mascot nation

Reviewed by by Leslie Heaphy, Kent State University at Stark

11 february 2019       archive

Authors Andrew Billings and Jason Black tackle a topic that people often have strong opinions about. The use of Native American mascots by sports teams usually causes fans to support their mascots or want them changed. This debate has been around for many years and is not the main focus of Mascot Nation. The authors acknowledge the existing arguments and literature but choose to focus instead on the question of representation and what that means. One big question explored throughout the text is who is represented by the mascot? This question of representation takes the argument in new directions and raises questions about identity, agency and politics. One of the unique ways the authors approach their topic is through the use of case studies, a methodology that comes from their communication discipline.

Mascot Nation will have a limited appeal to college audiences and researchers rather than general interest. The reason for the smaller audience is the language and theory used throughout the book. Without some basic understanding most readers will lose interest quickly or not follow the complexity of the arguments. This does not take away from what Billings and Black add to the dialogue with their work. The authors provide a whole new avenue of debate and study.

Billings and Black offer their own original research to explore the debate and the role the media has played in these conversations. The media has often been at the center of any debate, helping to spread the misunderstandings that surround native cultures. Their approach focuses on textual, visual and ritual performances to try to understand how fans categorize their relationships to mascots. Through three case studies one of the discoveries the authors made was that not all mascot names are viewed the same way. The lens' they used to explore the distinctions were neocolonial and de-colonial views. Those who favor a name such as the redskins tended to follow old traditions of "possession and appropriation" (p. 181) while those opposed want to de-colonize and upend these views.

In addition to the names, Billings and Black use Chief Wahoo to illustrate how the visual also has its own arguments. Their conclusions show that the visual images make the debate even more complicated. The image of Chief Wahoo and other mascots make it even harder to think about the question of who these mascots really represent and the meaning ascribed to each of them. The examination then turned to rituals associated with mascots such as those found at the University of Illinois and Florida State University. One of the conclusions drawn here is that politics may be more at play than feelings over the mascots. This would suggest the debates have become even more complex and nuanced over time.

Billings and Black force the readers to think about the consequences of the use of mascots, on everyone involved, but especially on Native Americans and their culture. Mascots are not just mascots, they mean something and what that is matters to everyone. The debate is not over and may never be because the answers matter. The authors do offer some potential avenues for future change. They suggest five areas to be explored including education, economics, declivity, role of the media and legal concerns.

This book adds a great deal to the debate and is a must read for anyone interested in the topic or who wants to get a better feel for the complexity of the real debate about affects and consequences. The extensive notes provided give anyone the chance to delve further into the questions and potential answers. The sources are a combination of primary and secondary texts, representing a wide array of different view points.

Billings, Andrew C. and Jason Edward Black. Mascot Nation: The Controversy over Native American Representations in Sports. University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Copyright © 2019 by Leslie Heaphy

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