View from here - Making a song and dance of it

26th March 2010 at 00:00
Nathan Greenfield reports on whether native-themed sports mascots have a place in Canadian schools

The eyes of the world were recently on a group of aboriginal Canadian performers who took part in the spectacular opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

But less sensitive attempts to bring aboriginal culture into sporting celebrations have proven controversial for schools.

While the Olympics were being held, two school boards - including the host city's - were engaged in a debate over the role of native-themed sports mascots and whether they belittled aboriginal (or, as we often call them, "First Nation") cultures.

Vancouver's board considered a motion to ask the British Columbia School Boards' Association to ensure that sports mascots "do not promote negative stereotypical representations of aboriginal peoples".

Board trustee, Jane Bouey, who introduced the motion, said she was concerned about incidents at pep rallies to rev up the crowd to cheer on the home team, where "someone would pretend to be an Indian and dance around - either misusing or completely inventing dances, songs and images that are not culturally accurate, to say nothing of sensitive".

Documents submitted with the motion noted that other practices, included drum-beating and tomahawk chops, trivialised aboriginal cultures.

The subject is particularly sensitive because aboriginal pupils tend to underperform, with only half in British Columbia graduating from high school.

"These negative images, symbols and behaviours play a crucial role in distorting and warping aboriginal children's cultural perceptions of themselves, as well as non-aboriginal children's attitudes toward aboriginal peoples," read documents compiled by Ms Bouey.

While the board supported Ms Bouey's motion, online response was less understanding. She was accused of bowing to political correctness and wasting taxpayers' money. "An interesting charge," she said, "since we didn't spend any money on this issue."

Two-thirds of the way across the country, in north-eastern Ontario, Chippewa Intermediate and Secondary School bid adieu to its sporting mascot Joe Raider.

The change came after pressure from Marianna Couchie, the Nippising First Nation chief. "Just because the school is called Chippewa, it doesn't need an Indian mascot," she said. "It doesn't pay respect to the Ojibway people."

Not everyone agreed. A Facebook page supporting the buckskin-wearing mascot soon had almost 1,300 members. Alumni complained, one declaring that losing him would be a "real blow" to school morale, and petitions were circulated. But the school's head held firm.

The trend has precedence in the United States, where most high schools and universities banned native mascots or changed names of sports teams. A rare exception was Florida State University's Seminoles. The name was allowed because Florida's indigenous tribe, the Seminoles, supported the university's request for an exemption.

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