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Deborah Rivas-Drake, Ph.D.
Deborah Rivas-Drake, Ph.D.

Mascots, Mental Health, and Motivation

Thoughts on the marginalization of American Indian youth in schools.

Source: iStock/FatCamera

NOTE: This post was co-authored with Adam Hoffman, Ph.D. Adam is an expert on the development of social identities and their implications for academic and psychological outcomes, particularly among American Indian youth. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan.

Last month, off Interstate Highway 94 in Michigan, a billboard was printed that read, “R*dsk*n: noun. older slang: disparaging, offensive. 1. The word r*dsk*n is very offensive and should be avoided.”

This billboard was strategically placed outside of Paw Paw, where the mascot of the high school is—you guessed it—the R*dsk*ns. There have been vocal opponents to the use of Native-based sports mascots across all levels of sports in the United States, from middle and high schools to colleges and professional sports teams. With thanks to the work of organizations and individuals such as the Michigan Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media (who put up the Paw Paw billboard), some progress has been made to change these mascots.

As psychologists who study how youth of color navigate race and ethnicity, we know the far-reaching implications of the use of racial slurs and imagery on the psychological well-being, academic motivation and achievement, and mental health of American Indians, in particular, among Native youth.

Adolescence represents a time in life when individuals are beginning to think about themselves in more abstract and nuanced ways and develop an identity. Together, along with developing an overarching sense of "who I am," adolescents also begin to develop identities based on the social groups that they belong to, including ethnicity and race.

In general, scholars have found that having a stronger and more positive identity is linked to more positive psychosocial well-being, social functioning, and academic and mental health outcomes for adolescents.

So, what might it mean to forge an ethnic-racial identity in the context of such mascots, when Native youth are faced with stereotypes and slurs every day by merely attending school?

In work examining the impacts of Native Mascots on Native individuals, Stephanie Fryberg and her colleagues conducted a series of studies that investigated the relationship between Native mascot imagery. These studies included high school and university samples of American Indian students and found that, when primed with Native mascots, imagery, or stereotypical negative outcomes (e.g., high dropout rates, suicide rates, or alcoholism rates), youth were more likely to report lower self-esteem and fewer achievement-related goals compared to youth who were not primed and part of a control condition.

In addition to mental health implications, Native mascots and negative academic stereotypes about American Indians can certainly instigate feelings of not belonging in school and inability to excel in school.

We lose talented American Indian youth along multiple points in the K-12 and higher education pipeline. In particular, achievement gaps are observed as early as the elementary years, as American Indians consistently have the lowest levels of math and science achievement among the major ethnic/racial groups in the United States (National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2015a; NAEP, 2015b). In higher education, American Indians have been consistently underrepresented in science and engineering doctoral degree attainment for the past 20 years (National Science Board, 2014).

To circumvent some of the threats to American Indian identities in the context of STEM, in particular, Adam has begun to develop brief interventions to promote motivation in STEM domains among American Indian middle school students.

One such intervention was developed from the self-affirmation literature, which suggests that acknowledgments about positive aspects of the self can protect against threats to one's identity. In my research, American Indian youth are asked to view a picture and read a biography about a successful scientist from their community. After reading the biography, students are given a list of positive characteristics (e.g., hardworking or optimistic), from which they had to choose three words and write a short essay explaining how they shared those characteristics with the scientist who was either Native or not.

The preliminary results suggest that students who read a biography about Native scientist condition demonstrated a small boost in their STEM motivation, but much more work is needed to mitigate the many forms of exclusion to which Native youth are exposed in school.

As the billboard in Paw Paw reminds us, continuing to challenge the use of Native stereotypic imagery and mascots, especially in K-12 schools, is an important step toward redressing historical and contemporary trauma. But we must also work to make schools more inclusive of Native youths' experiences and identities as resources in their psychological well-being and academic motivation and learning.


Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 333-371.

Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Oyserman, D., & Stone, J. M. (2008). Of warrior chiefs and Indian princesses: The psychological consequences of American Indian mascots. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 30(3), 208-218.

Hoffman, A. J. (2017). Promoting science motivation among American Indian middle school students: An intervention (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation Publishing. (Accession No. 10605255)

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2015a). Mathematics Assessments 2015. National Center for Education Statistics.…

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2015b). Sciences Assessments 2015. National Center for Education Statistics.

National Science Board. (2014). Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation (NSB 12-01).

Rivas‐Drake, D., Seaton, E. K., Markstrom, C., Quintana, S., Syed, M., Lee, R. M., ... & Yip, T. (2014). Ethnic and racial identity in adolescence: Implications for psychosocial, academic, and health outcomes. Child Development, 85(1), 40-57. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12200

About the Author
Deborah Rivas-Drake, Ph.D.

Deborah Rivas-Drake, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at the University of Michigan, where she is also a faculty affiliate of the CSBYC and Faculty Associate in Latino/a Studies.

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