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The Native American Mascot Controversy

From the Perspective of the Florida State University

Seminararbeit 2013 27 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde




Seminole Ethnogenese and First Encounters With the European Settlers

The WayTowards the Seminole Wars

Realignment during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Cenutry

The Development of Native American Mascots in Sports Teams

Arguments in the Native American Mascot Controversy and their relevance for the FSU





Imagine a German wearing a hat with black curls attached and a large nose glued onto his own, running over a football pitch before Bayern Munich matches. All fans in the same costume cheering to that imitation of a Jew who the football club made its mascot. Would that not be mostly inappropriate if not even provoke international criticism and diplomatic sanctions instantly? Certainly.

Yet, when Osceola enters the baseball fields of the Florida State University with his burning spear it seems absolutely normal. The imitation of a Seminole Indian leader has been the mascot of the university since 1978 and as such has caused intense discussions.

This essay tries to explain the justification of this imagery, especially with respect to the recent decision of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to accept the usage of the Seminoles as the dominating theme of all university gear. An insight into the peculiar position of the Seminoles as given by their history in Florida will help to understand not only the current acceptance of the symbolism but mainly the development of the perception of their culture. However, the essay can because of its length and subject focus mainly provide historical background understanding while the main features of the cultural discussion about the moral tenability will only be outlined.

Hence the evolution of the tribe as well as their struggle against the “whites” serve as starting points to show their distinctive development compared to other Native American tribes. Although never having faced utter defeat, the nineteenth and early twentieth century brought more frustration than social improvement for the Seminoles. However, they became part of the nationwide trend to establish American Indian tribes as team mascots, and thus turning into the dominating image of the Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee. In comparison with several other exemplary tribes the decision to put the FSU on the NCAA’s HAAL and finally take it off of it again shall be examined and explained based on the particular circumstances concerning the Florida Seminoles.

Primary sources from the formation phases pose two obstacles that prevent studies from including the Seminole tribe into “normal” Indian schemes and broader examinations: Firstly, the Florida Seminoles are a historically young ethnicity whose roots lie in the evolution of other tribes. Secondly, and this is a common issue with all Native American related studies, the documentation of early encounters between the aborigines and the settlers are equally as rare as those about Indian viewpoints in general. On the one hand, most European settlers were illiterate and confronted with more essential tasks than neatly documenting their first meetings with the people they found across the Atlantic for the first centuries. On the other hand, even the Native Americans’ oral tradition has shown to be so fragmentary that even (experimental) archaeological can seldom be of great help.[1] Fortunately, the Florida Seminoles as a still existing tribe made their way into modernity and use contemporary media to made themselves heard and recognised.

Seminole Ethnogenese and First Encounters With the European Settlers

From the very beginning on, the Seminole tribe does not follow typical lines of development. While the original Floridian population of Apalachees, Calusas, and Timucuans had already died out from fighting the Spanish or their diseases in the sixteenth century, the Seminoles did not even exist yet.[2] Meanwhile cultural differences in the prospering Creek Confederation situated in present-day Georgia and Alabama commenced to threaten the solidarity of the approximately 20,000 people population.[3] The lack of common tribal aims and communication disunited the, although they benefitted from an effective mix of agricultural and seminomadic lifestyle. Consequently, some of them, the cimarrones, which is the assumed root of the word Seminoles, ran away, i.e. migrated to the Floridian peninsula.

In unraveling the changing image of Native Americans, Urs Bitterli’s model of cultural encounters of European settlers with indigenous peoples around the globe usually provides a vantage point. Although he identifies three intermixing types of encounters - contact, collision, and relationship – to my contention, the first contact already bears the seed of further interactions in itself.[4] The very first encounter between two cultures consists of most basic, normally non-verbal communication as well as usually the astonishment of one party and the handing-over of presents of the other party.

