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.