Time to Stop Playing Indian

Arlene Hirschfelder

It is predictable. At Halloween, thousands of children (and adults) trick-or-treat in Indian costumes. At Thanksgiving, thousands of children parade in school pageants wearing plastic headdresses and pseudo-buckskin clothing. Shops stock holiday greeting cards with images of cartoon animals wearing feathered headbands and load shelves with Indian figurines. Thousands of teachers and librarians trim bulletin boards with Anglo-featured, feathered Indian boys and girls.

Fall and winter are also the seasons when hundreds of millions of sports fans root for professional, college and public school teams with names that summon up American Indians—Braves, Redskins, Chiefs. War-whooping team mascots are imprinted on team clothing, pennants, notebooks, tote bags, towels and car floor mats.

All of this seems innocuous; why make a fuss about it? Because sports trappings and holiday symbols offend tens of thousands of Native American people. Because these invented images prevent millions of us from understanding the authentic Indian America, both long ago and today. Because this image-making prevents Indians from being a relevant part of the nation’s social fabric.

Halloween costumes mask the reality of high mortality rates, high diabetes rates, high unemployment rates. They hide low average life spans, low per-capita incomes and low educational levels. Plastic war bonnets and ersatz buckskin deprive people from knowing the complexity of Native American heritage—that Indians belong to hundreds of nations that have intricate social organizations, governments, languages, religions and sacred rituals, ancient stories, unique arts and music forms.

Dozens of children’s picture books about Thanksgiving depict generic Indians harmoniously dining with Pilgrims. These books, Thanksgiving school units and plays mask history. They do not tell how Europeans mistreated Wampanoags and other Native peoples during the 17th century. Social studies units don’t mention that, to many Indians, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, the beginning of broken promises, land theft and near extinction of their religions and languages at the hands of invading Europeans.

Toy companies mask Native identity and trivialize sacred beliefs by manufacturing Indian costumes, headdresses, pipes and trick arrow-through-the-head props (all available online) that equate Indians with playtime. Indian figures equipped with bows and arrows, guns, knives and tomahawks give youngsters the harmful message that Indians favor mayhem. Many Native people can tell about children screaming in fear after being introduced to them.

It is time to consider how these images impede the efforts of Native parents and communities to raise their children with positive information about their heritage. It is time to get rid of stereotypes that, whether deliberately or inadvertently, denigrate Indian cultures and people. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights condemned the use of Native American images and nicknames as sports symbols. It said the images are “particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.” In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations. Over the past decade, more than 100 organizations have gone on record to oppose the use of Native sports imagery.

It is time to bury the Halloween costumes, trick arrows, bulletin-board pin-ups and mascots. It has been done before. In the 1970s, after student protests, Marquette University dropped Willie Wampum, Stanford University retired Prince Lightfoot, and the University of Oklahoma eliminated its Little Red mascot. In the late 1990s, the Dallas Public Schools eliminated American Indian mascot names and imagery from school property, including athletic and cheerleading uniforms, a model for other districts in the country to follow. A couple of minor league teams have made changes. In 1997 the Toronto Blue Jays Triple-A farm team in Syracuse, New York became the SkyChiefs. The Peoria Chiefs, a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, changed its logo from an American Indian to a Dalmatian fire chief. And in February 2007, the University of Illinois banned its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, who appeared for the last time at a University of Illinois men’s home basketball game. (Months later, in the name of free speech, the school’s chancellor lifted a prohibition on the use of the mascot’s logo on homecoming parade floats and students’ clothing, which the university considered personal expressions.)

It is time to stop playing Indian. It is time to abolish Indian images that sell merchandise. It is time to stop offending Native people whose lives are all too often filled with economic deprivation, powerlessness, discrimination and gross injustice. This time next year, let’s find more appropriate symbols for the holiday and sports seasons.

Arlene Hirschfelder has authored or edited more than 20 nonfiction books and curricula dealing with Native histories, cultures, and contemporary issues. Much of her writing deals with Indian stereotypes in the world of children. She was a staff member of the Association on American Indian Affairs for more than 20 years.

