National Coalition on Racism in Sports & Media
AIM Ministry for Information
PO Box 13521
Minneapolis MN 55414
612-721-3914 - fax 612-721-7826
Web Address:

Pushing Some Buttons  By: Sudi Hofmann - St. Cloud State University  

July 12, 2005

Helping Students Understand...
The American Indian Mascot Issue

This exercise is designed to provoke discussion and provide a perspective on American Indian mascots that many students are unable to understand when first introduced to the topic. Like the famous perceptual illusion that creates both an image of an old woman and young woman within a single image, and the inability of many viewers to see only one of the women, I find that many students are unable to see the crucial problems posed by the use of Indigenous mascots. The need to push many of my students outside their comfort zone in order to comprehend the issues of objectification, humiliation and stereotypes present in the mascot debate, is a small risk I have been willing to take.

The NCAA’s recent attention to this issue and request for member institutions with American Indian mascots to report on how they address concerns about the mascot, has introduced this topic in classroom discussions across the country. A likely policy change, although a total ban is unlikely, is expected in August 2005. Discussions will be heated this fall, but as teachers we should see this as a wonderful opportunity to address a variety of issues affecting Native people.

I designed this exercise to parallel the common misconceptions about Catholic theology, history, and ceremony, with the common practices of schools and professional sports teams in their use of American Indian mascots. I am aware that many teachers would be reluctant to use an exercise such as mine and would be offended by the blasphemous statements and mockery I have employed in the simulation. I believe, however, that the approach used in this exercise has opened a window when I have often felt it had been firmly shut. Whether or not you would choose to experiment with this type of pedagogy to increase awareness about American Indian mascots, logos, and nicknames, I ask that you consider the similarities between my fiction, and the realities faced by American Indian communities in contemporary society.

Show up for class a little early on the day you will be doing this exercise. Pull 4-5 students (helpers) out of the room, hopefully unnoticed, and find an empty classroom or a private location to explain what you will be doing in the exercise. Give each student some of the selected items from the IDEAS section on page 4, written on note cards or slips of paper ahead of time, to use when you give them the prompt later. Tell them that you will need them to help you push the Catholic students into the corner of the classroom at the beginning of the exercise, using chairs in the room. This is all the helpers need to do at this time.

Tell the class that you are going to conduct a town meeting tonight. The only agenda item is to decide on a team nickname and mascot for the new high school that will be completed in the fall. You want to find a name that will engender school spirit, create fear in your opponents at games, and provide a variety of creative approaches for capitalizing on the nickname and mascot at sporting events.

Ask the practicing Catholics to identify themselves. Ask them to stand in the corner of the room. Have the helpers assist you in the task. After the Catholics are confined to the corner of the room, turn your back to them and make statements about their behavior at prior meetings, e.g. talked too much, were disruptive, didn’t comprehend the business items being discussed, and so forth. Emphasize that they have always been a problem in town in terms of their demands and inability to fit in.

Start town meeting. Possible monologue: We have one agenda item tonight and it is an exciting one. I am sure you have seen that beautiful school out west of town. Do you know we will have three gyms and a state of the art media center? I am so grateful the levy passed two years ago. What we need to do tonight is consider some nicknames or mascots for the school so we can get jerseys ordered and schedule the appropriate companies to create the school logo on the basketball floor and football field.

Before we get started, however, I must say the Catholics are behaving themselves fairly well at the meeting tonight. You know, I really don’t understand why they can’t fit in a little bit better in town. I have been curious, however, about what they do in that building over on 12th Street. Last Sunday I made of point of being in the neighborhood at 11:00 when they usually have quite a crowd. I tiptoed up the back stairs of what I think they call a church and got a good look. The room was filled with smoke so it was difficult for me to see at first. There was a guy up on a stage in a long white dress, long red scarf hanging off his shoulders, and a big pointy hat called a miter. He was swinging a metal ball with holes in it with smoke coming out. I think it might have been marijuana in it because people were moaning and speaking a weird language. I think they call Latin. They were pounding their chests and chanting, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

