My Turn: Problem with Native American mascots

  • A balloon sporting the former Turners Falls Indians mascot at the commencement of the class of 2017. Recorder FILE/Matt Burkhartt


Published: 8/22/2017 12:18:43 PM

I have been following events associated with the Turners Falls High School Indian nickname and logo. Although many opinions have been shared, I suspect that few have read the research on the topic of Native American nicknames/logos in sport. Yet, it is likely that this research influenced the decision of the school board to eliminate the nickname/logo. Since I am a scholar who has conducted research on this topic, I thought it might be helpful for me to provide a brief summary of this research. If you wish to receive information about the sources I discuss, you can request this from me at

Researchers who have studied the topic of Native American nicknames/logos in sport have utilized a variety of techniques to collect data, including questionnaires, interviews, experiments, observation and document analysis. Regardless of the particular technique, research involves a careful and systematic approach and is scrutinized by other researchers prior to publication in academic journals. Given this rigor, policy makers should rely on research when making decisions.

Scholars agree that Native American nicknames/logos in sport are stereotypes. This is because these nicknames/logos depict Native Americans as homogenous and only as brave male warriors from the past. Yet, many people in the U.S. do not perceive these nicknames/logos as stereotypes because they have little meaningful contact with contemporary Native Americans and because they perceive these nicknames/logos as positive compliments. In regard to the latter point, many people in the U.S. do not recognize ostensibly positive stereotypes as stereotypes and do not understand that these stereotypes are harmful, despite the fact that research reveals a variety of problems associated with ostensibly positive stereotypes.

Research demonstrates that Native American nicknames/logos in sport reflect and reinforce racial stereotypes and prejudice. More specifically, this research reveals that: these nicknames are associated with negative thoughts, people who are more supportive of these nicknames/logos are more likely than people who oppose them to believe prejudicial ideas, and exposure to these nicknames/logos can increase stereotyping. For example, Chaney, Burke and Burkley, in a 2011 article published in the journal American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, found that at an unconscious level White university students were more likely to associate Native American sport team nicknames with negative words than they were to associate White sport team nicknames with negative words.

In a second example, in Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2017, Angle and colleagues reported their finding that when liberal people were exposed to two different Native American sport logos, this strengthened their unconscious stereotyping of Native Americans as warlike.

In a third case, in 2010 in Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Kim-Prieto and colleagues reported the surprising finding that exposure to the Native American Chief logo from the University of Illinois led to greater stereotyping of Asian Americans!

Research also demonstrates that Native American nicknames/logos in sport directly harm Native Americans in several ways, including that these nicknames/logos generate a hostile climate for Native Americans and lower Native Americans’ self-esteem, capacity to imagine possible future selves, and confidence in their communities. For example, in 2011 in the journal American Indian and Alaskan Native Mental Health Research, LaRocque and colleagues reported that they found that Native American students at University of North Dakota experienced significantly more negative feelings and distress than non-Native students after seeing slide shows of Fighting Sioux images.

In the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology in 2008, Fryberg and colleagues revealed findings that when Native American youth were exposed to a variety of Native nicknames in sport, this lowered their self-esteem, depressed their sense of future possibilities for themselves, and lowered their confidence in their Native communities.

It will probably not surprise readers to learn that a large number of Native American organizations have taken a stand against these nicknames/logos, including the National Indian Education Association and National Congress of American Indians, which represents over 250 tribes. People may be more surprised to learn that many academic organizations have done the same, including three of largest bodies of social scientists in the U.S.: American Anthropological Association, American Psychological Association, and American Sociological Association.

Research reveals that Native Americans are both greatly underrepresented and stereotyped in mainstream U.S. popular culture, contributing to widespread belief in historical myths about Native Americans and limited knowledge of contemporary Native Americans. One of the many goals of the contemporary Native American rights movement is to rectify this situation. Related to this goal, in the 1960s Native American activists began to address the nickname/logo/mascot issue in sport.

Resistance to change by supporters of these nicknames/logos is often passionate, likely because White U.S. identities and traditions are associated with these nicknames/logos. The struggle for change is also made more difficult by the fact that many people intend to honor Native Americans and do not understand the harmful nature of ostensibly positive stereotypes.

Although most people in the U.S. do not perceive Native American nicknames/logos in sport as problematic, researchers find that these nicknames/logos reflect and reinforce stereotyping/prejudice and more directly harm Native Americans. Those making decisions about Native American nicknames/logos should make educationally sound decisions, and educationally sound decisions rely on research findings because these findings are derived from systematic and careful collection and analysis of data.

Laurel R. Davis-Delano, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at Springfield College (MA), has been studying the topic of Native American nicknames/logos in sport for many years.


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