When Washington’s NFL team announced this week that it was dropping its “Redskins” moniker, the national conversation played out more or less as expected. Many applauded the long-overdue decision. Some moaned about political correctness. Others dismissed it as merely symbolic, the latest front in the debate over the meaning of statues, team names and corporate logos.
The problem, says Stephanie Fryberg, isn’t that the conversation is about symbols. It’s the assumption that the symbols don’t have real-world consequences for living people.
A professor at the University of Michigan and member of the Tulalip Tribe, Fryberg has spent years studying the psychological effects of Native stereotypes and logos on both Native Americans and non-Natives. She’s seen precisely who gets hurt.
In her studies, she found that exposing Native American teenagers to Native sports mascots decreased their self-esteem, lowered the achievement-related goals they set for themselves, and diminished both their sense of community worth and belief that their community can improve itself. Other studies have shown that the use of Native mascots increases suicidal ideation and depression among Native Americans. “Being shown the mascot actually lowered Native high schoolers’ self-esteem more than giving them negative statistics about [Native American communities], like high suicide rates, depression, dropout rates,” Fryberg told POLITICO in an interview on Wednesday. “That really gives you a sense of how powerful the imagery is.”
It’s not just the Washington Redskins. It’s not just Chief Wahoo, the minstrelish cartoon logo that the Cleveland Indians shelved in 2018. It’s not just pro franchises like the Atlanta Braves or the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s much more pervasive than that — and it’s state-sanctioned.
“We have thousands of schools in this country with Native mascots,” Fryberg said. “What is the goal of school? Is it to give kids a chance to be their best selves, to choose whatever career path they want? If that’s truly what educating our children is about, then there’s no place for Native mascots in schools.”
“Americans need to ask themselves, ‘Why do I want to hold on to something, especially if I know the science tells us it’s harmful to that group?’” Fryberg said. “Either you really want to honor Native people or not. Just say it: You don’t care, and you don’t want to honor Native people. You’re fine if it hurts them. You just want to ‘play Indian.’”
Of course, team names are just one facet of a much broader conversation that’s happening across America at this moment over public memory, inclusion and the stories we tell ourselves about America. Fryberg spoke to POLITICO about all of this. A transcript of the conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
Zack Stanton: Washington’s NFL team is renaming itself. You’ve done a lot of academic research on Native American mascots in sports — including a survey earlier this year of Native Americans about their thoughts on Washington’s team name. What did you find?
Stephanie Fryberg: We found that among Native people who are “highly identified” with being Native — people who voted in tribal elections, attended Native ceremonies or powwows, spoke their language, told Native stories — two-thirds of them were offended by the use of Natives as mascots, and slightly more offended by the Washington team name. For those whom being Native is really important to their sense of well-being — it has what’s called “identity centrality” — we got numbers upwards of about 57 percent who were offended by the use of mascots. Part of our goal was to really treat Native people as a heterogeneous, dynamic, complex group of people, rather than oversimplifying them as one group, as is often done in polls.
Stanton: Let’s pull back and look at the use of Native American mascots, imagery and stereotypes. You’re a professor of psychology. What are the psychological effects of all of this, both on the American public at large, but more specifically on Native American people?
Fryberg: We did some early studies — some of the first that came out on the issue. We did experiments where we randomly assigned Native high schoolers to be either exposed to an image or not. And across a set of studies, we found that being exposed to a Native mascot decreased self-esteem, decreased their sense of community worth and their belief that their community can improve itself, and decreased achievement-related future goals. One of the really interesting findings in that first study was that being shown the mascot actually lowered Native high schoolers’ self-esteem more than giving them negative statistics about [Native American communities], like high suicide rates, depression, dropout rates. That really gives you a sense of how powerful the imagery is. Other studies have shown that it increases suicidal ideation, increases depression.
There are also effects on intergroup relations — how Native people engage with non-Natives. The research shows that the use of Indian mascots increased stereotyping of Native people as “primitive,” “aggressive” — “savages.” It leads people to dehumanize Native people. And there is also evidence that when exposed to Native mascots, white college students are more likely to discriminate against other people of color. The only benefit to using Natives as mascots is that we have research showing that whites get a boost in self-esteem. When you think about this both from an equity perspective and when you take the big picture, there’s just no benefit to Native people of keeping Native mascots.
