Op/Ed: Is It Time to Put Down the Spear?

Wayne Valley prides itself on its “tradition of excellence” shown through its academia, athletics, and overall culture that resonates from the student body. Our high school conquers both on-and-off the field and in-and-out of classrooms; many credit such success to not only our athletes and scholars, but also to our school spirit — spirit that is especially influenced by the use of our mascot, the Indian, and the spirit that surrounds it.

Since its establishment in 1952, Wayne Valley has been dubbed the “Tribe with Pride” where many of our opponents are told to “fear the spear.” The controversy that surrounds the use of Native Americans and their culture as mascots is not particular to just our school, but rather, it is an epidemic that plagues the entire nation. From high schools in suburban towns to national sports teams, there has been outcry over the misrepresentation of Native Americans  since the 1960s. The National Congress of American Indians, more commonly known as the NCAI, launched a campaign in 1968 to begin the fight against harmful mascots. Since then, numerous schools and colleges across the country have retired their American Indian-related team names and mascots. According to the NCAI’s website, over 2,000 “Indian” references in sports have been eliminated. Even Ivy League schools such as Stanford University and Dartmouth College were once guilty of misusing the term “Indians,” but both have since changed their mascots to the Cardinal and Big Green, respectively.

The use of these mascots invokes cultural appropriation and promotes intolerance & ignorance towards Native Americans. Mascots are generally animals; it’s not normal for us to exploit an entire race to represent our school. When critics try to argue using pirates or warriors as mascots is the same circumstance, they don’t understand the difference between those groups and Native people: while pirates and warriors are humans, yes, they are not a whole race of people. They don’t have a culture enriched with art, music, and literature, and they certainly don’t have a history of being discriminated against the way American Indians do. Wayne Valley student Komal Nerurkar comments, “It’s perplexing to me how we think it’s okay to call ourselves the Indians in 2016. Find me a school whose mascot is the “Caucasian” and tell me there’s nothing wrong with that!” The use of these mascots does not “memorialize” or “commemorate” Native Americans, despite our claims of having no intention to offend their tribes; depicting the Native Americans with spears and sneers wrongly portrays them as savages, and nothing more. Who are we to appropriate the Indigenous people’s identity for entertainment, and why do we feel entitled to call these people “oversensitive” when they vocalize their anger? Aside from the blow-up tunnel of the “Indian” that kicks off football season and the stereotypical headdresses cheerleaders wear during half-time, how much do we truly know about American Indians? We take their culture and westernize it in such a way that it loses it’s value; these mascots create a disconnect between the non-Native Americans and how they view their culture.  

Much of the vexation that Native people have over these mascots and sports brands is ignored by the majority of the United States’s population. These perpetuated stereotypes have existed for decades—and the invisibility of this group, as well as the lack of positive exposure in mainstream media, only reinforces a culture of insensitivity towards American Indians and their frustration with this problem. Our country’s foundation is built upon a history of victimization in Native communities: from the exposure to European diseases, to the Indian Removal Act, to their forced migration into reservations. Native Americans have been subjected to centuries of maltreatment from those who are truly less “American” than they are. According to the US Census, their numbers only make up about 1% of the population in the United States. In Wayne Valley, demographics from the NJ Department of Education show that the percentage is even lower. Despite the swarm of students wearing shirts with “Indians” written across them, our school has virtually no American Indians or students with any kind of Native American heritage—just a whole lot of students and athletes who don’t recognize a problem with wearing attire adorned with spears and headdresses.

With every action comes a consequence, and I don’t intend to ignore what would follow if Wayne Valley did decide to change the mascot. The costs of redesigning uniforms, repainting symbols throughout the halls of our school, and recreating a new tradition would cost the town thousands. There is a tradition that we have upheld since the 1950’s, but it’s time to retire the spear and open our minds up to the possibilities.

So, I pose this question to Wayne Valley’s administration and the students who still support our current mascot: at what point have we sacrificed the representation of others for the continuity of our tradition of “excellence,” even if “excellence” might simply just mean “ignorance?” Native American tribes are more than what we make them out to be—they are composed of living, breathing humans, and we should take the time to learn what lies beyond the internalized stereotypes we still choose to follow.