Native Mascots and Other Misguided Beliefs


Congress established the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989, noting that the establishment of the museum within the Smithsonian would “give all Americans the opportunity to learn of the cultural legacy, historical grandeur, and contemporary culture of Native Americans.” For the last twenty-two years, the NMAI has worked to create that opportunity not just for all Americans, but for visitors from throughout the world.


When we engage our visitors, we are not writing on a blank slate. Most visitors, whether Native or non-Native, come to the museum carrying information, misinformation, ideas, attitudes, and prejudices (both negative and positive) based in what they have learned about American Indians in the course of their lives. Only a very small percentage of the population has devoted extensive study to Native history, art, and culture, so their understandings are formed based on the limited information they have received from two sources: the formal education system in the United States and the popular media culture in the United States.


My own experience contending with the information I was given while growing up in Oklahoma is instructive. Native history and culture was only rarely touched upon while I was in elementary school and junior high school. Though I had, of course, more than the usual interest in these subjects, I can recall only the occasional reference to American Indians, almost always accompanied by a photo of Indian people standing on a rocky hillside dressed in feathers and buckskin. I learned nothing about the history of Native people prior to contact with Europeans, save the few pages in my Oklahoma history book dedicated to the Spiro Mounds, a Caddoan-Mississippian archaeological site in eastern Oklahoma. It was as though what pre-existed Columbus’s arrival in America was uninteresting and unimportant.   Read More>>>