Much Ado about Mascots

Although a volatile issue, retiring American Indian mascots has become an increasingly important trend. Here’s a look at how to make the process educational, positive, and rewarding.

By Dr. Ellen J. Staurowsky and Shelly Wilson

Ellen J. Staurowsky, EdD, is an Associate Professor of Sport Studies and Coordinator of the Sports Information and Communication Program at Ithaca College. She is also a former coach and athletic director. Shelly Wilson is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 13.5, August/September 2001,

For almost four full decades, appeals have been made to school districts and institutions of higher education to cease using American Indian mascots as rallying points for their sports teams. To date, more than 600 academic institutions have responded to these requests by changing or eliminating their use of American Indian imagery in association with their athletic department.

At the collegiate level, prominent institutions such as Dartmouth, Marquette, Miami University of Ohio, San Jose State, St. John’s, Stanford, and Syracuse have all elected to adopt new mascots. Within the past five years, school boards in California, Wisconsin, and Kansas have followed suit. In addition, some schools have implemented policies to not compete against others who use Indian nicknames.

While many institutions have found reason to change, approximately 1,400 high schools and more than 70 colleges and universities continue to use these images. If your program is among these, but facing or considering a mascot changeover, you’re not alone. The impetus to make these changes is growing across the country, on many fronts.

For example, in April of this year, the United States Commission on Civil Rights examined the issue and encouraged non-Native American schools to cease using Native American symbols and imagery. Also this spring, New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills urged superintendents of the 136 schools in the state that have American Indian mascots to immediately begin the process of change.

But this impetus is countered by natural apprehensions about instituting such dramatic change and the impact it could have on a program and community. In this article, those who’ve been there share advice on making this move a less contentious undertaking.

Your Role
Depending on your institution, the chain of command for authorizing a mascot change will vary. Most often, the institution’s ruling body, such as a Board of Education, Board of Trustees, or Presidents Cabinet, will make the final decisions on both whether to replace the mascot at all and what the new mascot will be. Occasionally, the decision is made by the principal or president.

Either way, implementing the policy is usually handed off to the athletic director, since the shaping and marketing of the mascot ultimately falls under your purview. You approve uniform designs, authorize images to be placed on athletic facilities, and promote your mascot through local and national media. As such, it’s in your best interests to remain as closely involved in discussions about your mascot change as possible.

“This is going to have the biggest impact on your end of the campus,” says Steve Heuerman, Director of Athletics at Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill., which changed its mascot from the Indians to the Wolves in 2000. “So you need to be aware of each step and each situation that arises in the process.”

“There’s no doubt the athletic director should be part of this,” says Barb Wagner, Athletic Director at Millard South High School in Omaha, Neb., which began its changeover from the Indians to the Patriots in 1999. “If you are going to have something to do with activities and athletics, you’d better be in on every aspect of your program, including the image and figure you portray.”

Whether the athletic director should initiate the change is more of a question mark. Nancy Gerou, Associate Vice President of Student Development at Seattle University, which changed from the Chieftains to Redhawks in 1999, felt she had a responsibility to begin this process during her second stint as athletic director at the school from 1997 to 2000.

“I’d heard comments over the years about how people were offended by our being the Chieftains,” she says. “And I actually spoke with Native Americans about 10 years ago when I first started questioning our use of the Chieftains name. I eventually wrote a lengthy memo articulating why I thought the university needed to entertain the notion of changing the mascot.”

However, other athletic directors dealing with the issue have decided to withhold their personal opinion on the subject from the public. “Your personal feelings shouldn’t enter into this process,” says David Fitz, Director of Athletics and Assistant Principal at Hiawatha (Kan.) High School, which has been working since early 2001 to replace its Redskins mascot with the Redhawks. “The mascot isn’t there for you. It’s something for the kids to rally behind.”

“I think you need to stay as neutral as possible,” agrees Heuerman, “because it’s not your decision. It’s your school community’s decision.”

Whether you choose to be a leader in the process of simply carry out the rulings from above, the athletic director’s job in the process is still significant. You must facilitate discussion, publicly support the school’s decision, educate the community as to the reasoning behind the change, and work to make the process a positive and healing one for the community.

“I saw my duties as fourfold,” says Wagner, who has been at Millard South since 1972. “I was a mediator between the past and the present, I was a sounding board for the principal on what the committee was saying, I was the person in charge of creating the new image, and I was the motivator behind the pride that could be associated with the new mascot.”

