When is a Sports Mascot Racist?


There have been some changes to team mascots in the sports world, from the pro ranks to high school, even though most have been viewed as being unintentionally racist. There have been two public discussions on the Lamar Savages mascot of recent note.  One took place this past September during Governor Hickenlooper’s town hall visit to Lamar when he informed local residents that a task force was being formed by the lieutenant governor to look into such matters and the follow up discussion which was held Thursday night, February 25th, hosted by the Commission to Study American Indian Representations in Public Schools at Lamar Community College.

Some fifty residents made up of past and current Lamar students, elected officials, school board members and the general public were on hand to learn about the Commission’s agenda and how their findings might impact the Savage logo which has been in use since around 1910. Lamar is one of 16 schools in Colorado which uses some form of an American Indian representation as their school mascot.  The general terms for the mascots are by name: Indians, Reds, Warriors or Savages.  Four or five Panel members represented various Colorado tribes, including Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, Ute Mountain, Southern Mountain and Navaho.  High school principals from Strasburg and Cheyenne Mountain and several students were also on the panel.

“We are not here to dictate,” explained the meeting facilitator, Troy Eid, adding, “We just want to talk to you and listen to you. This commission has no authority to make any changes to any mascot and there is no legislation currently pending at the capital to make any such changes.”  Eid is the former Chief U.S. Attorney for Colorado under the George W. Bush administration.  He said that about two years ago, a study got off on the wrong foot as it presented an, ‘either/or’ reference to either change your mascot logo or lose state funding for your school district.  He said this commission group simply wants an exchange of ideas to learn more from each other, schools and Indian Nation Tribes before their findings are brought to the governor.

Eid offered the audience information regarding the negative impact ethnic sports mascots can have on youth to the point that Native American youngsters have shown the same rates of incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder as soldiers who have recently returned from duty in Afghanistan. “There is nothing similar to this elsewhere in our society,” he commented.  He added there is a correlation in how people are treated as a race or characterized as to how they are able to lead their lives.  He continued that he isn’t picking on anyone in particular, but relating the experience he gleaned from working for four years for a commission that studied violence committed on Native Americans.

Commission Co-Chair, Darius Smith, provided additional background on the development of mascots and its impact on youth, he said, by reinforcing negative aspects of a race, and even in an unintentional mode, the consequences remain the same. He said he became aware of the mascot issue in 1992 when he started working with Denver Public Schools and found few Indian students were taking part in organized sports. A 1993 study commissioned by the NCAA found that there were 19 schools across the country that had questionable mascots and they were challenged to build authentic relationships with those represented tribes.  After discussions with tribes and schools, the tribes gave permission to various schools to continue using the mascot or modifying its appearance to be more authentic to the manner in which the tribes portrayed themselves.

Statistics show there are approximately 60,000 Native Americans living in all 64 districts of the state with the majority along the Front Range.   Colorado has 16 schools which employ a Native American mascot as their sports symbol.  Lamar is the only community that uses a ‘Savage’ logo while the others depict a mixture of ‘Indians-Reds-or Warriors’ as theirs.

A discussion between the audience and commission representatives followed during which viewpoints were offered on how some Native American mascots developed. While several audience members stated that they felt they were honoring the symbolism of Native American Tribes through their spirit, resolve, independence and love of their land, it was never intended in any way to demean a single Indian tribe or any of them.  They also noted that the term ‘Savage’ didn’t really apply to any particular tribe, but was just a general application that Lamar had used for many years.

Georgina Owen from the Colorado Department of Education provided a historical context on the origins of ethnic mascots. “Around the turn of the century, about 1910, the passing of the ‘Wild West’ was noted in various forms of literature.  There were a lot of paintings, stories and poems that expressed the sorrow of the passing of the Indian way of life and the loss of the ‘noble savage’.  That developed into a somewhat patronizing identification, putting an iconic symbol on a pedestal to be observed instead of a real person who was experiencing real consequences for a change in their heritage,” she explained.  Even though there was no harmful intent with the adoption of an Indian mascot, the impact on a society was the same as if it had been.

If any changes are made to mascots, there was the question of who bears the financial responsibility? Ernest House of the Commission on Indian Affairs explained that the commission will make recommendations to the governor for his decisions once they’ve concluded their visits.  “If there are any changes, the state legislators can be addressed to offset the costs for uniforms, logos, emblems on gym floors and some equipment.  That’s one way to go.  Another is through various foundations.  When this concern became apparent last year, the Adidas Corporation stated they are willing to help every high school in the country with the associated costs of any logo changes.  The details aren’t complete yet, but that is one option.  Another is to ask the corporations in Colorado to step up and help finance these changes,” he explained.

As far as any changes, House reiterated that the commission is only seeking a dialogue with these schools. “There are 48 Indian tribes in Colorado and many of them pass through this area all the time.  So what tribe would be associated with the savage mascot?  We’ve spoken with Superintendent Tecklenburg about future visits.  Any of the 48 tribes can be asked to come and visit and hold another discussion more focused on the mascot issue and how we might be able to reach an agreement on any future action,” he stated.  There was no timeline set for the visit at this point.

By Russ Baldwin



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