041516 indians feature kw.jpg

University of Montana researcher Justin Angle recently published a paper showing that ethnic mascots can serve to reinforce stereotypes.

Take a look at the mascot for the Cleveland Indians, a cartoon with a red face and feather on its head.

Result? You're more likely to associate Native Americans with being "warlike."

Another outcome? You're more likely to make the association if you're politically liberal rather than conservative.

Those are a couple major conclusions from a study conducted by a University of Montana researcher and published earlier this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. UM assistant professor Justin Angle along with partners from the University of Washington and Washington State University conducted the research on ethnic brand imagery.

"This result is perhaps the first demonstration of the adverse effects of exposure to ethnic brand imagery – specifically American Indian sports mascots – in the broader population," Angle said.

For the UM School of Business Administration researcher, the project has been brewing since 2005, when the American Psychological Association issued a resolution calling for the retirement of ethnic imagery in professional, collegiate and high school sports.

The association backed its resolution with some studies, he said, but it couldn't unequivocally support all its conclusions.

"They also said that American Indian sports mascots perpetuate negative stereotypes in the general population, and that claim is made all the time, but it has never really been empirically demonstrated," Angle said.

Until now.

The conclusions are published, and the research is also coming out of an institution based in a state with seven Indian reservations and a place where use of Native American mascots, at least in name, is prevalent.

In 2011, Red Lodge School District trustees changed their mascot of 50 years from the Redskins to the Red Lodge Rams in a decision that elicited community debate – and one of several controversial name changes in the state.

However, Mark Beckman, executive director of the Montana High School Association, said the association does not have guidelines because its member schools have not raised the issue as one they want regulated.

"This has always been a local control issue, and there has never been a proposal brought forward to do anything about mascots," Beckman said.


Angle started working on the topic at the University of Washington in 2007 as doctoral student.

"This controversy over the use of American Indian mascots specifically kind of comes and goes in the media, right?" Angle said. "And at that time, it was a salient issue."

After the American Psychological Association issued its resolution, he was motivated to find the answer to the question left open about whether images propel stereotypes.

"It's taken a lot of years to figure out how to do it and to get a journal to be interested in reviewing it," Angle said.

Stereotyping is hard to measure for many reasons, including because people lie about racial attitudes, and they also may have attitudes outside their awareness, he said.

However, the researchers designed a field study and laboratory survey that both offered conclusive results.

In the field, they compared the sentiments of residents who lived in sports markets with the more offensive Cleveland Indians mascot and less offensive Atlanta Braves one against parallel media markets with animal mascots, the Detroit Tigers and Florida Marlins.

The researchers found that exposure to the more negative ethnic logo – measuring the Cleveland Indians versus Detroit Tigers – "significantly strengthened negative stereotypes" among liberals.

However, they found exposure to the less offensive mascot – measuring the Atlanta Braves logo versus the Marlins – did not influence negative stereotypes across the political spectrum.


Angle said the test revealed that exposure to the ethnic logo strengthened the subjects' association of Native Americans to "warlike," and the effect only occurred in people who identified as more liberal.

"We don't have hard evidence for why," Angle said. "One of the key differences the research has established between liberals and conservatives is conservatives are more rigid in their worldviews and liberals are more malleable in their worldviews. With a more malleable worldview, liberals are sometimes more sensitive to new information."

On the other hand, the researchers didn't find that ethnic images depicting "noble" mascots reinforced a positive stereotype, unless the mascot came with a slogan.

"These results fail to support the common argument that exposure to ethnic brand imagery automatically improves response to the ethnic group," the study concluded. "Although such an effect is possible with sufficient verbal promotion of the positive stereotype, ethnic logos presented in isolation failed to increase positive ethnic associations among conservatives and actually decreased positive associations among liberals."

Going forward, Angle said he has more questions to answer. For instance, does it matter if the Native American image is of a person versus, say, a tomahawk?

"Does that make a difference in how the stereotypes play out?" Angle said.

Ethnic imagery is common in sports, he said, but it's also heavily present in consumer products, such as the Land O'Lakes butter logo.


At least 12 high school teams in Montana on and off reservations have names that directly refer to Native Americans, such as the warriors or the Indians, although corresponding mascots vary (see list).

In Arlee, the boys play as the Warriors, and the girls play as the Scarlets, and parents and others occasionally raise concerns about the names, said Willie Wright, American Indian studies coordinator for the Arlee Joint School District.

Wright, who also teaches Native American studies and Salish, has concerns about both names.

Warriors were Native Americans who traditionally touched their enemies in battle without actually killing them, and they earned their feathers with the tribe, she said.

"So it was a very difficult triumph that took place to earn that status to become a warrior," said Wright, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

She isn't convinced a high school student playing sports is the equivalent: "Is running up and down the court making baskets a feat worthy of being a warrior? That's questionable in my mind when we look at who were the warriors of yesterday."

Wright, who has been with the school district for 38 years and is a graduate of Arlee, also takes issue with the name "Scarlets." She said the name brings to mind Scarlett O'Hara of "Gone with the Wind" as well as an element of lewdness connected to the color red.

The district hasn't had reason to reconsider its team names at length, she said. Plus, she said, a few years ago, students took a school survey about the names, and it showed they were comfortable with the term "Warriors."

More than a decade ago, however, students started doing the "tomahawk chop" at a pep assembly in the gym, and Wright marched down to the gymnasium floor and put a stop to it.

"It had been racing in my mind for some time, and I just said, 'Hey, enough is enough,' " she said.

She told them she found their actions offensive, and she told them that historically, Indian people learned to scalp from the French. She said no one questioned her, and no one ever did the tomahawk chop at an assembly again.

"Things evolve through time, and we say, 'Hey, we don't like that,' " Wright said. "And not only that, but people are standing up more and saying, 'Hey, this is wrong. This is not right. We have offense.'

"Walk in my moccasins, if you ever could."

Subscribe to Daily Headlines

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.
You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.