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sierra's picture
Thank you for this comprehensive article Arlene, as well as your lifetime effort to better educate American children about the First Peoples. Your kind of work is truly needed, and when I read of your authoring and/or editing of nonfiction books and curricula regarding the original peoples, my interest was stimulated more and I thought I could relate my thinking on the subject. First, your work is much more welcoming and fruitful than some mainstream scholars who in effect work against First Peoples' interests when they don't realize that their works in the area of intellectual property rights in relation to indigenous peoples, do more harm than good when the bulk of their sources are from those documented, celebrated and recognized s the leading thinkers in the field) and they have few to no sources from the affected peoples themselves. The main problem perhaps with the bulk of sources above is they stem from compounded issues already slanted in ways that encourage and confirm outdated perspectives that view indigenous rights as anachronisms of the past, and as too often, peoples who do not "contribute", as exemplified by Cdn Prime Minister Harper's recent words that 'Aboriginal peoples WILL contribute...' (This, after his government's apology for the horrid Cdn chapter of forced residential schooling which sought to eradicate indigenous children's identity and mother tongues, and existence as a whole by purposefully locking in overnight - children in rooms with other children infected with Tuberculosis, which was a KNOWN contagious and deadly disease even then..but I digress). And Harper's idea of indigenous peoples contributing, means taxation is coming toward us, for our lands stolen and destroyed. Not for mainstream society to learn of, at last, our [u]American Indian Contributions to the World[/u], available for grades four to nine students. Unfortunately, the absence of indigenous sources has always been acceptable in mainstream academia, as related subject matter and its experts have long ago been established and institutionalized to the point where, in the example of Native Americans wanting college mascots to be repealed, the general public immediately defends how these symbols apparently honour us, and the ultimate result is our viewpoints are drowned out, and we are seen as petty and merely complaining about a major facet of American defined image portrayals which compelled both the American Psychological and Sociological Associations to step in just a few short years ago, and basically speak on our behalf that yes, these mascots are harmful to our identities. And yet no one speaks of the tens of millions of dollars these images brought in, and which have NOT benefitted financially Native Americans. Instead, the mascot issue, as seemingly petty as it is to some people, is what makes it in the news, and not the more pressing issues of the day. (For example, in the case of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations has recently brought the issue of consecutive underfunding of indigenous children's education to the United Nations). And the same harm as mentioned above, stems from undergraduates using non-indigenous sources when discussing intellectual property rights. When students from privileged Ivy League universities were running billion dollar capital and endowment campaigns in yesteryear of 1987, how are students from non-privileged and struggling for survival backgrounds and family life, and their educational institutions to be taken seriously in academic circles (if entertained at all) when the core issue of knowledge and its relation to intellectual property rights has always already been a God given right for those in the higher echelons of white middle class society? Arguably, it is their thinking and language which forms the backdrop of the United Nations, in the form of the international phoentic alphabet, or the IPA. One can also point to sources such as [u]The Cambridge Factfinder[/u] copyrighted in 1993, by the Cambridge University Press. Or how about the [u]Reader's Digest Book of Facts first edition copyrighted 1985 by The Reader's Digest Association Limited, in London. Or how about the more recent dictionary accompanying the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper's article? Very telling how information and knowledge is rather controlled indeed. Not to put this all on you personally, Arlene. These are just some things to consider, given the workings of a capitalist system that is almost wholly locking in conformity that ultimately serves the interests of the ruling elite and compelling the First Peoples' participation in the fight for acknowledgement alone, of our continuing existence and survival. Yet there are institutional, financial and political barriers purposefully designed to define and mold public perceptions that the First Peoples are inferiour and thus need to be treated as wards of the state when, without our assistance at contact, Euro-Americans would not have survived and thrived here. And now, with Diane Sawyer having asked perhaps the vintage question on the recent "20-20" segment of why the Oglala don't just leave their reservation, (their homeland), it spoke volumes as to why Euro-Americans left theirs, and