Stanton: A lot of the time, conversations about the use of Native American mascots inevitably lead some white people to say the problem is “political correctness,” or dismissing it as a “symbolism” issue. But what you’re saying is that yes, it may in some ways be about symbolism, but that symbolism actually has profound life consequences.
Fryberg: Yeah. You know, when I hear that “political correctness” piece, it really makes me frustrated, because the truth is that we have real problems in this country in how we deal with race issues. And the Native mascot issue is important because it’s about our identity. When people talk about “political correctness,” we’re making something political that’s really about larger narratives and ways that we treat groups that are not the dominant group. Mascots are yet another way in which we systemically discriminate against Native people. And we give license to sports and schools for people to dress up, “play Indian,” mock Native song and dance — there are so many layers. In many ways, that dehumanization of Native people on the playing field gets reflected in the high rates of death of Native people at the hands of police — among the highest in the country. It also — most people are not aware — in this country, every year, 500 to 600 Native women go murdered and missing, and yet the majority of those cases do not get investigated. This issue is not a small issue: It’s about humanizing Natives; it’s about allowing us to be seen for who we are.
It’s also about changing the narrative. So many of these examples of “playing Indians” are about allowing non-Natives to feel good. It’s the same with Thanksgiving. It’s the same story with Columbus Day. It’s the same piece in terms of how history books are written. At some point, if you really want to honor Native people, learn the truth. We were — and are — still here. And it’s important that people recognize that not only are we here, we have families and children that we love and who we want to have opportunities. This fight about Native mascots and how we’re represented is not just about a social scientist’s view; it is literally about a community saying, “See our children, and give our children a better future.”
Stanton: What makes the use of a Native American mascot different than, say, the use of the “Fighting Irish” of Notre Dame?
Fryberg: We have actually done studies where we’ve included the Fighting Irish. And the Fighting Irish does not give whites a boost in self-esteem, but the Native mascot does give one to whites. The Fighting Irish also doesn’t decrease whites’ self-esteem, whereas the Native mascot does among Natives.
Stanton: You touched on schools. We started by talking about these big, profitable pro sports franchises — Washington’s NFL team, the Cleveland Indians, the Kansas City Chiefs, and so on. But it’s a slightly different conversation when it’s a public school or a college: It’s essentially the government endorsing these Native American stereotypes. There are colleges like Florida State or the University of Illinois, but also hundreds of high schools—
Fryberg: Thousands. There are more than 2,000 schools with Native mascots.
Stanton: I just looked at an online database of school team mascots. “Warriors” and “Indians” are the sixth and eighth most common team names. The only team nicknames more common are animals, like “Tigers” or “Eagles.” And the only other teams in that upper echelon that are named for humans are things like Knights, Trojans or Vikings — names that suggest people from ancient times.
Fryberg: If we come back to the idea of intent, I do think there are a lot of places where the intent [in giving a team a Native name] was to remember the Native people there. We want to allow the remembering; what we don’t want is “playing Indian.” We’re stuck in a really difficult position. We have thousands of schools in this country with Native mascots. And every day, they basically affect Native kids, as we found in our studies, with lowered self-esteem, lowered community efficacy, lower achievement goals. What is the goal of school? Is it to give kids a chance to be their best selves, to choose whatever career path they want? If that’s truly what educating our children is about, then there’s no place for Native mascots in schools. There just can’t be.
But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be schools named after Native people. There are schools out there named for amazing Native heroes: Billy Mills; Ben Nighthorse Campbell; Wilma Mankiller; Suzan Shown Harjo; Russell Means. They are people who have made a tremendous impact. But you don’t honor them by allowing non-Natives to mock them, mock their culture and dress up as Native Americans.
I mean, the “redface” thing is the most startling to me, because as a society, we absolutely do not condone blackface — but sure, go ahead and do redface. How is it that we can absolutely socially sanction one, but condone the other? What helps to explain that? Overwhelmingly, across all of our research, what we see is Native people being written out of contemporary issues and conversations. When we’re invisible, people minimize the discrimination that we experience.
Stanton: At this particular moment, there’s a reckoning with a lot of these symbols. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are being swept into the dustbin of history. And yet, there’s a reluctance to move Native American mascots into that same realm.