The bringing of gifts of only little value since Columbus, already indicates the deep-rooted European ethnocentrism of the settlers from the very beginning on.[5] Even though these seafarers were well aware of their dependence on indigenous help for food supplies and geographical directions, there is no source to be found where settlers displayed genuine feelings of humble appreciation for the highly developed cultures they encountered.[6]

In fact, a significant number of historians and cultural scientists came to believe that the European attitudes always caused later collisions, and that hostile receptions such as 1513 in Florida only resulted from earlier negative encounters.[7] Even though Juan Ponce de Leon’s expedition took place long before the Seminoles came to the panhandle and Bitterli’s model can thus only partially be adopted, another study arrives at a similar conclusion, yet starting from a different view point. Alden T. Vaughn attaches the deteriorating perception of Native Indians to changing description of their skin colour. The relevance of this article equally for the Seminoles is due to the indisputability of a peoples’ skin colour: While traditions and ideologies might be concealed for a long time the tone of one’s skin is not.[8]

As typical for the Early Modern Period, scientists eagerly attempted to classify all novelties and for the American Indians a new category had to be built in order to include them into their hierarchical world order.[9] They used to be described as slightly “tawny”, “olive” or artificially reddened but apart from cultural prejudices Native Americans carried no negative connotations yet.[10]

Although one might suppose that the living together of two cultures would lead to mutual understanding continuning conflicts caused by the cultural haughtiness of the white population are the red thread throughout North American Indian history.[11] No colonist has ever seriously considered that the lifestyle of the peoples he conquered might be preferable to his own – or at least questioned his right to occupy the other’s land, the purported terra nullius. Instead, as soon as the initial fear of the New World had been overcome, settlers spread themselves, their culture and their diseases looking down on the indigenous civilisation.

After the ethnogenese of the Seminoles in the eighteenth century, they established a new subsistence-based society on the fertile grounds of Florida.[12] Although the settlers should have already gotten used to the Native Indians, their customs still astonished if not not frightened the Western European mindset: Chiefs were considered to be descendants of the sun, dreams to be meaningful omens, and illnesses caused by revengeful animal spirits. Respectful and deeply impressed descriptions of the Green Corn Dance, the Seminoles’ main (judgement) ritual, such as given by the author J. H. Payne remain rare exceptions.[13] Generally, neither the Indians’ excellent bow and arrow hunting skills, nor their remarkable chiefdom towns attesting to a well-sturctured work force ever achieved much esteem from the colonists.[14]

After exploring more of the North of Florida, the Seminoles were able to achieve a surplus from hunting but equal trading with the Americans could not be initiated either: The Americans mostly only offered valueless goods like beads and iron tools in exchange for precious deerskins or they sold weapons.[15] Allowedly, Native American culture was comparably bellicose and generally expansive; violent ball matches against other tribes were a common preparation for wars strengthening the militancy. Yet, providing an indigenous population with weaponry which kills a number of people that they had never experienced before clearly aggravates the situation. Moreover, Americans could thereby drive the Seminoles into a dependence on their arms if they wanted to maintain equity. Awkwardly, from exactly this combination of stamina, bravery in war as well as their high morals of honour and their military skillfullness stems the present-day admiration as a university’s symbol – but this will be discussed in more detail later on.


[1] Cf. Colin F. Taylor & William C. Sturtevant, The Native Americans. The Indigenous People of North America (London, 1996), p. 15 and Brent R. Weisman, Unconquered People. Florida’s Seminole and Miccosukee Indians (Gainesville, 1999), p. 133.

[2] Cf. James W. Covington, The Seminoles of Florida (Gainesville, 1992), pp. 3-7.

[3] Cf. Taylor & Sturtevant, Native Americans, p. 22. 1.5/ 13 describes a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning runaway or adventurer, as the original denomination for those formerly Creek who permanently stayed on the peninsula.

[4] Cf. Urs Bitterli, Cultures in Conflict. Encounters Between European and Non-European Cultures. 1492-1800 (Cambridge 1989), pp. 20-26.

[5] Steven Kreis, ‘Journal of Christopher Columbus’, The History Guide. Lectures on Early Modern History <> (5 May 2013). Entry: Thursday, 10 October 1492: ‘…and many other trifles of small value’.

