The Center for Artistic Revolution began its campaign opposing the use of American Indians as mascots at Arkansas State University in the beginning of 2005.
CAR maintains that the use of American Indians for mascots is a patently racist, disrespectful, painful and sacrilegious misappropriation of their culture and spirituality by predominantly white-led institutions. During the time that most of the schools in question developed Indian mascots (1920s-1950s) it was illegal for American Indians to practice their religion. Indians were imprisoned for using their ceremonial items including feathers, drums and clothing to celebrate their spirituality while at the same time painted-up non-Indians were dancing around in half-time shows using these same items. It wasn’t until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, allowing American Indians to freely express their traditional beliefs, quite a stain for a country that has religious freedom as one of its founding principles.
While it’s true that some Indians have said that they don’t mind the mascots, the majority of the Indian people do not want these mascots. No matter how dignified ASU and other schools attempt to portray Indians, by using these images it gives their fans permission to smear red paint on their bodies, paint their faces, stick feathers in their hair and whoop and holler in their very best Hollywood style in an enormous show of disrespect for the American Indian people. This is not an honor; it collapses the rich history, spirituality and traditions of the Indian nations and tribes into one-dimensional stereotypes.
ASU continues to state that their use of Indians as mascots is done with respect and that the school’s sports teams will continue to use them. CAR’s lead organizer on this campaign, Kathi Wesho Bauer, a Menominee Indian, spoke recently to Dr. Dean Lee, the school’s athletic director. Lee maintained that the school would keep its mascot, stating that the school represented Native Americans in a dignified and stately manner. Dr. Lee indicated that the school’s next step would be to file an appeal with the NCAA. During this conversation Lee told Bauer that without the school’s mascot the Indian people would be forgotten.
ASU’s Jonesboro campus has 36 self-identified American Indian students out of a student body of 10,508. The rest are white, African-American, Latino and Asian/Pacific Islanders. It is certain that the school would never permit the cultures and spiritual traditions of any of these groups to be appropriated for entertainment. So why is it OK for white students to use skin bronzer, paint their faces and dress up as Indians, have a tepee on the field, and bang on a drum?
To date we have been unable to find any legitimate Indian nation or tribe’s governing body that has given ASU its blessing. According to Dr. Lee, the “representative” that they met with in April regarding their use of the mascot was Dub Maxwell, an Arkansas resident who says he heads the Lost Cherokee group. This is a non-profit organization alleging that it includes descendants of Cherokees who hid during the Indian removal from Arkansas. They have sought state and federal recognition to no avail.
There are only three legitimate Cherokee tribal governments in existence — the Cherokee nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee and the United Keetoowah Band. Certainly ASU could make a better case for their mascot if they in fact had the authorization of a genuine Cherokee governing body. The approval of the Osage nation whom ASU claims their Chief Big Track honors is also conspicuously absent.
CAR has been in discussion with Indian nations and tribes regarding their position on ASU. Our work resulted in a letter being sent by Dr. Richard L. Allen, policy analyst for the Cherokee Nation, to ASU and the NCAA. The letter states that the Cherokee Nation is opposed to the mascot and has not sanctioned ASU’s mascot. We expect more of these statements from other nations and tribes in the future.
Recently we heard from Brian Daffron, an alumnus of ASU who opposes the mascot. Daffron is a freelance journalist and adjunct instructor at Comanche Nation College in Oklahoma. Daffron is planning to produce a documentary on ASU’s mascots. CAR has been invited to participate in this project.
Nationally known American Indian activist Susan Shown Harjo will also be present for the documentary project. Harjo is notable for leading a lawsuit against pro football trademarks citing a 1946 federal law that prohibits the government from registering a trademark that disparages any race, religion or group.
As classes resume this fall it would be nice if a lesson in civility and respect would be forthcoming. ASU should discontinue its use of anything American Indian for mascots. Just because something has been a long tradition does not make it right. There is no greater testament to this than the impact of manifest destiny and the attempted genocide of the American Indian people committed by ancestors of those who now want to dress up and “play Indian.”
The Center for Artistic Revolution, based in North Little Rock, describes its work as “driving art and organizing that activates, stimulates, cultivates and liberates.” Write them at PO Box 2300, North Little Rock 72114.