Opinion: On the Indian logo

Jul 6, 2021

To the editor:

Dartmouth High School’s Indian mascot, a fixture of the school since the 1970s, is on his way out. School principal Ross Thibault calls him “divisive.” I think the School Committee will agree.

“What is a mascot supposed to stand for? It’s a rallying point for the community. But if you have a mascot that is this divisive, how can it achieve the purpose of a mascot?” Thibault (known as Ross the Boss by DHS students) said during the closing moments of a roughly 90 minutes long session of the new Equality and Diversity Subcommittee ‘s meeting on June 22. “I don’t see how keeping it is even a consideration.”

Who convinced him?

On June 22, it was 2018 DHS graduate Kempton Campbell, and a sociology professor focused on race and gender studies at Springfield College, named Laurel Davis-Delano. She has been plugging away tirelessly at the cottage industry of Mascot Retirement since 2007. For Campbell, he’s only a year in, having done student research on the subject at the University of Connecticut.

Campbell got the ball rolling, giving the usual talking points that mascots are not anti-Indian, and brought up a litany of critiques about false stereotypes (“this is not how the Wampanoags dressed”) and talks of genocide of native tribes. Because of the post-colonial history of American treatment of the tribes, a mascot does “psychological harm” and “reinforces negative stereotypes.” Their time has come.

Davis-Delano is the real pro on the subject.

An activist academic, she is part of the 12-member steering committee of the Massachusetts Mascot Commission (MassMC), a group that has been arranging meetings before school committees statewide to advocate for the removal of tribal mascots. There is a bill in the Massachusetts State Legislature that would ban the use of native mascots statewide. That bill is currently in the Joint Education Committee. You can be sure MassMC wrote most of it.

“Native mascots create a hostile climate for native youth,” she told the panel, adding, “When you expose non-native people to native mascots it increases their negative feelings of native Americans.”

She advised the Diversity Committee that they should “make decisions based on research findings and not opinions. That should be more important than public opinion.”

Public opinion is not on her side, or on Ross Thibault’s side. So they are going to push it that way and ram it through the State House in Boston.

I wouldn’t die on a hill fighting to preserve this particular tradition. I’m not a DHS alumni — my school mascot was a Wildcat. And my daughter, who is is part Tupi (a tribe indigenous to Brazil) is fine with the Indian and thinks a switch to the Dartmouth Dragons would be just as cool. 

Understanding that this talk of divisiveness stems from academic research, I looked into some of that research myself to see what Davis-Delano is citing as evidence of harm. If we are to trust the PhDs, and not public opinion, what have the PhDs found? How legit is the grievance over Indian mascots?

One of the best places to start is Davis-Delano’s most recent work, published in May 2020. The 22-page paper, titled “The psychosocial effects of Native American mascots” is a compendium of empirical research findings from seven other studies dated between 2005 and 2019, including one unpublished PhD thesis.

Here are some examples:

In one study, 48 native American students from a reservation high school in Arizona were shown mascots like Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians, romantic depictions of themselves in movies like Dances with Wolves, and images of alcoholism and suicide of tribal youth.

After viewing these representations, participants were told to write down the first five words that came to mind. These words were coded as positive or negative by student research assistants who were unaware of the study hypotheses. Results revealed that the mascot and movies yielded mostly positive associations, obviously compared to suicide. While this part of the study suggests that native mascots had no negative emotional impact on Native American youth, the same study did more work to prove itself wrong.

Grievance studies of this kind are geared to find one answer only. They exist to prove the grievance. When the evidence is thin, new variables are added to change the outcome.

Another study showed that the longer native American kids were subject to schools with tribal mascots, the more stressed they got about it over time.

Serious question for the control group: is this because their school is constantly telling them that the outside word belittles them? Is this because their school dwells on the saddest part the history of, in this case, the Sioux? I would venture to say yes. There is no research on this to prove me right, or wrong.

In the unpublished PhD thesis, the study revealed that the participants, most of whom supported a Native mascot, were “more apt to exhibit prejudice and discrimination against Native than White people” wearing school pride mascot gear when the Native person was show to be in opposition to Native mascots and when participants being asked to respond to the picture were fans of the university team. 

This is supposed to be indicative of bias. It seems there could be something else at play there.

What if the native person was wearing a team jersey with the native mascot and was smiling, with a thumbs up sign?

Political views were considered in one study. Liberals tended to have “negative” views of native Mascot logos, whereas negative views were deemed as views that considered Native Americans “warriors” or “war like”. 

Conservatives did not change their view in that study. The authors said that it is likely because conservatives were “more supportive of negative racial stereotypes.” So liberals got scared of tribal warriors (negative) and conservatives are just generally more racist (negative). Ban Mascots!

There are approximately 2,000 teams in the U.S. that have Native American mascots, mostly at schools.

Who finds them divisive?

It all starts with academic activists who find like minds, present them with the kind of research I showed here, and argue their points. They have been calling for the elimination of these mascots for at least 13 years, while many non-Native people continue to be baffled by it.

The Indian mascot became a thing in Dartmouth in the 1970s. That was a time in U.S. history when youth culture, starting from the earthy, hippie movements of the late 60s, to the music of bands like America and the Eagles, championed the native American “other.” They went from cowboys killing Indians, to downtrodden and forgotten on “the res” to becoming a cherished part of American life.

I do not know if banning the Dartmouth Indian is a societal plus, or a gift to an intransigent bunch that’s always complaining about something the majority of us like. And will never stop.

Researchers say our knowledge of the Navajo and the Choctaw are romanticized. But us humans always romanticize our histories. There’d be no novels, no poetry, no music, no movies if we did not.

We romanticize the story of our first love. We romanticize family life, failing to live up to the ideal we create based on Frank Sinatra Christmas specials. Yet, we find new lovers even if the first one was not what we thought. We still have family cookouts. The healthy among us don’t throw it all away. Only the perennial angry and unforgiving do.

So go ahead, get rid of the Dartmouth Indians. You’re going to do it anyway. Those who are against it are just racists. We know. Someone making $350,000 a year on the faculty at Boston University wrote a book about it and made the cover of the New Yorker! They know.

Kenneth Rapoza,