Returning home from undergrad, I began to feel uncomfortable with having to pass my alma mater, Mahopac High School, donned with spears, feathers, and the faces of Native Americans with headdresses, worn by American Indians from the Plains region of the United States. Having to drive under the sign “Welcome to Indian County” to get to my house put a knot in my stomach. The same symbols that I never batted an eye at growing up suddenly translated to bile in my throat. After multiple trips back home from college, I could never verbalize this feeling.
It was only when I started to attend Johns Hopkins for my master’s in public health where I was able to process this emotion. I started by talking with Dr. Melissa Walls, an indigenous health expert and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. Dr. Walls works within tribal reservations in Minnesota and directed me to both her colleagues and an entire peer-reviewed body of literature discussing this sentiment. Finally, I was able to put a word to this feeling: Shame. The culmination of shame I felt in never learning the history of our community, never reading about the tribes that once resided on this land, and never researching how harmful indigenous mascots are to minoritized youth produced that visceral sensation.
I then began reading reports written by the American Psychological Association, the National Congress of American Indians, Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a professor of psychology and a member of the Tulalip tribe, Dr. Jesse Steinfeldt an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University, and the statements written by hundreds of tribal nations, national and regional tribal organizations, civil rights organizations, school boards, sports teams, sports and media personalities, and individuals condemning the use of indigenous mascots, or what is formally called “race-based athletic identities.”
The main takeaway from this research is that we have to change the wording when discussing race-based athletic identities. Most Native Americans do not find this “offensive”; they find it harmful. The research cites that communities using these racial depictions as emblems experience no harm, while indigenous and minoritized youth bear impacts of confused self-identity, poor self-esteem, decreased positive belief in their communities, and decreased belief about their ability to reach their goals. Race-based mascots depict a generalized race of people as symbols and not living, breathing human beings. This has been proven to psychologically harm members of our communities of color and surrounding municipalities that interscholastically interact with these mascots.
You do not need to be a public health professional to recognize that the expansive body of evidence and vast array of reputable endorsements concludes that the retirement of race-based athletic identities is supported, desired, and necessary. When research associates the words “harmful” and “youth”, we cannot continue to be complicit, especially when our community is exemplary for propagating this harmful identity.
Despite the data and testimonials that conclude otherwise, “tribal honor” consistently becomes a focal point to this conversation. “Honor” is not a singular event or symbol; it is a continuous path of knowledge and accountability. This is why solely advocating for the removal of race-based mascots is insufficient. Additional methods of honoraria that properly acknowledge tribes, without psychologically harming community members of color, must be an essential component to this issue. Establishing educational opportunities on tribal history and school curricula devoted to indigenous culture and tribal community context is a crucial first step to racial equity. Tribes deserve honor in the form of sustainable education, written narrative recorded by historians, land rights, sovereignty, and most importantly representation in our local electorate. This is what “honor” looks like. Not fleeting imagery, we see on the side of a school, not a name we point to as a claim to being “culturally sensitive”, and not a diminishment of humanity that is condemned by experts and hundreds of federally recognized tribes (the same people we proclaim to “honor”).
This issue always evokes a spectrum of emotions ranging from adamantly in support to vehemently against. Take a moment to acknowledge and digest your innate reactions, gather your thoughts, perform your own critical research, and start a conversation. Reflect upon your shame, for only then can we pave an equitable future for all.
Daniel Ehrenpreis is a current Mahopac resident and taxpayer. He is a 2012 Mahopac High School alumnus and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. With a focus on community, child, and adolescent health, Daniel strives to create sustainable, accountable, happy, and healthy municipalities.