KCS sports mascots are part of a national controversy

INAPPROPRIATE SPIRIT? The Sevier Middle School Warrior prepares to cheer on the schools sports teams. Many Native Americans feel that using their heritage as sports mascots helps spread negative stereotypes.

Audrey Edwards

INAPPROPRIATE SPIRIT? The Sevier Middle School “Warrior” prepares to cheer on the school’s sports teams. Many Native Americans feel that using their heritage as sports mascots helps spread negative stereotypes.

By Meredith Mooney, John Sevier Middle School

The football players walk onto the field, the wet grass on their cleats. Sweat trickles down their backs as the crowd erupts in cheers. Their cries echo across the stadium: “Red-skins! Red-skins!” The lights flash. The horns blare. Their team spirit is crushing millions of spirits across the country.

The Washington Redskins are a professional football team from Washington, DC. Their mascot, the Redskins, has been a very controversial topic. Many Native Americans across the country consider the term “redskin” a racial slur.

Both of Kingsport City Schools’ middle schools, and its high school, have a Native American theme. Robinson Middle’s teams are known as the “Redskins”, Sevier Middle’s teams are known as the “Warriors,” and Dobyns-Bennett High School athletes are referred to as the “Indians”.

The term “Indians”, however, is a fallacy.

“[Christopher Columbus] thought he was in India,” Jim Welsh, the newest member of the KCS Board of Education, said. “He thought he was on islands off the shore of India. He thought that, because Indians had darker skin, that these people, too, must be Indians. We call them Indians, but they’re not close to India. They’re 13 thousand miles away.”

Many people have made an effort to find a better way to describe Native Americans. Canadians, for example, call Native Americans “First Nations.”

Some feel it is appropriate to use Native Americans as school mascots.

“I feel like we are honoring [Native Americans] and using the words to strike fear into our opponents,” student council president Charles Wissert said.

Amanda Cox, an eighth-grade math teacher, agreed.

“When I think of a ‘warrior’, I think of someone who is brave and who fights for what they believe in,” she said.

Jasmine May, an eighth-grade student, feels like the mascots are a small way to make up for the past.

“We are representing the natives that lived here in the past before we took their land,” she said.

Jenny McKlveen, a STEM teacher, disagrees.

“I think that rather than honoring Native Americans, the caricature is stereotypical and not honoring Native Americans,” she said.

Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist, wrote a research report on behalf of the Oneida Nation titled “The Harmful Psychological Effects of the Washington Football Mascot”.

“Tests have shown that the presence of Native American mascots results directly in lower self-esteem and lower mood among both Native American adolescents and young adults, as well as increased negative attitudes towards Native Americans among non-Native Americans,” the report states. “Importantly, these effects occur regardless of whether the Native American mascot is considered ‘offensive’.”

In addition to causing harm to Native Americans, the image that Kingsport City Schools is helping pass on to future generations is inaccurate and stereotypical.

“It is wholly inaccurate for Native American tribes of our region,” band director Hunter Mullins said. “My understanding it those headdresses are worn by very few tribes and nearly all of those tribes are west of the Mississippi.”

The Native American mask used at pep rallies is of particular concern to many students and teachers.

“A lot of the concern or disrespect comes from the actual visual of the mascots that are used,” Jesse McCormick, an eighth-grade teacher and coach, said. “Some mascots have been made to look like cartoon characters and that image could be disrespectful.”

Children introduced to this depiction of Native Americans will understand it as the social norm, furthering problems among Native Americans.

“Native American people exhibit the highest level of psychological distress of any other group in the nation, including among the highest levels of depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder,” Friedman said in his report.

This year, KCS opened a new science and technology center. In the near future, Sevier Middle will also move to a new building, the former Sullivan North High School. These new changes in the school system provide the perfect opportunity to change the mascot.

“The new construction at DB and our eventual transition to the Sullivan North campus is the perfect window of opportunity for such progress,” Mullins said.

Making such a change, however, requires a willingness in the community, and that is not necessarily present in Kingsport. In 2018, a KCS committee looked into the possibility of changing mascots and school colors once Sevier moves to its new home in 2022. Part of that effort included a survey.

Of the 262 student survey responses at Sevier, 82.10 percent wanted to keep the school name and 80.5 percent wanted to keep the warrior mascot. Of 654 student responses at Robinson, 77.8 percent wanted to keep the school name and 63.4 percent wanted to keep the Redskins mascot. Even among adults surveyed, support for Native American mascots never dropped below 60%.

Additionally, there is an exceptional paradox in the Native American mascot of Sevier Middle.

“[John Sevier] was obviously fiercely independent and became Tennessee’s first governor, but he also owned slaves and fought the Cherokee his whole life,” Luke Holt, an eighth-grade history teacher, said. “It’s a little ironic to me that a school named after someone who fought Native Americans as much as Sevier did has a mascot that represents the people he fought.”

According to the National Congress of Native Americans and the 2010 Census, there are 2.9 million Native Americans living in the United States today.

“Native Americans are often perceived as a people of history who are not here or relevant today,” Holt said. “The truth is that Native Americans exist today, and they represent one of, if not the, poorest subsets of American society.”

The United States government forced Natives onto Indian Reservations years ago and dehumanized them. President Andrew Jackson, who was from Tennessee, actually ordered the removal of the Cherokee from Tennessee. Because of this, there is not a strong willingness to change the mascots in Tennessee.

Multiple dictionaries have begun to identify the word “redskin” as an offensive racial slur

“Change the Mascot,” is an international effort to stop the use of Native American mascots.

“The United Nations’ independent expert, whose job is to defend the rights of indigenous people, called on the NFL to stop using the R-word because, as the UN said, it is a ‘hurtful reminder of the long history of mistreatment of Native American people in the United States’,” according to the organization’s website.

Recently, Maine banned the use of Native American mascots.

According to the New York Times, “The National Congress of American Indians, a public education and advocacy group, said it applauded Maine for its new law and hoped other states would follow “on the right side of history.”

They were in America hundreds of years before white settlers, and yet people make fun of them and stereotype them. They led successful nations, and today are mocked. They fought for their beliefs and for each other, and now they encounter racism.

Schools and professional sports teams call themselves “Indians” or “Warriors” or “Redskins” without knowing what those powerful words truly mean and how they impact the Native Americans still alive today.

“Given the significant challenges already faced by the Native American community related to their mental and physical health, the Washington team should cease using the ‘R-word’, which constitutes a racial slur, and change the name of their mascot,” Friedman stated in his report.

Maybe that is not the only team that should reconsider its mascot.

This story was originally published on The Sequoyah Scribe on March 14, 2020.