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When the School Mascot Is a Native American Stereotype  

More than a decade ago, the University of Illinois officially dropped its mascot Chief Illiniwek, a stereotypical image of a Native American, but the image persists on campus and among alumni. A team of researchers led by Yale SOM’s Michael Kraus and psychology doctoral student Xanni Brown found that a university community’s acceptance of such a symbol affects students’ sense of belonging and may decrease willingness to donate in the future.

In 2018, Cincinnati’s Anderson High School convened a committee to consider changing its team nickname, which has been “Redskins” since 1929. Supporters of the nickname campaigned under the slogan “Once A Redskin, Always A Redskin”; opponents made buttons reading “#WordsMatter.” After a contentious public meeting, the committee chose to adjourn and leave the nickname in place. But tensions continued; this month, graffiti opposing the nickname appeared on the school’s athletics fields.

Anderson High School, like thousands of other schools, is struggling to confront racist imagery at the center of its traditions. Sports teams from high schools to the pros continue to use Native American stereotypes as mascots and team names, despite clear messages from Native Americans and others that these mascots are offensive. Confronted with such public pressure, leaders often cite the popularity of the mascots within their communities of fans and alumni. But what does it mean for a diverse community like a university to embrace a racial stereotype?

In 2005, the NCAA banned teams from using “hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames, or imagery” at its post-season tournaments, causing some universities to retire their mascots. But retirement meant different things at different institutions. At some schools, Native American symbols were replaced with new mascots and faded from view; at others, the mascot was officially dropped but continued to have a presence on campus and among alumni.

The University of Illinois, whose former mascot is known as Chief Illiniwek, falls into the latter category. The persistence of Chief Illiniwek gave researchers Michael Kraus (Yale SOM), Xanni Brown (Yale University), and Hannah Swoboda (University of Chicago) the opportunity to examine what acceptance of such a symbol means to a community. They find that the mascot affects students’ sense of belonging in the university community and may decrease willingness to donate in the future.

Q: How prevalent are Native American mascots in sports today?

Xanni Brown: There are Native American mascots on sports teams from the professional level down to Little League teams. There’s not a lot of official accounting of these, but there’s a website that maintains a list of different mascots in the U.S. by their prevalence, and they rank both “Warriors” and “Indians”—which are mascots that use a lot of Native American imagery—among the top 10 in the U.S., for high schools.

Q: What does the research say about how these stereotypic images harm Native Americans, or other racial minorities?

Michael Kraus: One of the best things to do in a situation where you’re trying to figure out if Native American stereotypes harm indigenous peoples is to ask those peoples. If you ask, the answers are pretty clear: that the images are an inaccurate conception of Native Americans that’s from the past, that confines a group of peoples that is active, and has communities, and is very much alive and well today, as an artifact, rather than as a present group. And so to persist with these images is very clearly, when you ask these peoples, something that’s offensive. So before you do any research, if you just were to ask, the answer’s pretty clear.

Brown: And has been for a long time. The National Congress of American Indians first put out an official call to eliminate the mascots in the late ’60s; since then, some social psychologists have gotten onboard and have started doing some research on it. They’ve shown effects where exposure to these mascots can decrease self-worth and community-worth among Native American students. They’ve also shown that it can increase stereotyping of Native American students by other racial groups. And there’s even a little bit of evidence to suggest that it can increase stereotyping of racial groups broadly. So seeing a Native American mascot can, for example, make you draw more stereotypical conclusions about Asian Americans.

Q: Tell me about what you wanted to investigate, and how you went about it.

Kraus: I’m from California, and my first job as assistant professor was at the University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign, a Big Ten school that doesn’t actually have a mascot. They decommissioned Chief Illiniwek in 2007, after the NCAA said that you couldn’t host NCAA tournaments at a college with a Native American mascot. But as a new assistant professor, you’re at a basketball game, and to see the Chief being a regular part of some of the activities during those basketball games, it was a little bit of a shock, because you think, well wait a minute, the mascot’s gone. You look around the community and you see images of the Chief everywhere—at the bar, on your neighbor’s car. At sports events, people are still wearing clothing with the image on it. All around campus, you can buy images of the Chief. But these are just anecdotes. We wanted to address in our research: To what extent is the Chief really present on campus? And if the Chief is really present on campus, how do students feel about it, and what does it do to students in terms of belonging?

Brown: My high school mascot is the Indians; the next one down the street is the Braves; the next one down the street is the Warriors. I think I was really interested, one, in what the impact of those symbols is, but two, how they persist. I had a lived experience of how you grow up with these symbols and don’t interrogate them, so I was interested in processes of change around these mascots, and how they persist on campuses.

Q: Would you describe the Chief?

