Penn State

Panel discusses portrayal of American Indians in media, sports

In the eyes of many American Indians, mascot portrayals do not honor their people. They dehumanize them.

From the Washington Redskins to the Cleveland Indians, cartoon depictions of feathered and war-painted American Indians represent some of the United States’ most recognized sports teams.

On Thursday night, Penn State hosted a panel discussion called “American Indians, the Media and Team Sports,” which featured ESPN writer Mike Wise and American Indian advocates Charlene Teters and Richie Plass. Professor John Sanchez, of the College of Communications, moderated the discussion.

Sanchez, an American Indian, began the discussion with a PowerPoint presentation, which showed a picture of a painting of American Indians holding hands with one another.

“This is how we are as a people,” Sanchez said of the embracing American Indians.

He then juxtaposed the people hugging in the painting with the stereotypical depiction of American Indians.

He showed photographs of people dressed as American Indians, wearing war paint and feathers. He included a photo of actor Johnny Depp as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger,” wearing a dead bird on his head.

“This is the kind of imagery I find most offensive,” Sanchez said. “Every time we put a mark on our face, it means something.”

He closed the opening presentation with American Indian facts. One of which is that the suicide rate for American Indians is the highest in the world. It is four times higher than the suicide rate of non-American Indians.

Then he opened up the panel with a question about whether it’s fair to ask sports teams to stop using American Indians as mascots.

Teters, who is a member of the Spokane tribe, was the first to address the question. She received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois in 1994. Illinois’ mascot, the Fighting Illini, is a depiction of an American Indian.

“It felt so awful for us to see derivatives of (Illinois’) mascot everywhere,” Teters said.

“It’s diametrically opposed to the mission of the school, which is to teach and to not reinforce stereotypes.”

Wise, who was the only non-American Indian on the panel, said people who support the use of American Indians as mascots do so because they say it preserves their history.

“The notion that if there were no mascots that the American Indian would be forgotten in society is one of the most backward ways of thinking of all time,” Wise said.

Wise and Sanchez both said that recognizing the modern cultures of American Indians is the best way to recognize them as a group of people. They live in the same types of neighborhoods and go to the same schools as other Americans.

If sports teams really wanted to honor American Indians, Wise said, they’d have mascots portray them as college students, engineers or doctors, just as they would any other ethnic group.

Plass compared American Indian stereotypes to people assuming all Germans are Nazis.

“How would you like it if starting in grade school to this time, you are only recognized and called in tongue and cheek, ‘Oh, you’re a Nazi,’ ” Plass said. “That’s the world we live in today.”

Matt Martell is a Penn State journalism student.