Tommy Tomahawk Update: School Board votes 3-2 to keep mascot

In American Indian, cherokee, mascots by Adrienne K.1 Comment

Looks like Stilwell High School will keep it’s new mascot, after the school board hosted a special meeting in the school gym to hear “both sides” of the argument. The board heard from speakers from each side of the issue, and ultimately voted 3-2 in favor of the mascot.

A disheartening and upsetting decision, to say the least. But I think Cherokee Nation representative Dr. Morton put an interesting spin on it, advocating for more lessons about Cherokee culture and life ways to let the students come to their own conclusions:

Morton, a longtime Stilwell resident, said he appreciated the opinion of everyone in attendance, especially the students, but the school might need to teach more Cherokee concepts to the children.

“Naturally, it is a student project and students are very protective of their projects, as well as they should be,” he said. “Perhaps a more in-depth understanding of Cherokee culture, Cherokee life ways and Cherokee history would cause a person not to want Tommy Tomahawk to represent them as a people.”

Many of the attendees who were against the mascot were not happy with the vote, and will likely keep fighting for its removal or a “compromise” that would allow the students to keep the mascot, if it were a less stereotypical and offensive image.

As board president Eli Pumpkin (who voted against Tommy) said, they could have a least picked a better representation:

“I’m from this community, and I’ve got a lot of calls from Native Americans in this district and they’ve certainly been offended,” he said. “I think we could’ve done a better job with what we picked. I think we made him look awful ugly.”

The problem with a “better” representation is that research has shown even “positive” or “neutral” images (think Disney’s Pocahontas) of American Indians cause reductions in self esteem and self worth for Native students–even if they report “positive associations” with the mascots.

Meaning, if you show a Native student a picture of Chief Wahoo, Pocahontas, or Tommy Tomahawk, they may say that it doesn’t bother them, but then when they are given a survey on self esteem or self worth, their scores significantly drop. I mean significantly.

Stephanie Fryberg, a professor at the University of Arizona, has done most of her work in the field of images of Native Americans in relation to self esteem, self worth, and possible selves for Indian students. The abstract from one of her papers sums up her findings:

Four studies examined the consequences of American Indian mascots and other
prevalent representations of American Indians on aspects of the self-concept for American Indian students. When exposed to Chief Wahoo, Chief Illinwek, Pocahontas, or other common American Indian images, American Indian students generated positive associations, but reported depressed state self-esteem, and community worth, and fewer achievement-related possible selves. We suggest that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.

The entire article can be read online here, and I highly recommend it.

So, in conclusion, I encourage Stilwell residents and CN citizens to keep fighting against Tommy Tomahawk–letting him stay in any form does more than perpetuate stereotypes, it damages students’ self esteem and future possible selves.

See earlier post for background information:

Stilwell Public Schools’ board votes to keep Tommy Tomahawk (I recommend the video as well, on the righthand side)

Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots (Fryberg’s article)