Kraus: There’s a lot of the stereotypic Native American imagery with the headdress and clothing, but it’s not tied to any particular group or tribe. The rhetoric around the Chief is really a rhetoric of honor and bravery, and these are the virtues that students are trying to embody with the Chief. In a lot of ways, the persistence of the image on campus is really about upholding that kind of tradition, upholding the honor and bravery of the mascot.

Brown: Yes. And yet the team’s name is “the fighting Illini,” a reference to the confederation of tribes native to the area, and the actual way in which the Chief is dressed is, while a caricature, similar to that of a Lakota or Sioux Plains Native American.

A student portraying Chief Illiniwek during a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign basketball game in 2016. Photo: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images.

A student portraying Chief Illiniwek during a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign basketball game in 2016. Photo: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images.

Q: Were you interested in this university because they had “retired” the mascot but not entirely?

Kraus: One of the things that is interesting about, and I think important about, making the decision to retire the mascot but then still seeing the mascot on campus, is the role of norms, and how norms communicate something separate from what official policies can be on a campus. So if you say we’re not using the mascot, but students around campus can easily find it, can easily wear it, and there are no sanctions for doing that, the mascot can take on a life of its own and become an image of something else, and become a part of the campus community in ways that lead to its image persisting on the campus. So those norms that are present may not be explicit institutional norms in the way that we would think of them, as “This is still our mascot,” but they can still operate if many people on campus are adhering to those norms. So even though the Chief is not part of the campus space, it can still be a big part of it if people are still engaging and wearing the clothing, and if the university is still inviting the Chief to participate in halftime activities in the basketball game, for instance.

Brown: Yeah, and this wasn’t the only school that was affected by this NCAA decision in 2007. There were actually a lot of institutions that were still employing Native American mascots, and a lot of them made different decisions. So one reason we focused on the school we did is because this is a place where we could identify a case study of the persistence of this mascot. We wanted to better understand how that happened, compared to some other schools who did things like replace the mascot, or made a real effort to get people on board with the change.

Q: Did people of different races display images of the mascot at that university?

Kraus: In the paper what we find, at least in our observations on the campus, is that the people who end up wearing the imagery on campus—and it’s a sample of 1,000 students—70% of them are white Americans. I think the prevalence of white Americans on the Illinois campus is about 45% of students, so a disproportionate number are wearing the Chief, and there are a lot of reasons why that might be happening. One of them might be that white students feel more central and feel more belonging on the campus.

Read the study: “Dog whistle mascots: Native American mascots as normative expressions of prejudice”

Q: Did enthusiasm or disgust for the Chief line up with other behaviors or attitudes toward the university?

Brown: The previous research we mentioned was from our first study. In studies three and four, we manipulate exposure, so participants either see images of the campus that don’t have the stereotypic depiction of the Chief, or they see images that do have the Chief. We find that when people see the Chief, there’s a relationship between their level of prejudice against Native Americans and the amount of belongingness they feel on campus. Whereas in the control condition, where they don’t see the symbol, there’s no relationship between belongingness on campus and the way they feel about Native Americans.

Kraus: So people higher in prejudice feel more belonging, and people lower in prejudice feel less belonging. When you’re exposed to images of students on campus wearing imagery of the Chief, people low on prejudice feel less belonging.

Q: How do researchers measure racism, and specifically racism toward Native Americans?

Kraus: You can do it very explicitly and ask people about their negative attitudes toward Native Americans outright. Another way is, you do an implicit association task. So if people are not willing to admit to, or are unaware of, their own biases towards Native Americans, you do an association where you have negative words and then Native American imagery, and positive words and non–Native American imagery. Then you can look at the associations, and if people associate negative words with Native Americans, that’s the implicit, unintended, unaware association with bias against Native Americans. We find similar effects both ways.

Q: So the supposed virtues of mascots like this are bravery and honor, and yet these images are associated with negative stereotypes.

Brown: Yeah, and that’s in line with previous work. So there’s the work that looks at the self-worth of Native American students in response to these mascots, and asks them explicitly, what words do you associate with them? I think they use Chief Wahoo from the Cleveland Indians. And they said the same things about the mascot’s qualities that supporters of these mascots say—bravery, nobleness. But then when you ask them how they feel about themselves after they see those mascots, they feel worse. They feel worse about themselves, and they feel worse about their community. So even when these stereotypes are ostensibly positive, or are really seen by the community of the school as positive, they’re still limiting, and they can make the affected people feel worse in a lot of ways.

Q: You also studied how these perceptions might affect giving to the university, using very small donations as a proxy for real-world giving.

Kraus: In the study, participants see images of students on campus living their everyday lives and going to sporting events where the mascot imagery is either present or absent. When the mascot image is present, we see a decrease of about 5% in donations to the university relative to when the mascot is not present. But you see that decrease happening primarily for people who are low in explicit prejudice towards Native Americans. So for people who are low in prejudice towards Native Americans, when they see images of the Chief, they feel presumably less belonging on this campus, and they feel less willing to support the campus through monetary donations.

