INDIANAPOLIS — Twenty-first-century efforts to legitimize Native American athletic team names and mascots miscast tribal history, argues the author of a book examining the history of Native American imagery in college sports and exposing its ties to a crisis of identity among white, middle-class men.
Under pressure from the NCAA, Native Americans and others, many colleges have dropped their use of Native American team names and mascots. The NCAA has granted waivers to a few schools, including Florida State University, which has the support of the Florida Seminole Tribe for its use of the Seminole nickname.
“There were no Native American tribes involved in the creation of these identities, so why would colleges go to them for approval now?” said Jennifer Guiliano, assistant professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of “Indian Spectacle: College Mascots and the Anxiety of Modern America.”
Contrary to popular thought, mascots do not represent the history of particular tribes, but rather they commingle native identities across historical periods and tribal lines, the professor said.
Guiliano said “Indian Spectacle” points out that “none of the mascots were created with accurate tribal representation.”
“The Illinois mascot isn’t an Illinois Indian, it’s a Sioux Indian,” she said. “The Florida State mascot takes elements of Seminole identity but also takes elements of Plains Indian identity. Same with the Fighting Sioux in North Dakota. They don’t really represent the Lakota Indians; they represent this generic public idea of what an Indian was.”
In “Indian Spectacle,” Guiliano traces the origins of Native American mascots to the creation of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s mascot Chief Illiniwek.
Representations of Indians became “tied to mascotry in the 1920s when the University of Illinois — in an attempt to create a half-time spectacle for its band performance — merges with Indian representation,” said Guiliano, who teaches in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI.
Looking at the history of the creation and spread of Native American mascots and imagery, one finds middle-class men who are facing identity issues, Guiliano said.
In the face of challenges to their identity — immigration, urbanization and industrialization — white middle-class men in the 1920s and 1930s used Native American culture and imagery to reduce their anxiety about who they were and what mattered, according to Guiliano, who as a youth attended University of Illinois games and watched Chief Illiniwek perform. Competitive sports provided an arena in which men could legitimately act out their anxieties and celebrate their identity by cheering on misguided, narrow perceptions of Native Americans as inherently violent, she said.
“Because it was a moment when they couldn’t test their masculinity on the battlefield — America wasn’t fighting a war — the sort of battle on the football field became a replacement on how you could prove your masculinity,” Guiliano said. Men who weren’t good enough to play chose to be in the band or to be ardent fans, and they adopted the Indian identity to alleviate their anxiety over societal changes, according to the professor.