Magazine Feature

What's in a Mascot?

A 9th-grade English unit helps students analyze legacy behind Native American mascots.

"I think we should just stop now and change the topic," a high school freshman blurted out as his back straightened.

"Why?" I asked. His body language told me he was uncomfortable, but I was expecting it.

"Just because." He picked up his pen and tapped it again.

This was the response one of my students voiced after viewing In Whose Honor? a documentary about Charlene Teters' fight against the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek.

Each year for the last five years, most of the students in my English 9 classes are uncomfortable when we begin a unit on the use of Native American mascots. As an English teacher, I've found this topic works well to prepare students to write persuasive letters.

I spend most of the year creating a community for these fresh-faced high schoolers who come together from at least three middle schools. I want them to feel safe participating in discussions and sharing their writing. This classroom community builds trust over the course of the year — and trust is extremely important as our school is known as the "Home of the Braves."

We begin the unit by unlearning stereotypical views of Native Americans, watching "A Good Day to Die" from the video series How the West Was Lost. We discuss the original treaties and creation of South Dakota's Sioux Reservation and how the Native American point of view in the video differs from history told from the Euro-American perspective.

Then we read Kevin Helliker's article "Who Would Reject $400 Million?" from The Wall Street Journal about why one Sioux, Johnson Holy Rock, encourages those on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation to refuse the more than $400 million "proposed recompense from the U.S. government for its treaty-violating confiscation of the Black Hills last century."

Students compare and contrast the video and article. After they read the newspaper article, they meet in small groups to discuss the problems raised in the article, noting how it expands on the information from the video to include contemporary issues. Their group responses are recorded on large sheets of paper and posted for sharing and discussion with the class.

Some students argue the Native Americans should take the money, but still work to get the land. Other students often point out that perhaps the Native Americans shouldn't have to pay for the land when they already own it per the treaty, and still others believe the American Indians could use the money for legal fees, education and health care.

The students give thoughtful responses and begin to explore ideas leading them to discover important relationships. Most students begin to understand the complexity of the Native Americans' struggle and often note the longevity of the legal battle. Students often begin wondering why they didn't learn of these actions before, and we discuss the idea of bias as it relates to educational materials.


A civil rights touchstone

Once students have some background, we benefit from watching Smoke Signals, about two contemporary Coeur d'Alene teens whom my students relate to because of their age and adolescent concerns. In the film, the young Coeur d'Alene are required to take a learning journey together during which they must confront prejudice, the effects of alcoholism, and the difficulty of parental relations.

Prior to watching this movie, my students are unfamiliar with Native American dialect, Native staples as fry bread and many issues in current Native American life. We continue discussions of Native American customs focusing on portrayals in literature and Native American folklore and legends.

Students engage all these materials through informal writing in journals, formal writing shared with peers and discussions helping them unlearn stereotypes.

Because Terre Haute South Vigo High School is primarily white — with about 10% African-American — the students tend to think of racism in terms of black-white.

As a reference point for students, we watch the short video, A Time for Justice, and discuss what it means to be a minority. The video includes footage of the 1960s Freedom Riders, and some students quickly recognize targeted groups benefit from the support of the majority to advance their causes. The video also touches on the 1960s Native American Civil Rights movement with brief footage of the Alcatraz takeover.

By reviewing an aspect of history they have studied in school but now view in a different context, students learn to appreciate the Native American struggle.

Students then read copies of the 2001 United States Commission of Civil Rights statement calling "for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools."

I ask students: "If the Civil Rights Movement was in the 1960s, why didn't the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights address this particular issue until 2001?" Students respond in their journals and then share their ideas.


In Whose Honor?

The civil rights touchstone moves the unit from the portrayal of Native Americans in media, movies, and literature toward the Native American mascot issue, which we confront with a viewing of In Whose Honor? Often, heated discussion follows the documentary.

When students include our school mascot in the discussion, I describe actions our administrators have taken in the past and carefully monitor class discussion so students dispute only the issue and not personalities.

To allow a broader knowledge base, students spend several days in the school library researching innumerable Web sites and articles about the Native American mascot issue. They enjoy reading and sharing their findings, and we discuss the importance of opinions based on research versus opinions based on emotion.

Current events often inform research topics. In Spring 2003, for example, students shared articles about the Fighting Whities, an intramural basketball team of Native Americans and whites at the University of Northern Colorado.

Although most students seemed upset by a team choosing a decidedly racist name, some students' felt the action was justified and helped people understand the issue.

The culminating assignment is a persuasive letter — based on research — providing students an outlet to express their opinions. I give students an example of the proper format for a formal letter:

  • The first paragraph should explain why you are writing and state your opinion;
  • The second paragraph should include examples to support your opinion; and
  • The third paragraph should summarize your main points and ask for some kind of action.

Through their research, students decide to whom they will write. The audience for their letters have included, but not been limited to, owners and players of professional sports teams, members of organizations opposed to the use of Native American mascots, high school and middle school principals, school board members, university trustees, university coaches, and the editor of the local newspaper.

Students share drafts with their peers and critique arguments, organization and format. The letter assignment serves as a valuable tool to teach voice and tone in their writing, and, in sharing the letters, they learn caution about being artificial or strident.

While many students protest the use of Native American mascots, not all write in opposition. After their research, some students don't believe Chief Illiniwek is disrespectful and is different from mascots like Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians — an obvious caricature.

Other students declare the practice is unquestionably racist no matter what the mascot looks like. Some believe the use of Native American mascots, even caricatures, are fine. Most students agree that when Native Americans are involved — as at the University of Utah with their Running Utes — mascot use is acceptable.

The letters, regardless of the students' positions, have a wide range of focuses, demonstrating the need for education about Native Americans, tolerating cultural differences and understanding historical traditions.

Sometimes, the students' letters have direct effect. In 1998, one student's letter opposing the use of a "Brave" as our school mascot appeared in the local newspaper. The editor responded in a column supporting a change to our school mascot. As a result of the publicity, a Native American circle on the nearby Indiana State University campus connected with my classroom.

Through the circle's persistence and my students' letters, our school made several changes to comply with specific complaints. Although the administration did not completely eliminate the "Braves" nickname, they agreed to end the use of a "big-headed" mascot caricature, removing the image from the middle of the gym floor and the road in front of the school.

Since then, the athletic department and various club sponsors have become more sensitive when ordering t-shirts and other booster paraphernalia, and often shy away from purchasing items with caricatures and other racist images.

There are no plans to change our school's nickname, but each year my students unlearn Native American stereotypes and learn how to critically respond to the Native American mascot issue. As my Chippewa friend once told me, "Your students will never think of their mascot or others in the same way again."