Fryberg: Yeah, it’s a really interesting phenomenon because it’s also true about Thanksgiving and Columbus Day. Those are two narratives that are historically inaccurate. And it’s something I have not allowed my children to partake in. We just let that holiday go by. We do not celebrate it in any way, shape or form.
Stanton: How do you deal with that in terms of those celebrations at your kids’ school?
Fryberg: So, the first issue I had with a teacher was about Columbus Day with my daughter’s class. Her teacher sent out an email asking us to provide materials for some in-class experience they were going to do. And I was trying to give the benefit of the doubt — ‘you know, maybe the goal is this, and maybe you want to say that we once thought Columbus discovered America, but now we know better.’ And needless to say, I did not get the response I had hoped for from that teacher. But what is good is every teacher in her school since then has not done it. There’s been more awareness. Similarly, for Thanksgiving, I make a point every year of telling the teachers ahead of time that my family does not celebrate this history, that we don’t condone the romantic version of this. Do not have my child make a Pilgrim’s hat, or put on feathers. But this is what’s done in schools around this country every year. And it’s not a true story.
I tried to explain to my daughter’s teacher that when you give the romanticized narrative, then when I drive down the road of the reservation with my children, and they see people who are struggling with drug addiction or homelessness, then they think there’s something wrong with our people. But when you tell them the truth of what we’ve gone through as a people in this country, then they can see that, you know, some people have done well, but we still have a ways to go and we are survivors and have overcome so much. It’s important for us to realize that mascots are only one way in which we’ve narrowly looked at Native people. Americans need to ask themselves, ‘Why do I want to hold on to something, especially if I know the science tells us it’s harmful to that group?’ Either you really want to honor Native people or not. Just say it: You don’t care and you don’t want to honor Native people. You’re fine if it hurts them. You just want to “play Indian.” Let’s just be honest about what it is we’re trying to accomplish.
Stanton: Earlier, you mentioned invisibility. It seems like that’s especially important in explaining how stereotypes can be so powerful. For a lot of white Americans, the main ways they encounter Native Americans is through pop culture — mass media or through sports logos, mascots, things of that sort. Actual Native American people are somewhat invisible to them. If renaming Washington’s NFL team is step one, what do you see as like the next steps from here?
Fryberg: The first step is we need schools to change. We also need schools to teach the real history of America, and we need America to own the real story. It’s not about making Americans feel bad; it’s about allowing us to walk together into the future with the truth in hand. Once we get to a point where I can know that my white neighbor knows the true story and is seeing us for who we are today and not through some stereotype lens — not some dehumanizing perspective, but really seeing us — then we can really grow and build together and change that American story.
But the other side of that is Native people don’t want full integration. We have reservations. It isn’t that we don’t want to be part of American society, but we want to be allowed to continue our language and our culture and our practices and traditions. It’s the reason that even as a professor [in Michigan], I maintain a home in my tribal homeland [at Tulalip, off Washington’s Puget Sound]. I want my children to know who they are as Native children. I want to be part of my community. I want to be part of making a better future for my people. And the only way that we can do that is by having spaces where we’re allowed to maintain who we are culturally. And we deserve that. We’ve endured a lot in America’s history, but we are still here.
Stanton: Final question: President Donald Trump recently not only defended the Washington “Redskins” team name, but also uses “Pocahontas” as an epithet when referring to Senator Elizabeth Warren. What sort of effect does that have when the leader of the country is embracing those sorts of stereotypes?
Fryberg: Obviously, it’s very painful. But I also feel like, in my opinion, President Trump has made very clear that he doesn’t want to be the president of all Americans. He only wants to be the president of some Americans. And in order to do that, he has marginalized a lot of people. It’s pretty clear that it isn’t my family he cares about; it isn’t my children he cares about. His issue with Elizabeth Warren has justified him belittling and demeaning Native people left and right. His belief that all Native people are going to be upset about the Washington team being renamed — I mean, it just shows you how out of touch he is with our people. A lot of Native people have been celebrating! It’s a really big deal for us to feel heard after decades of working to make sure that Native people are treated respectfully. To have a president who can’t even appreciate that for one second is so sad.