Q: Do you think that the research on donations will surprise the universities that have Native American mascots or other stereotypic racist imagery on campus?

Brown: It’s certainly counter to a lot of the narrative you see from schools, and their expectation is that there will be a strong alumni backlash. It’s worth being cautious about a real-life case, because university donations are so driven by outliers, but yes, I think it is somewhat surprising. But also makes sense. If you’re making decisions about how much you identify with and support a campus, one of the questions you’re going to ask yourself is, Do I belong there? And seeing expressions that don’t align with your values, it makes sense that that would shape your willingness to participate and donate to a campus.

Kraus: Yeah, I would register a prediction that campuses that have problems with admitting non-white students, admitting significant numbers of racial minorities, may have similar histories of racist imagery on their campuses. And so the campuses are having this dual problem, where they are trying to increase diversity of their student bodies, but also trying to satisfy some of these tradition- and honor-based needs to hold on to these past mascots. And maybe people are not connecting the dots, but there’s likely to be a link there between the imagery that you have on campus, and this holding on to the past images of the campus, and your ability to recruit a student body that’s broad and diverse. Because those images are directly related to the belonging of the people who could decide to come to your school. And I think we’re trying to connect the dots with this study more directly, and hopefully people will see that connection more robustly when they’re making decisions about the image on campus that can be directly related to some of the goals and initiatives that many universities like Yale have, for creating a student body that’s really representative of the United States.

“Directly talking about images as being racist, images as being offensive to the communities that they’re purportedly supposed to represent, matters for how you create communities.”

Q: Is there a course of action that you would recommend for universities that have had this kind of imagery in the past?

Brown: First, they can be clear about why they’re making the transition and take some ownership of the decision, not just treat it as a mandate from on high, even if it is something that comes from the NCAA or a governing body. Second, the universities that are successful spend some time investing in the community, getting input on what they want a new mascot to represent, how much continuity they want in terms of color, themes, and things like that, from the old mascot. And then what they’d be looking for in a new mascot. Then, three, they replace it. They replace it in a way that is going to get students excited about it. Arkansas State had a wolf ride a motorcycle into a football game and shoot off fireworks. Those things that build a little bit of excitement in the community can go a long way.

Kraus: And I would say that the mascot persists in part because of how easy it is, how much access students have to images of the mascot that’s now supposed to be retired. And universities have licensing rules. If the school makes a decision to not associate the mascot with the image of the university, there’s not going to be a means for people to have access to the imagery. You just won’t find it on campus anymore.

So the bar is extremely low here. What we’re saying is, you truly replace the mascot, and replace it in ways that don’t allow the former mascot to hang around. These are the two things that you could do that other schools have done. And when we compare image searches between these other schools that have replaced the mascot with the University of Illinois, who didn’t fully replace it, it’s a lot harder to find images of their now-replaced mascot relative to the university.

Brown: Yeah, the first thing you do is stop telling T-shirts that have the old mascot and the current university logo on it. That’s something that schools have control over. And then above and beyond that, there are all these steps you can do to actually create community buy-in to a new mascot.

Q: How does this compare to the problems faced by teams like the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves?

Brown: The Cleveland Indians have technically retired the mascot of Chief Wahoo, but the nickname is still the Indians, and if you went to a game, I’m sure you would see a lot of imagery that was reflective of the current nickname and the old mascot.

Kraus: It seems like it’s really important to actually go ahead and replace the mascot. And there are some other considerations that you could bring to the table that have to do with, how are our current merchandising marks going to be hit if we change the mascot in such a radical way? But I think of it as being a moral stance, that directly talking about images as being racist, images as being offensive to the communities that they’re purportedly supposed to represent, matters for how you create communities, and how you communicate to people—people who live in Ohio and root for the Cleveland baseball team—to communicate that that baseball team is a part of the broader community, and not just a certain segment of the community. So aside from the numbers about what kind of merchandise you’re going to move, it’s really important to think about who this baseball team is for. And that’s going to lead to a very different set of ideas about what’s necessary for change.

Q: What’s next?

Brown: One of the things we are hoping to do is see if there is a link between actual diversity outcomes at these schools and decisions they’ve made around these mascots, so looking at an archival dataset of what mascots these schools have, when they change them, and seeing if that predicts racial diversity at both the undergraduate and faculty levels. We’re also potentially interested in looking at the narratives that schools tell around these changes, and what sorts of narratives are effective at creating community buy-in, creating a relatively positive change experience in terms of these mascots, and doing so while minimizing effects like paternalistic attitudes.

Interview conducted and edited by Emily Gordon.

Department: Research