alludes to that history is any more offensive than someone who dresses up as a knight in armor, a revolutionary war soldier, or even a pirate.

      • esqg says:

        If you’re really worried about the distinction between “never okay” and “okay if you refer accurately with your costume to a historical Apache warrior”, why not talk to some members of a current Apache tribe so you can learn about their traditions, and ask them what they think of such costumes? You’d get a more complete answer. They didn’t have websites in 1860 but they do now.

      • Burnell says:

        Because knights and pirates aren’t representative of a whole race and wearing cowboy and pirate garb isn’t going to stomp on someone’s religion.

  10. John Smith says:

    Native Americans aren’t the only ethnic group that’s represented by blatant stereotypes. What about the numerous high schools and colleges with the mascot of the “Spartans”? Not to mention 300 which came out depicting Greeks as speedo wearing bloodthirsty warmongers? And how many togs parties take place every weekend in college towns across the nation?

    The question is, do Greeks find this offensive? Some maybe do but the majority do not. Sure, they don’t have quite the history with America that Native Americans do but nevertheless had a hard time as largely an immigrant culture in the late 19th and early 20th century.

    Somebody is always offending somebody whether on propose or not. Indian mascots, Spartan mascots, or even UCSB’s mascot the Gauchos (Argentine cowboys), are not intended to be racist and to say they offend everyone in that ethnic group is wrong.

  11. Emma says:

    Florida State has gotten permission from the Seminole Tribe of Florida and worked with them on how to use the name and symbols though there has been opposition from some and in particular from some in the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma (at least according to the wikipedia article). I understand FSU is careful not to use the word mascots.

    Less controversial though not completely without seem to be cases where the institution has an integral association with Native Americans (e.g., the majority of the students are Native American). This would be similar to the ‘Fighting Irish’ of Notre Dame where the institution had many Irish American students and faculty over the years.

  12. A little too black and white says:

    ¨we would never use any other ethnic group as a team mascot, as it would be seen as blatantly racist, and yet a debate about whether or not to use the “Indian” image persists.¨

    I think you should probably not use such generalizations about what would happen if we without a little more research considering the list of teams such as: the Minnesota Vikings, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Michigan State Spartans, the Boston Celtics, the New York Knicks (short for Knickerbocker which is what the original Dutch settlers of New York were called), and even the New York Yankees.

  13. Everyone needs to calm down says:

    I was about to write about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but Student beat me to it. I still have another point though. Ok I agree that if you say you´re dressing up as an Indian for Halloween and you wear a feathered headband and sport a tomahawk then it can be interpreted as offensive, but what if you said you were dressing up as a 19th century Apache warrior? How is that any more racist than dressing up as a medieval French knight in a suit of armor or a Crusader or for that matter even a WWII soldier? It´s just choosing a historical period and group´s way of dressing and emulating it as a costume. Choosing a historical costume does not imply you think 21st century Native Americans are all feather wearing heathens, but rather that you find their history exotic and interesting just like any other group that is commonly worn as Halloween costumes such as the aforementioned soldiers and knights.

    Just a thought.

    • Anonymous says:

      Anyone, with the slightest bit of true interest in Native American history and cultures, would know that a costume like this is offensive. The very image that American society once tried to obliterate through forced relocations, scorched-earth policies, and massive efforts to strip languages and traditional practices, continues to be disrespected in this heavily caricatured and cheaply reproduced Halloween commodity. Just because the government stopped outright killing Native Americans doesn’t mean the extinguishing of Native cultures has also stopped – it’s just taken a new form as the “exotic” to the dominant society.

      I mean, honestly, who sees someone dressed like an “Apache warrior” at a party and wonders, “What are the historical circumstances of the Native American people in and around the time era in which their people donned this type of clothing?”

      • Anonymous says:

        I don’t know if I should say this is sad or not, but I would definitely be that person if the costume was accurate enough.

  14. Holly says:

    Hey Student,

    I shouldn’t have implied that “every Native ever” is offended by Indian mascots and costumes, since I obviously could never defend that claim. But it is true that many Native people do resist these representations, and I wanted to highlight the validity of their reactions in the face of others who choose to continue using Indian mascots and wearing Native costumes even when they’re told that it’s hurtful by Native people in their communities.


  15. esqg says:

    Well, there are other groups’ examples on the “We’re a culture not a costume” posters from last year, which apparently were successful enough to get a bunch of parodies (search Google images!). But, yeah, the way dominant American culture seems to see various Native American traditions as automatically “primitive”, romanticized, all the same, and just fundamentally unreal, is…extreme.

  16. Student says:

    “we would never use any other ethnic group as a team mascot, as it would be seen as blatantly racist” …what about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish?
    “Native people tell us that these depictions of their culture is offensive.” You can’t just write that as a fact. Yes, many Native Americans do say that but many say that they like the depictions–like the Florida State Seminoles.
    I think there are some good points here, but you weaken your argument by trying to take it too far and talk in black and white, like this only happens to Native Americans and is offensive to every Native ever.

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