The athletic director must also be ground zero for information as the process progresses. “I served as an information clearinghouse that kept everyone updated,” says Heuerman. “I got information out to the various groups on how the progression would take place, when meetings were, what happened at meetings, and so forth. And that’s why you must remain closely involved in the process. Because the worst thing is to not have an answer when somebody asks you a question about something as volatile as this.”

Include Everyone
For most institutions, the process of change begins by forming a committee to examine all facets of the issue. And because a school’s mascot is a label that extends well beyond just the athletic department, it’s important to include representatives from all constituents that would be affected by a change. This, administrators say, is a key step for minimizing backlash.

“You need to make sure you include everyone,” says Heuerman, “from the cheerleaders, booster club, and student senate to school staff and coaches. Because your school is a community institution, you also need to include individuals not within your schools walls. If you exclude people, then you’re not going to have their support in the future. And you need their support.

“We’re always tapping the business community for ads in programs or calendars,” he continues. “And if we are to expect them to help us finance some of our activities, then they need to feel they are a part of our program. So you have to send the message that you’re looking for people to make this process complete.”

Millard South’s 25-person committee held six meetings and dedicated each to reviewing a different aspect of the issue. “The first meeting was to explain the committee’s purpose to participants,” says Wagner. “For the second, we brought in someone to explain the history of the high school’s mascot—why we were the Indians and how the image evolved over the years from a kind of big-nosed drunken Indian to a sophisticated image that emulated pride and strength.

“Then we brought in opponents of our mascot, some of whom were Native American,” she continues, “and they explained that even though they believed the mascot was well intentioned, some of the things being done—by our opponents as well as us—were disrespectful and even sacrilegious to their people.

“Our fourth meeting addressed where the impact of a change would fall—not just the image and the mascot, but the other things that would have to be considered if we changed the mascot. Obviously, expense was one. But we also looked at things like designing new letterhead and yearbooks.

“Our fifth meeting was an open forum for the public, so we could hear other people’s points of view. And then the sixth meeting was to get a consensus from the committee on what direction the principal should go. The committee voted to change the mascot, but the final decision rested with the principal.”

Other programs have decided to make all committee meetings open to the public. “I had a core of people that comprised a task force,” says Gerou, “but each of our meetings, held at noon every two weeks, was an open meeting and anybody could come and express their opinion. Usually six to eight people would show up each time.”

Gerou also invited local and regional Native Americans to contribute. “I insisted on knowing what Native Americans thought,” she explains. “I didn’t think we should hear only from a group of people that was 99 percent Caucasian and then make this kind of decision. So my task force was charged with going out and talking to local Native American tribes. And the one piece of pivotal information unearthed during the process was that the tribe our Chief Seattle mascot came from didn’t even have the word ‘chieftain’ in its vocabulary.”

Gerou also discovered that inviting Native Americans to publicly express their concerns at her open forum opened some eyes among those who originally opposed the change. “Some of our coaches were initially opposed to considering a mascot change,” Gerou recalls. “But as soon as they heard first-hand what concerns the Native Americans had, and saw the emotion with which they felt those concerns, my coaches switched over and wanted the change—because they never intended to offend anybody.”

Schools can also take advantage of technology during this early phase to make information gathering and evaluation more efficient. For instance, Niles West’s school board videotaped each committee meeting so when it came time to make a decision, they could review what they’d heard over the months. And Seattle University set up a special e-mail address to procure feedback on the issue from the public, which received hundreds of messages.

In With the New
If your school board, trustees, or principal votes to remove your American Indian mascot, the next step will be generating a new mascot for the program. Including all constituents in this decision is again key. In fact, many programs begin the process by inviting the student body and public to submit new mascot ideas.

“We sent a letter to all past athletes saying, ‘This is what we’re doing. This is why we’re changing. Do you have any recommendations on what we might become?’” says Gerou. “And that is a very important component of the changeover process because it allows alumni to feel some ownership in the new identity.”

“We asked the student body to submit mascot ideas,” says Heuerman. “We received about 150 different suggestions, and we had the student body vote to narrow that list down to their top four choices. Then we invited the student body, staff, and community to vote for their favorite.”

Some thought must also be given to establishing criteria for the new identity. Administrators may advise the selection committee to focus on mascots that embody some of the positive characteristics of the former American Indian mascot—like strength, dignity, and honor. Athletic directors must also question whether any new suggestions or mascot renderings could possibly offend other social groups. For Wagner, this was of utmost consideration when the Patriot was chosen.

