Catering to That 10 Percent That Love to Be Mascots

The mainstream media and common ignorance has convinced some Native Americans that being a mascot for American sporting teams is OK; that it is all right to be ridiculed, mimicked and degraded for the sake of satisfying white and black sports fans.

Mascots usually consist of lions, tigers and bears, oh my. They are bison, bulldogs, and horses either led out on the field on leashes or ridden by outrageously painted Indians or Trojans. Or they are Vikings, figments of history, with no connection to today's reality. Or they are Fighting Irish with a fictitious leprechaun mascot dancing around the sidelines.

They are cowboys, steelers, packers, or boilermakers that some nincompoops mistake for an ethnic minority. If the fans of these teams choose to honor these symbols for their sports teams, so be it. But when they take real life American Indians and turn them into cartoon caricatures and then mimic them by painting their faces, donning feathers, and doing the tomahawk chop, they cross that thin line called racism.

The University of North Dakota is fighting to retain a mascot they call the Fighting Sioux. The people they are aping no longer call themselves Sioux, but instead call themselves by their traditional names. Sioux was a bastardization of French and Ojibwe which could be interpreted as "Little Snake."

And even if UND alumni wanted to retain this apparently erroneous name, it is what they do in presenting that image I find reprehensible. One year when UND played its main rival, the North Dakota State Bison, a cartoon image made the rounds of an Indian warrior sexually mounting a buffalo with the appropriate language attached. Another time in the city of Bismarck just before a renewal of this instate rivalry, some fans of North Dakota State were calling their UND rivals "The F---ing Sioux." They used the "F" word to not only insult the fans of UND, but collaterally insulted all Native Americans in the state.

If one happened to be in Champaign/Urbana, Illinois before a big sporting event, in order to laud their mascot, Chief Illiniwek, a white boy dressed up in Native attire, one could see images of bleary-eyed, drunken Indians painted on the windows of the downtown bars. On sale in the local markets and drugstores, one could purchase rolls of toilet paper with images of Indians imprinted on every sheet.

One year, before a big football game between the Minnesota Gophers and the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, stuffed Indian dummies could be seen with ropes around their necks hanging from buildings and trees on the Minnesota campus.

Now any Indian or white that finds the things I have written above as "honoring" American Indians holds a very different view of what the word "honor" holds for the majority of Native Americans.

I cannot end this piece without referring to the Sunday a few years ago when the fans of the Washington professional football team (I will not use the "R" word here), painted a pig red, placed a feathered bonnet on its head, and then chased it around the football field at halftime. If they had painted a pig black and placed an Afro wig on its head and chased it around the football field at halftime, how many African Americans would have considered that an "honor?"

Let it suffice to say the 90 percent of all Native Americans in this country consider their use as mascots for America's fun and games an insult. In the U.S. Navy we used to have a saying that went, "There is that 10 percent that never gets the word." And yes, you will find that 10 percent standing proudly while 90 percent of their brethren are being insulted.

The mainstream media has, for 200 years or more, published articles about Native Americans that they considered quaint or humorous. Or they have published articles without ever checking the facts. There have been too many to list here, but a good example is the one last week that gushed about the Lakota Sioux (a misnomer) withdrawing from the United States of America. The MSM never bothered to check the authenticity of this article by talking to the legally elected presidents of any tribe in South Dakota. They never considered that treaties are made between nations and not individuals.

But that is just one example of how the media has never understood why most Indians detest their use as mascots. Only Oprah Winfrey used her television show to invite Native Americans to discuss their feelings about this topic, but that was 15 years ago.

Ten percent does not make up a majority, so please stop catering to that 10 percent.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at