There were women sitting on benches in the front row dressed in long black gowns with veils and white flippers under their chins. They were all wearing wedding bands and claiming to be married to one of the Catholic deities. There are about three deities in the Catholic faith and I think there is a father, son and an uncle. Or is it one father and two sons. Hmm, don’t know that it matters. At any rate, the women, called nuns, are married to one of these gods. They had necklaces that might be called a rosary, in their hands with an image of a dead man on two boards hanging off the end of the necklace. Again, I am not sure who he is supposed to be. They kept rubbing the beads and chanting something in unison.

Well, back to this guy on the stage. He was definitely getting high because he had a cookbook propped up on the table on the stage and he had a bowl full of crackers and a big bottle of wine. He did a hocus pocus over the bowl and said he changed the crackers into the flesh of one of the deities. I am not sure which one. He then changed the bottle of wine into (pause) yes, you guessed it, blood. Then the most frightening thing happened. People got up off their chairs and marched like zombies toward him and started eating (devouring) the flesh and drinking the blood. It was quite a horrifying spectacle. They had blood dripping down their chins. And they wonder why they have serious issues with alcohol. When I got a closer look at them, I could see that they had painted black crosses on their foreheads.

After their ceremony was over, some of the people stayed in the building and went into closets that ringed the main room. Then men dressed in long black gowns went into the closets with them.

After taking all this in, I gave a lot of thought to why these people feel so alienated in town. Assimilation would perhaps solve some of their problems, but they have not been open to this. They have, in my estimation, spent substantial energy on complaining about their culture not being respected and being subjected to poor housing, and lack of education and medical care. And we have to constantly hear about their mental health problems of depression and suicide and their addiction to alcohol. Maybe if they could stop drinking so much wine at their ceremonies they wouldn’t have these chronic problems. I think the blame for these social problems could be placed on their lack of initiative. Opportunities are here for people who are willing to pursue them. They always want to talk about power, privilege and institutional discrimination. Complainers and whiners don’t win in a town like ours.

Did you see the letter to the editor in the paper last night? Now they are complaining about the Nick at Night sitcom reruns being broadcast by our local television station. How can anyone object to an I Love Lucy episode with the wonderful antics of Ethel and Lucy? So what if Lucy and Ethel are running around Mr. Mooney’s bank with bishop miters on and speaking fake Latin? It is just slap stick humor.

They also object to Loony Tunes, Melody Tunes and Peanuts cartoons. I know my children enjoy these classics as I am sure many Catholics do. I am aware that Catholics are the brunt of some of the jokes in these cartoons but I think that probably everyone is made fun of at some point. We need to lighten up and understand that entertainment can take some liberties and there is no real harm done.

Even the Disney films have included Catholics in prominent roles and accurately portrayed their traditions and ceremonies. Of course this is my opinion, but I think I am fairly well acquainted with their faith and practices through the knowledge I have gained in my K-12 education. One of the recent Disney films even addressed gender and Catholicism, and featured a young Catholic girl who rescued a non-Christian man from violent Catholic men. I know that some Catholics have criticized this film claiming that it is historically inaccurate. I am not sure about that because I know they paid a Catholic man a large amount of money to use his voice in the film and he supported the project.

Speaking of violence, Catholics are no strangers to spilling a bit of blood to make their point. One only needs to study European history, of any century, to find evidence for my claim.

.Well, I am starting to ramble so let’s get to the business at hand. Let’s have some suggestions as to what we could consider for nicknames or mascots. (At this point 3 of the helpers should immediately say Huskies, Wolves or Bears.) Hmm, interesting choices. Any other ideas? Could we think of some names that would bring in any local culture? (At this point, 3 more helpers would say, in this order, Priests, Popes, and Bishops. Settle on Bishops.) Yes, I think Bishops would work nicely with the added effect of the large miter. We do need to think of creative ways to build on the Bishop theme. Any ideas?


