Around 20 colleges have been urged by the NCAA to drop their school nicknames or mascots because they’re considered disrespectful to Native Americans. Anthropologist Christina Gish Berndt, who teaches American Indian Studies at Iowa State University, says the mascots are often a “stereotyped representation” of Indian people.
“They’re very one dimensional,” Berndt said. “They either represent Native American people as blood-thirsty savages or a kind of noble Indian stereotype.” Many Native Americans say they find the mascots racially offensive. But, opponents of changing nicknames like “The Tribe” or “Seminoles” say they’re simply trying to honor the Native American population.
“But, it’s still a stereotype,” Berndt argues. “Even though it’s independent, strong, one with the earth…it’s still one dimensional and still a stereotype.” Florida State University, which carries the nickname Seminoles, may’ve found an answer to the controversy. The school has partnered with the Seminole Tribe in Florida – allowing the tribe to help determine how the mascot looks and is represented.
Berndt says the Seminole Tribe also has a financial stake in the mascot and collects a portion of the profits from merchandising. In the early 1990s, Simpson College in Indianola changed its nickname from Redmen to The Storm. Waterloo West High School still uses the nickname Wahawks, but the mascot is a hawk-like character named Westy. Years ago, the Wahawks mascot was a student dressed in an Indian outfit.
In November, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it would not review a 17-year-old legal challenge against the use of the nickname Redskins – used by the National Football League team in Washington. Berndt made her comments on the Iowa Public Radio program “The Exchange.”