The issue of the exploitation of Indigenous symbols and mascots in sport team logos has long been a controversial one both in Canada and the USA. It has been widely discussed in media and academic circles, as well as in educational and professional sport environments. Despite the fact that since 2005 the American Psychology Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and many other organizations have issued resolutions against Native American mascots’ use, they still can be seen on many logos (Burtka). Some teams claim that they have acquired support from local Indigenous communities and maintain their names and logos to honor these people. However, there are reasons to suggest that even well-intentioned use of stereotyped symbols can be harmful. Therefore, it is essential to continue research and raise awareness regarding this issue.
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However innocent some of them may look at first sight, there are several ways how Native American or First Nations symbols and mascots exploited by sports teams can negatively impact communities. Although the proponents of their use often claim that the practice is meant to be a tribute to Indigenous peoples’ culture, the overwhelming majority of experts agree that they reinforce stereotypes about the same people they are supposedly intended to honor (Burtka; Davis-Delano et al. 627).
While some argue that those are positive notions depicting Indigenous peoples as brave and enduring, in practice, they simultaneously support the idea that they tend to act in an aggressive and savage manner. Moreover, they reduce Indigenous peoples to these prejudices. This effect is also supported by multiple stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans and First Nations people in media. Like many other fixed notions, those make real people appear less as humans and more as ideas. Instead of sincere interest and respect towards these communities’ traditions, sports teams that use Indigenous symbols to emphasize their bravery and fighting spirit engage in what is, essentially, a cultural appropriation.
What is even more alarming is that these mascots and logos not only activate stereotypes in people but may, eventually, even alter their behavior. For instance, children exposed to such symbols start to see Indigenous peoples as relicts of the past with exaggerated traits such as bravery, righteousness, and aggressiveness. This may prevent them from feeling empathy towards their peers of Indigenous origin (Burtka).
To create a future without racist, sexist, or other negative stereotypes, it is important to raise children in the atmosphere of inclusion and respect, which can be undermined by exposing them to prejudiced notions and images. Hence, instead of reinforcing biases, it might be better to engage in education by telling children about the history of colonization and the current problems experienced by Indigenous communities.
Social psychology findings also demonstrate that even adults are often unable to separate stereotypes they see in media from people they encounter in the real world. One research conducted in the US in 2017 demonstrated that exposure to Native American mascots is likely to facilitate stereotype application (Burkley et al. 231). The authors, however, mention that no such effect was noted among non-prejudiced individuals (Burkley et al. 231).
This idea correlates with the findings of another study that showed that people who support the use of Native American symbols often demonstrate stereotypical attitudes towards Indigenous populations (Davis-Delano et al. 627). Thus, even though some non-biased individuals may be unaffected by the exposure to such symbols, the stereotypes of those more prone to superficial judgments are likely to be reinforced, even prompting them to act hostile.
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It is also important to consider the direct effect of such exploitation on Indigenous peoples themselves. Research indicates that it may be particularly harmful to young people leading to lower self-esteem and “less capacity to generate achievement-related possible selves” (Davis-Delano et al. 627). They are also likely to be less socially active as their peers who are exposed to stereotypes may demonstrate less empathy, act in a hostile or degrading manner.
Although those are extreme examples that may not be true for all people in all circumstances, they are important enough to worth consideration, especially in the light of recent research into mental health problems experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. Many studies indicate the negative impact of colonial practices on the psychological well-being of Indigenous individuals and emphasizing the need for more rigorous integration destructing the economic and cultural walls (Nelson and Wilson 102). Thus, reinforcing any stereotypes regarding these communities may only exacerbate these issues. Instead of breaking the barriers, they only strengthen them, contributing to the feelings of isolation and being misunderstood.
In the light of the presented evidence, one can suggest that the practice of using Indigenous symbols on sports logos can be considered harmful and should be eliminated. Although many teams use such symbols and mascots with positive intentions seeking to support the Indigenous communities, the results of their actions are, nonetheless, adverse. A sincere interest in local culture can be demonstrated through careful research and tradition preservation.
Still, people should not engage in activities that reduce First Nations, Native Americans, or other Indigenous peoples to their history or customs, to exaggerated and often inaccurate traits. After all, sports activities should be an opportunity for entertainment for all community members, helping people to unite instead of building walls between them. Therefore, teams should eliminate logos and mascots that may reinforce stereotypes and offend people belonging to any particular social group.
Burkley, Melissa, et al. “Symbols of Pride or Prejudice? Examining the Impact of Native American Sports Mascots on Stereotype Application.” The Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 157, no. 2, 2017, pp. 223-235.
Burtka, Allison T. “Native American Mascots – Honoring Culture or Symbol of Disrespect?” Global Sport Matters. 2018. Web.
Davis-Delano, Laurel R., et al. “The Psychosocial Effects of Native American Mascots: A Comprehensive Review of Empirical Research Findings.” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 23, no. 5, 2020, pp. 613-633.
Nelson, Sarah E., and Kathi Wilson. “The Mental Health of Indigenous peoples in Canada: A Critical Review of Research.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 176, 2017, pp. 93-112.