“Traditionally, a Patriot is depicted as a male figure from the Revolutionary War era,” she says. “But I thought, ‘Well, wait a minute. If it was not satisfactory to have the Indians, I am not going to trade a race issue for a gender issue.’ So I did not permit our mascot and logo to be a male figure.”

Ever the Educator
Throughout this changeover, one of the biggest obstacles programs must overcome is misinformation among the public. And this is why it’s so critical that athletic directors participate—in some capacity—in all phases of the process.

“I field a lot of questions and do a lot of interviews about this, so I have to know what’s going on,” says Fitz. “And I have to be prepared to answer those questions the best I can while also understanding that this change does hurt feelings. So I have to be sympathetic while also teaching those in the community what we need to do. And I’ll probably have to do that for the next few years.”

“One problem you run into is rumors,” says Heuerman. “We heard that we were going to sell our Indian pictures, totem pole, and anything else with the Indian mascot to the highest bidder. There were rumors and innuendo in the community that we were the bad guys taking away the mascot.

“So you’ve got to get the correct information out there the best you can,” Heuerman continues, “be it through the school newspaper, memos to your staff, meetings with your captains or your athletic leadership group, or the local newspaper. That correct information is important.”

Wagner suggests publicizing the institution’s main reasons for making the change, to preempt confrontations and confusion down the line. “It’s very important that the public knows you have a strong rationale for what you’re doing—that it’s not just a sign of the times,” she says. “So pick the top two or three points as to why you’ve done what you’ve done and share that information by word of mouth, newspaper, or talk radio.”

Heuerman also provided the community with a timeline. “We told them, ‘This is when we expect the new logo to appear. This is when we expect the floor to be painted. This is when we expect the uniforms to change over,’” he explains. “The more information out there, the better.”

Of course, your coaching staff must also be able to handle inquiries. “I let my coaching staff know that we needed to be as professional as possible,” says Heuerman. “I informed them what the company line would be and what the program’s approach was, and then I reminded them that we had other important things to do with our kids and our program and that we couldn’t let [this one event] distract us from our focus.”

In this role as educator and public information director, look for allies in other departments. “Our Office of Minority Student Affairs put together a whole pamphlet of written feedback from about eight Native American tribes and distributed it across campus,” Gerou says. “And when people took a look at that, they were surprised, because until then they had no idea how our Chieftain mascot was offensive.”

Educating people about the new mascot can also help to ease the transition. “The group of students and coaches promoting the Wolves mascot had researched it and found a gentleman they wanted to bring in to speak about wolves,” Heuerman explains. “He was an author and animal activist whose specialty was wolves, and he was able to explain the nature of wolves, the concept of the pack, and how we could look at ourselves as the Wolves with pride.

“We videotaped his presentation for those who couldn’t attend,” Heuerman continues. “We aired the presentation numerous times on our high school television channel as well as our community station. The school purchased a number of his books, distributed them to staff and students, and made them readily available to the community. We tried to get his information out there as much as we could to saturate our students, staff, and alumni with it.”

The last step in retiring an Indian mascot is to preserve the past in a positive way. “At Niles West, we’ve taken pictures of some of our signs, and we’ve had our art department create renderings of the past and future to be hung throughout the buildings,” says Heuerman. “Also, instead of putting those class and community gifts bearing the old mascot away in the bowels of the building, we’ve arranged for the local historical society to display them. So that part of our history will not be forgotten.”

Although a controversial undertaking, changing an American Indian mascot needn’t be a debilitating process. “My strongest advice to athletic directors is to be available,” says Heuerman. “Be out at your community and athletic events and be well informed and close to the process. Make sure you go to those groups that you know have concerns and take some time to explain as best you can what the process is and how things have gone. And listen. Good communication and a lot of legwork can make this process easier.

“In fact, I don’t think we’ve had one person who’s had a serious problem with the changeover. All those who were most opposed to the change felt that it was a clean, open, and collaborative process and that they were heard. And that has made the transition pretty smooth.”

For a look at an article on designing a new logo, go to our Web site and enter “logo” in the article search window.

Does Compromise Work?

Many schools have taken the path of keeping their American Indian mascot, but using it in only a non-controversial manner. However, the administrators we spoke with have found this ends up being more cumbersome than changing the mascot altogether.