1. We could sell grape juice at the concession stand with Ritz crackers and jalapeno cheese dip.
2. We could paint crosses on our foreheads for the football games.
3. Miters could be sold at the entrances to the athletic events. I saw some big foam ones at Kaybee Toys at the mall.
4. A non-Catholic man could be dressed in one of those robes and ride out on the field at a football game and throw a flaming crucifix into the turf to get the game started.
5. Nuns could be cheerleaders in nice short black skirts.
6. Hymns could be modified for the pep fests and the words could be changed to promote school spirit.
7. We could swing rosaries for crowd comraderie. I think I saw some in Dayglo at Toys R Us.
8. We could make the sign of the cross after we score.
9. We could have a silhouette of a bishop with blood dripping down his chin on our jerseys. This will instill fear in our opponents.
10. We could have buttons that say we crucify our opponents.
11. The goalposts on the football field could be crucifixes.
12. People could wave palms in honor of Palm Sunday.

Some students will volunteer suggestions that are not part of the helper group. This, of course, is acceptable. After you have exhausted the possibilities, end this part of the activity.

Continue with: We might get some objections from the local Catholics but what we could say is that we are honoring them by choosing the name Bishops. Let’s try to convince them that we will learn more about them by developing all the ideas we just generated. Being the Bishops will bring pride to their community. They complain that their needs are being ignored and that we give them little respect, but I would sure like to hear them say that when we bring home the gold!


Ask the Catholic students how they felt about being put in this situation. Many will say that even though this was a simulation, they felt defensive and humiliated anyway. They will likely mention that some of the information was correct regarding communion and the vows taken by sisters, but the way it was described revealed abysmal ignorance.

Ask the entire class why the voices of American Indians are largely dismissed when issues of American Indian mascots, nicknames and logos are discussed. Consider the complexities of power, imagery, and control. Emphasize the importance of understanding cultural and religious oppression. For example, the I Love Lucy episode in which Ethel and Lucy wore sacred American Indian headdresses was not innocent fun. Keep in mind that it is likely that at the time this episode was filmed, the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978 was not yet passed. American Indians could not legally engage in religious ceremonies such as vision quests, sweat lodges, or sun dances. That is deep systemic oppression.

A productive way to conclude this exercise is to put students in small groups. Ask them to make a list of the similarities and differences between what you just did in class and what American Indians are subjected to when schools use American Indian mascots. There will be few differences.


Florida State University football games often start with a flaming spear being thrown into the turf by a non-Indigenous man on a horse, dressed up as Chief Osceola.

An Everyone Loves Raymond episode features a cast member dressed in an “Indian” feathered headband.

The University of Illinois still supports Chief Illiniwick, a non-Indigenous undergraduate who provides a gymnastics routine during half-time while a Hollywood horn section in the background only makes matters worse.

The University of North Dakota encourages intense team competition and rival fans find numerous offensive ways of insulting “the Sioux” by sporting t-shirts that state, “The Sioux Suck.” The new Ralph Engelstad ice arena sells Siouxperdogs and Siouxvenirs.

The grand finale of the 2004 Grammy’s OutKast performance of Hey Ya showcased Andre 3000 in green buckskin and feathers, and his backup dancers were clad in short green dresses and feathers. The University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band provided a horn and percussion section while dressed in feathers and war paint. Several minutes into the song, one of the many cameras near the stage caught a quick glimpse of the thong underwear of one of the dancers. Music columnists across the country the next day agreed that OutKast saved the rather dull Grammys by getting everyone on their feet with their spectacular performance.

Students will generate additional examples during the small group discussion. You can almost see the light bulb going on when they share their personal stories and values. You will hear statements such as, “Oh, now I get it. I wouldn’t want anyone making fun of my religion or culture.”

I had a student from Grand Forks last year who frequently wore a UND Sioux jersey to class. Two days after he did this exercise he said, “I was 100% for the nickname and logo when I started this class and now I am 100% against it. I am not the type of guy to do go to a protest but now I get what people have been talking about.”