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Mascot issue carries local significance: Native American mascots topic of BSU discussion

BEMIDJI -- The use of Native American mascots in sports is an issue that has generated discussion for decades. The issue is of particular relevance to the Bemidji area with its significant American Indian population and the presence of three reservations within close proximity.

That was the topic of a discussion entitled “Kneeling on Sacred Ground: Racism in American Sports and Media” held Tuesday night at the Bemidji State University American Indian Resource Center. The discussion and presentation was led by John Gonzalez, a BSU psychology professor and member of the White Earth Anishinaabe Nation.

John Gonzalez

“There’s Native representation, social representations of Native people basically everywhere all around (in Bemidji),” Gonzalez said, “and the idea that how Native people are represented everywhere affects people here in Bemidji, as well.”

About 30 people attended the event, which included group discussions on topics primarily related to the use of Native American mascots. By raising the issue, Gonzalez said he hopes to bring attention to the consequences the use of Native American imagery can have on Indigenous peoples.

“Just because we’re talking about Native mascots in particular,” Gonzalez said, “and we don’t necessarily have a Native mascot, at least here in Bemidji, the way that Native people are represented in society as a whole has an impact on the conditions and the struggles that Native people experience in modern times.”

Gonzalez’s presentation included studies that indicate Native American mascots, such as the recently retired “Chief Wahoo” logo formerly used by the Cleveland Indians, resulted in diminished self-image by the Native Americans surveyed.

Gonzalez is no stranger to first-hand encounters with the mascot issue. He obtained his doctorate at the University of North Dakota, the site of a long-running controversy over its former “Fighting Sioux” moniker that was retired in 2012.

Earlier in life, Gonzalez supported the use of Native American mascots, believing they paid tribute to American Indians, as proponents argue. However, his opinion changed once he observed how those depictions affect Indigenous peoples.

“Growing up, I sort of took on those ideas and those images of Native people in terms of sports mascots and thought it was sort of representing and honoring me or whatever,” Gonzalez said. “But then as I got older, I engaged in discussions with people about it. And once I started seeing the data and the actual negative impacts, then I sort of changed my mind.

“That’s what knowledge and information is supposed to do, right? It’s supposed to sort of shape the way that you think, and if you see something that changes your mind or some piece of information or data, then it’s OK to change your mind.”

Besides the topic of Native American mascots, sports can spark other meaningful conversations on race, Gonzalez said.

“A lot of people, regardless of your racial background, identify with sports,” Gonzalez said. “I mean, we grow up with sports. Sports can actually be one of those things that brings people together.

“But when you have a Native mascot in particular, it’s actually one of those things that actually further pushes people apart.”

Austin Monteith

Austin Monteith is a sports reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is an Illinois native and a Butler University graduate. Follow him on Twitter @amonteith92.

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