Native American Stereotypes in Sports and Schools

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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As I walked into my new school, I was nervous, but at the same time I was delighted. I was embarking on a new journey, I was attending a public school. Because I lived on a Native American reservation and attended an American Indian Boarding School, I didn’t know what to expect. As I was walking down the hallway, I saw an image on the wall, a strange one. Beside the image, I read the word “”Redskins””. The image, as I recall, was of a red person, he had feathers flourishing from his head, a large, exaggerated nose, and a very strong jaw line. I knew that we Cherokee Indians, were called “”Redskins””. I was very frightened. Is this how regular people depict us Cherokee Indians? The life of a Native American can be harsh in the sports media and schools.

“”St. Johns HS.”” Native American stereotypes in sports and in schools are a very controversial subject. Many people don’t see anything wrong with them, however, some people may take it to the heart. Stadiums filled with Native American characters and people blaring chants, can depict and make a Native American feel secluded from the outside world.

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Ever since early times, images of American Indians were seen all over engravings, books, coins, and many other items. Many European nations saw America as an indigenous land. During the Revolutionary period, America was seen as a feathered Indian resisting the British government. American Indian stereotyping has been around for hundreds of years, and it still lives today, but it is not seen as a larger problem to many people. People claim that the problem associated with this issue is that it can cause emotional stress relating to Native Americans. Characters resembling Native Americans can cause people, mostly children, to associate those characters to real people.

The NFL team, Washington Redskins, has received lots of backlash ever since the problem caused a worldwide controversy, notably in the United States. Many protestors have begged the Redskins owner, Daniel Snyder, to change the name of the professional team. Snyder believes that the name does not cause any harm and doesn’t depict anything hateful towards the race (Allen). The National Congress of American Indians has protested the use of Native American characters, symbols, names, and mascots (Washington). Protestors claim that the name creates racial stereotyping and lowers those who are Native American’s self-esteem. Those who are not offended by the name claim that the name and logo simply portray power and pride or what a team mascot is supposed to portray (Washington). In a poll that was conducted by the Washington Post among a random sample of 504 Native Americans, the results showed that 99% of the respondents said that they are not bothered by the Redskins name while 73% said that they do not find the name disrespectful (Washington).

Not only is this problem currently occurring in the NFL, it is also happening in the MLB. Examples that caused lots of controversy was Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians and the Tomahawk chop performed by the Atlanta Braves and other collegiate teams. The tomahawk chop is an arm movement performed by fans. Alongside this motion, a “”war chant”” is spoken (Tomahawk). Many protestors found offense to this cheer because it “”perpetuated racial stereotypes of Native Americans as war-obsessed savages.”” (Tomahawk). Protestors believe that the tomahawk chop performed by the Atlanta Braves portrays an Indian as a savage beast (Exploitation). On the other hand, worldwide controversy occurred with the Cleveland Indians whenever they made the World Series in 2016. During that season, the Cleveland Indians were sued in Canada to have Chief Wahoo removed from their equipment whenever they played in Toronto (Indians). Although the Canadian law did not prevent the Indians from using this character, to solve the ethical problem, the Cleveland Indians have decided to remove their mascot from their stadium, jerseys, and hats in 2019 (Chief).

In the same way American Indian stereotypes can cause controversy in professional sports, it can also be seen in schools. Many people argue that mascots should not create offense to Native Americans, however, it should show pride and it should honor Native Americans and American history (Ban). In opposition, people believe that Native American mascots should be removed from schools because it shows disrespect to their culture. Protestors claim that these mascots lower Native American students’ self-esteem (Ban). It is said that these names and mascots lead to a misunderstanding of Native people and how they truly are unlike the depiction.

So how exactly do these stereotypes affect Native Americans as a whole? Many protestors claim that these characters remind those who are Native of oppression and create agony and uneasiness among American Indian people (Playing). American Indians may think that because of these mascots and stereotypes put onto them, this is how the world sees them and depicts them. They feel as if they are only known as a fictional character or drawing. This can cause Native Americans to constrain the way that they look at themselves (A). The former APA President Ronald F. Levant said, “”These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians.These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.”” (Summary). Some American Indians say that these stereotypes and images, creates a disrespectful misunderstanding of their culture and spiritual beliefs (Summary).

The United States government has had their views on this issue relating to Native Americans. The Chaplinsky debate was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court provided the fighting words doctrine. There were two components of a fighting word. One, the words had to offend, and two, the words could cause a fight. This does not relate to the chants used in sports mocking Native Americans because the chants are not directed at anyone in particular (Exploitation).

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Many people argue, including the government, that the problem cannot simply be solved by law. The law says that, “”Efforts to limit the use of such symbols might be better served by appeals based on moral and ethical standards”” (Exploitation). There are ways to solve the problem associating Native American stereotypes other than by law. One, would be to educate those students who attend schools in which Native Americans serve as their name and mascots. Cornel Pewewardy says that, “”Educators must turn the use of these mascots, logos, and nicknames into powerful teaching moments that could help counter the fabricated images and manufactured pictures of Indians…”” (Playing). In other words, if those students are taught right about Native Americans and what they mean to the United States, those made up images that students may have had on Native Americans, mostly present in kids, can go away. The U.S. Commission believes that American Indian stereotypes can be a very sensitive issue. They recommend schools and teams to limit or to avoid these such images and nicknames.

This problem is something that should not be overlooked at. Although I agree with some points on both sides of the issue, I still think that people should be informed of this problem. Stereotyping is not a good thing, and it should be limited whenever possible. Stereotypes are not only a problem for Native Americans, it is also a problem for other races. Stereotyping Native Americans can make them feel secluded and depicted as a made up character. These stereotypes can interfere with their religious customs and beliefs and what they mean. Most importantly, these stereotypes can hurt a person mentally and cause them to have a low self-esteem.

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Native American Stereotypes In Sports and Schools. (2019, May 28). Retrieved from