In Whose Honor?

Tim Giago: A brief history of the fight against 'Indian' mascots

Notes from Indian Country
The history of Native Americans and mascots
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

When did Native Americans begin to speak out against their use as mascots?

I think it all started on the campuses of Dartmouth, Stanford and Illinois Universities. And about the same time Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, then editor of Akwesasne Notes, started to write about it.

At Dartmouth, Indians, an unofficial mascot and team name, was used until the early 1970s, when its use came under criticism. In 1974, the Trustees declared the "use of the [Indian] symbol in any form to be inconsistent with present institutional and academic objectives of the College in advancing Native American education.”

On November 22, 1970, Stanford American Indian Organization (SAIO) members petitioned for removal of Stanford's Indian mascot—both the logo (as a “false image of the American Indian”) and the man, Timm Williams (whose live performances at sporting events were a “mockery of Indian religious practices.”)  Native American students position themselves outside the Stanford Stadium at the Big Game against the University of California with banners saying “Indians are people, not mascots.”

In 1972 Stanford’s President, Trustees and ASSU endorsed the final removal of the name Indians from Stanford University.

A 1930 ticket stub features the "Indian" mascot of Stanford University. Photo: MissionInn.Jim

Much of the success of the removal of the offensive ways the name was used can be attributed to the my old friend, First Dean of Students at Stanford, Gwen Shunatona (Pawnee, Otoe, Pottawatomi) hired—with University funds—as advocate for Native American undergraduate students. Under her quiet leadership the students organized against the mascot.

Following in the footsteps of Shunatona was Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian from the State of Washington. When asked why she was protesting the University of Illinois’ mascot, Chief Illiniwek, while she was a graduate student there, she said:

"Our people paid with their very lives to keep what little we have left and that is what I am protecting. At home, we are taught to respect eagle feathers, respect the Chiefs,  respect that paint is sacred, that dance is something sacred to us," Teters explains. "If you've never been taught to respect these things, it might not bother you, but if you've grown up in the community, where those things have meaning, it's going to have that impact on you."

Teters is currently an artist and Professor at the Institute of American Indian Art at Santa as well as the director of student placement and alumni affairs.   She is the vice president of the National Coalition against Racism in Sports and Media (NCAR SM) and established the office of racial justice for the National Congress of American Indians. She is a highly sought after speaker on the harmful effects of American Indian stereotypes.

A "chief" no more: the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign retired its "Illiniwek" mascot in 2007 after decades of pressure from activists like Charlene Tester. Photo: soundfromwayout

Her efforts to eliminate the use of Indian mascots at the University of Illinois were chronicled in the documentary "In Whose Honor" which was shown on PBS. After becoming a friend to Shunatona in the 1970s and after reading some of the articles by Doug George-Kanentiio in Awkesasne Notes, I began to write about the offensive use of human beings as mascots. I later traveled to Champagne, Illinois to meet with Vernon Bellecourt, Char Teters and Michael Haney in order to write articles about the protests they were staging at the University of Illinois.

And so it was the college students at Dartmouth, Stanford and the U. of Illinois that really addressed the issues of using Native Americans as mascots for America’s fun and games. That helped to solve the problem at the college level, but there is still residues of it in high schools across America and the greatest offender of all are professional football teams like the Washington Redskins.

Suzanne Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, was an early contributor to the mascot issue when she worked in Washington D. C. She spoke out against the Washington R-Words and even sued them. She later became executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and used that platform to continue the fight.

So where do we stand today? The presidents of Dartmouth, Stanford, and Illinois truly understood why the Indian students objected to their mascots. They believed that a facility of higher education should know better, and they set out to honor the wishes of the students. But even our efforts to educate those who do not understand why Native Americans abhor being used as mascots has gone over the heads of the diehards who refuse change.

The management of the Washington R-Words has refused to understand that the name and the way it is used at football games is racist. There would never have been football teams named Blackskins, Yellowskins, or Brownskins. So why pick out Native Americans for this specious honor? Believe me when I say that it is no honor to see a pig painted red with feathers taped to its head at R-Words games. The R-Word management may find it humorous, but Native Americans do not.

And so here we have a brief history of the fight Native Americans have been staging for more than 40 years in their efforts to educate Americans to the fact that they are not honoring us by using us as mascots. Stick to the lions, tigers and bears, and leave human beings like Native Americans off your list of mascots for your sports teams.

Contact Tim Giago at

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