Science Of Small Talk

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The Native American Mascot: Tribute or Stereotype?

What does research tell us about the Native American mascot debate?

In yet another chapter of a continuing debate, the State of Oregon announced last week that its public schools must discontinue the use of Native American nicknames and mascots. The Board of Education gave state schools until 2017 to stop using team names such as “Indians,” “Chiefs,” “Braves,” and “Redskins.” Other names such as “Warriors” will still be permitted, provided that no imagery is used referring to a particular tribe, custom, or individual.

Predictably, reaction to the order has been mixed.

Supporters of the ban assert that even if the schools that use them harbor no ill-intent, the images themselves are caricatures that perpetuate stereotypes. Opponents of the ban suggest that these names celebrate, rather than disparage Native American culture. And fans of the slippery slope argument would ask what, then, of the other sports nicknames that make reference to a particular group of people, whether in terms of region of origin (Vikings, Fighting Irish, Celtics), religion (Quakers, Saints), or occupation (Boilermakers, Engineers)?

For many people the debate comes down to one question: tribute or stereotype? And some would suggest that this is a question best posed to Native Americans directly, including the NCAA, which has previously ordered schools to change their nickname unless they can demonstrate approval from the local tribe in question.

But there’s also another, arguably more compelling way to answer this question: look to the data. What, specifically, are the psychological implications of these nicknames and mascots?

A few years ago, researchers at Arizona, Stanford, and Michigan conducted a series of studies to find out. Their first experiment found evidence to support the idea that sports mascots can be a source of pride in Native American communities. In this study, high school students on an Indian reservation in Arizona who read a brief paragraph about the use of these mascots (accompanied by a photo of Chief Wahoo, the smiling logo of the Cleveland Indians) subsequently used more positive words when asked to write down their first thoughts that came to mind in describing Native Americans.

This finding indicates that mascot representations are not always regarded as negative—and that surveys of members of Native American communities may very indicate explicit support for the nicknames. But the question remains, what of the psychological effects of these mascots on Native American individuals? On this count, the data are not so kind to the pro-mascot case.

In follow-up studies, the same researchers again presented high school respondents with various passages and images related to Native Americans. After reading about mascots (and seeing Chief Wahoo), Native American respondents scored lower on an individual self-esteem questionnaire, as well as a measure of their sense of community worth (i.e., feelings of respect and a sense of value towards Native Americans). In fact, scores for self- and community-worth were even lower among students who had seen Chief Wahoo than they were among those who read about the common depiction of Native American communities as suffering from high rates of alcoholism, suicide, and teen pregnancy.

Perhaps most problematically, in a final study a variety of Native American mascots were shown to different groups of college student respondents. Afterward, students were asked to write about what their life would be like in one year. Those Native American students exposed to mascots were significantly less likely to use achievement-related language in anticipating their future than were students in a control condition. That is, having seen and read about mascots, Native Americans became less likely to make achievement-related predictions for themselves regarding good grades, graduating, finding a job, etc.

The data from these studies are consistent with the idea that these mascots are often viewed positively, even by members of Native American communities. At the same time, they are also consistent with the conclusion that there are negative psychological consequences to such mascots, even if those who experience these consequences can’t or won’t articulate them when asked.

(And, of course, there are yet other questions to be asked about the effects of such mascots. For example, to what extent do they attenuate versus exaggerate racial stereotypes held by White people? In a separate investigation conducted in 2011, a different set of researchers concluded that Native American mascots activated negative, but not positive, stereotypes among Whites.)

In the end, these data pose a problem for claims that these mascots are honorific and likely to enhance the self-esteem of Native Americans. Even when that is (or has recently become) the motivation behind a team name, such good intent is not sufficient to bring about good outcomes. As the authors of the paper described above explain, “American Indian mascots do not have negative consequences because their content or meaning is inherently negative. Rather… [the mascots] remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them.”

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Like this post? Then check out the website for Sam's book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available!).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below:

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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