By Leah Jerome
In 2006, I had my first experience exploring a reservation. In a minivan loaded with my college peers, we drove from Fordham University to the Navajo Nation. Our journey introduced us to Nelson, a Navajo elder. He took us to a sweat lodge, a ceremonial round house and to a high school graduation party where we played basketball with Navajo children. We learned that we had so much in common, yet there was such a difference in the lives we led. The poverty of the reservation was ever apparent in the remote deserts of southern Utah.
Historically, the colonial and American governments foresaw no coexistence between the Native Americans and European settlers. “Manifest Destiny” was the phrase to describe westward expansion, a euphemism for imperialism. Policies that led to broken treaties, linguicide, culturicide and religious oppression accompanied by massacres and forced assimilation are part of Native American history. In New Jersey, European colonialism and increased greed for land, coupled with Old World diseases, created conditions that gradually forced the indigenous Leni Lenape peoples from their land.
Where Native American villages and communities thrived for thousands of years, there are now mascot heads on sports T-shirts.
I proudly teach at Pascack Valley High School where an Indian mascot represented the school until the board of education recently voted unanimously to replace it. This mascot was woven into the fabric of the school, but its continued use was misguided. To negate the mascot does not mean a negation of the school’s past; rather, it shows an enlightened approach to educating our students in the present. I implore other New Jersey schools to consider this path.
Over one hundred years ago, Indian boarding schools became the federal government’s attempt at assimilating Native American children. Native children were kidnapped from their homes and forced to abandon any vestige of their Native identity. Long braids were cut off and European American clothing replaced traditional garments. Children were abused and forced to renounce their Native culture.
Through Native American mascots, we teach our children that it is our right to appropriate those same images. Mascots are monolithic representations of thousands of peoples and cultures. Consider using any other marginalized group as a mascot and the notion seems outrageous. As educators, we have the moral responsibility to learn about appropriate ways to honor Native Americans. The often-claimed, yet unsubstantiated, notion that mascots honor Indians is an unjustifiable attempt at absolution.
Along with my colleague, Marisa Mathias, we take students to several reservations in South Dakota every summer. Our students spend time at a youth center on the Cheyenne River Reservation, where they are amazed at the beauty of Lakota culture. To wear an Indian mascot to the Cheyenne River Reservation would be to show our Lakota friends that we have reduced all Native people to an image.
Indians are often depicted as a “noble savage” with characteristic warrior features. This concept has become part of American folklore and has been romanticized in a way that erases a history of maltreatment and genocidal policies against Native people. Native mascots showcase an Indian from the past and relegate Native Americans to people of our American past even though they still exist.
The use of Indian mascots is deemed appropriate by some because it is seen through the same lens as Vikings and Knights, which are warriors of the past. Indians are not a people of the past. They are a people of the present whose long history should be honored, not commodified. Unlike other mascots that represent people, American government policies against Indian people were genocidal. Mascots are the ultimate conquest of Natives, the perpetuation of the settler colonial narrative.
If our goal is to honor, let us choose to honor Native peoples through educating our students about who they are, not what some of them might have looked like.
Leah Jerome is a history teacher at Pascack Valley Regional High School, the 2019-20 Bergen County Teacher of the Year and a 2013 James Madison Fellow.