moreover, not just in South Dakota, but why do the indigenous peoples live in the Fourth World is perhaps the unheard of question that scholars mentally masturbating over intellectual property rights, ought to start from. Maybe too, they ought to consider that access to knowledge/academic articles more often requires payment. One just has to point to the Project Muse. Maybe it is reasonable to conclude that our value systems of community, matrilineal societies and communally held lands and living from the land, and not in the big brother man-made grid, are in direct opposition to capitalists infected with the European disease, and who unabatingly project popular culture images of the rich and famineless. Thank you for your time and dedication Arlene, and again I extend my deepest gratitude for the supportive and much needed work that you have been doing, as the children are our future and our greatest hope that they will indeed lead us to the Renaissance era.
karencook's picture
I am proud of anything the represents native culture,iam not ashamed or enbarrased i think it is the lack of UNDERSTANDING that PREDUDICE stems hatered/non tolerance stubborness that a culture or now entertwined w/other cultures in some cases mixed.As we educate, it dissipates All Fear and then there comes understanding,we are Equal in the Creator i call YHVH and Jesus the sonHoly Spirit(that voice thats undeniable that tells something isnt right or beware,I call God conscience)..I believe in the word of God, are just that,People are People and they fall short of perfect.Faith can move mountains,I believe INJA love kcenderby,LULIW(LEO)Shuswap Nation Band member,and English Decent. Catlsyst for change
schol49's picture
I totally disagree with this. I grew up in Glasgow Scotland U.K. yet I was fascinated by what I saw in the Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums in Kelvingrove In particular One Item was a must visit and view when I went to the Art Galleries on Sundays I would get on a Tram and travel to the "Art Galleries" to view among other things The Famous "Ghost Shirt" This Mystical Object made me embark upon a Lifelong Study of Native American Culture. When everyone was raving about Geronimo I was studying The Life and Times of Cochise, Mangas Colorado, Chief Joseph of The NezPerce, I began to see similarities between Tribal Life and The Scottish Clan Systems...... I learned of The Dreadful War Crimes The British Army Perpetrated about how we were first to use germ warfare by giving smallpox infested blankets..... I also Learned that Chieftain Ship was related to The Mystical Prowess of a Brave and War was more of a Ritual than a Battle. How many Warriors rode into Battle armed only with a coup stick, I learned of The Importance of The Vision Quest and attempted to Hang by My Hands from a Tshaped Washing Pole in an Easterhouse Backcourt in a Childish re-enactment of Sitting Bull doing the Sun Dance. That is how I played "Indian" I learned valuable lessons then. So do not dismiss the value of "Playing Indians" When The Sioux asked for The Return of "The Ghost Shirt" Glasgow complied The First World Museum to return Native Artifacts I am proud of this. Back in the fifties "The Ghost Shirt" was an Invaluable Teacher now in My Sixties through the Internet I have Native American Friends on Facebook and other places who can continue My Education on Native American Life and History which would never have happened if I had not "Played Indians" or Visited with The Ghost Shirt those many moons ago!
ukumbwa's picture
Sierra, I'd say your comment is just as important if not more than the article. Thank you for this clear critique and cultural sharing. This is very important. I hope you don't mind that I will probably share this article along with your comment to my next Media and Culture class. Thank you, also, Ms. Hirschfelder, for this important article and the perspective it opens up to us all as we search for meaning and clarity in a widening world of ideas and images. Many, many thanks.
sierra's picture
Niawen'ko:wa ne ki wahshiaton, Ukumbwa. Wakerien’ti:io?s tánon wakatonhnha?here tóka tsi ionteriweienstahkhwa ensasnié:nen tsi niiahia:kseres, tánon wakehrharatsherá:ien tsi enhsaterennó:ten ;) ki:ken. Tóka enskwenni akhiaton tiok nahóten o'ni? Tetiatatshnié:nen. Until then, takhnia:sa tánon teskenoronhkwa?nion, ontiaten:ro! Thank you very much for this you wrote, Ukumbwa. I'm pleased & excited that this may help in the classroom. I am hopeful that during the week, you will read this. Maybe you can write something/[a column about yur class experience too? Let's help each other. Until then, gimme a hug & a kiss my fren! :) Warning - ICT may likely support this message whether it comes from a being who is a mammal animal, the skyworld or the world under the skyworld or something.
Anonymous's picture
I say it time to get over the, needing to get over anything. Every Creed,peoples, and Ethnicity, carries with it a Tradition, Decor, Language, Color. We know. We even Joke about. Sure some body will tell, a Hateful Joke. People see them as they are. Not a reason to, stop celebrations here in America. This I think, is some organization, trying to Put America where they want. It is not looking forward, as I see it. Jest causing friction,with a negative bent. Only one mans Opinion.