Such was the case at Hiawatha (Kan.) High School. “We found that the kids got caught in the middle,” says David Fitz, Director of Athletics at Hiawatha, which has been working to replace its Redskins mascot since early 2001. “They didn’t know what chants they could do, and they didn’t always know when or what to ask administrators. Over three or four years, that became a detriment to our students, so we decided to examine making the change.”

Seattle University experienced a similar situation. “When I first started questioning our use of the Chieftain name, some Native Americans told me they didn’t mind us using the Chieftain head and logo, but they objected to us using it as a mascot,” says Nancy Gerou, Associate Vice President of Student Development and then-Director of Athletics at Seattle University, which switched to the Redhawks in 1999. “So it became athletic policy that we could not use the image as a mascot. In other words, we could use it on stationery, but at games, nobody could use the image for rallying purposes.

“And there was a real lack of spirit when it came to leading cheers and getting spectators into the game,” she continues. “Over time, I felt the program was being hamstrung because we couldn’t fully utilize our mascot, and a new one was needed.”

Why Is This Important?

By Dr. Ellen J. Staurowsky

Many have argued that the negatives of using American Indian nicknames and mascots are trivial and not worth so much effort. Below, I’ve outlined why the practice of using these images is detrimental.

1. It disrespects Native American religion.
Many have sought to have the University of Illinois’ “Chief Illiniwek,” a mythic figure dressed in Plains regalia who dances at halftime of football games, retired at that university. In a 1990 address to the Board of Trustees, University of Illinois alumna Charlene Teters, a Spokane Nation woman, said: “You cannot ignore the religious significance of the symbol you use in your halftime display. Native people’s clans and Nations are rich in ceremony. Many of our ceremonies include dress and facial paint. The eagle feather has long been an important part [of those ceremonies], earned through bravery, self-sacrifice, and acts of generosity to the people ... You are using a religious symbol to excite the fans. If you used other religions’ symbols in the same way, you would quickly be set straight.”

2. It disrespects Native American culture.
As Billy Mills, the great Lakota runner who won the 1964 Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meters has explained on numerous occasions, warrior status in American Indian culture is not easily earned and carries with it deep religious significance. Similarly, the status of “Chief” is reserved for the most select, the most wise, the special few, not legions of individuals who take on the status simply by virtue of going to a certain school.

Also, for many American Indians, the term “Redskin” evokes the killing of Indians for bounty in service to a U.S. governmental colonial agenda. The Utah Supreme Court and the United States Patent and Trademark Office have determined that the term “Redskins” is a racial pejorative and one that disparages American Indians.

3. It perpetuates racism.
Chandell Matzden, a young Indian woman who attended Southern Cayuga High School in New York, wrote a letter to the district’s board of education in July 2000 requesting the removal of the school’s logo, the “Chiefs.” In her address to the school board, Matzden said that she felt no honor, nor did she believe any of her classmates intended honor, when they entered the school each morning and wiped their feet on a doormat bearing the head of an Indian “Chief.”

Matzden also described in vivid detail three attacks directed toward her brother during the school year. One involved a white student dancing around her brother in a mock “Indian dance,” which included “war whoops.” In the second incident, a female student suggested that Matzden’s whole family should be lined up and shot in the back of the head. In a third incident, Matzden’s brother was told that he should be scalped.

In addition, at the University of North Dakota, American Indian students who have protested the school’s “Fighting Sioux” nickname have been called “Prairie Niggas,” targeted with invitations to “go back to the rez where you belong,” and subjected to threats that have warranted their leaving the institution.

4. It is an important educational opportunity.
In her address to the National Multicultural Institute Forum on Public Policy in Washington, D.C., on May 31, 2001, Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, observed that there is little accurate and substantive information about the history of American Indians in the United States being taught to children. In effect, what educators know best about American Indians are stereotypes. In turn, what they teach most frequently about American Indians are oversimplified lessons that lack the depth needed to effectively provide students with insight and understanding. When Indian images are used as mascots, we perpetuate that ignorance and promote the stereotypes.

With American Indian students comprising less than two percent of the student population, educators have a special obligation to create an atmosphere that is supportive of those students and open to promoting an understanding about their lives in the present, their history, and their culture. We should not find it acceptable that our students know more about American Indian mascot histories than they do about American Indian history. Athletic directors and coaches can play a tremendous positive role in effecting this change.

For a longer discussion on why this issue is important, please view the “bonus editorial” section of our Web site, at