[6] Cf. Bitterli, Cultures, p. 21.

[7] Cf. Taylor & Sturtevant, Native Americans, p. 19. Also cf. Bitterli, Cultures, p. 29: The few occasions when an indigenous tribe massacred a whole white settlement was on islands that were only big enough for the natives to hide, e.g. Santo Domingo in the fifteenth 15th century; 1610 where originally Muslim islanders kill Dutch invaders on Ternate, or the Hawaiians killing Thomas Cook in 1779. Afterwards, they were of course portrayed as unprovoked surprise attacks on fully innocent Europeans but researchers agreed that these accounts cannot be trusted for there are no accounts of hostile Indians during first contacts to be found.

[8] Cf. Alden T. Vaughn, ‘From White Man to Redskin. Changing Anglo-American Perceptions of the American Indian’ American Historical Review, 87/ 4, (1982), p. 942 on deterioration of the skin tone description as a common motive also with the Japanese who were increasingly being called Yellow Japs as diplmoatic relations got more complicated before World War II. Vaughn (Vaughn, ‘Redskin’, p. 918) is even convinced of a deep-rooted aversion against darker skin tones as the main element for racial prejudices long before white settlers had ever seen other races.

[9] Cf. Vaughn, ‘Redskin’, pp. 918/ p. 929/ 944: Before Europeans had seen the indigenous population of North America they had a di-chromatic skin colour perception: While Persians were merely perceived as darker white “blacks” were so immutably black that they could never be transformed into “whites”, i.e. Christians.

[10] Cf. John Bickers & David Widger, ‘Walter Raleigh’s The Discovery of Guiana’ (1596), The Project Gutenberg EBook <> (5 May 2013): ‘… for their tawny colour may be compared to any in Europe …’; Richard Hakluyt, Divers Voyages Touching the Discovery of America and the Islands Adjacent (London, 1582 (1850)), p. 60 ‘these are of colour enclining to Blacke ...’; p. 65 ‘... they are of the colour of brasse, some of the encline more to whitness, others are of yellowe colour ...’ and René de Laudonnière, L’ Histoire Notable de la Floride Suitee Es Indees Occidentales (London, 1587 (1853)), p. 6: ‘Les hommes sont de coleur olivastre ...’.

Among others, the following hold the view of Native Americans actually being born white and then being reddened with body paint: Laudonnière, L’ Histoire Notable, p. 12: ‘Car la principale cause de laquelle leur vient ceste coloeur, est des onctions d’huille dont ils usent entr’eux ...’; George Best, A True Discourse of the late Voyage of Discoverse for the Finding of a Passage to Cathaya (London, 1578), p. 28; William Wood, Wood’s New England Prospect (London 1634 (1865)), pp. 54 and Thomas Morton, New English Canaan (London, 1637 (1883)), p. 32.

On the contrary praises of the physical stature and condition remain seldom e.g. Laudonnière, L’ Histoire Notable, p. 6 and Vaughn, ‘Redskin’, p. 927.

[11] Cf. Lauren R. Davis, ‘Protest Against the Use of Native American Mascots. A Challenge to Traditional American Identity’ Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 17/ 1, (1993), p. 17; Vaughn, ‘Redskin’, p. 939 and Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors. How Indian War Transformed Early America (New York, 2008), p. xix.

Cf. Ward Churchill: A Little Matter of Genocide. Holocaust and Denial in the Americas. 1492 to the Present (San Francisco, 1997), pp. 33 providing an extensive account on how much European diseases realistically influences the Indians’ death rates (and how much statistics had been manipulated retrospectively).

[12] Cf. Taylor & Sturtevant, Native Americans, p. 15/ 28/ 31 for the Semiole economy; p. 24ff/ 36f on worldviews.

[13] Cf. John R. Swanton, ‘John Howard Payne’s Description of the Green Corn Dance from 1835’ Oklahoma Historical Society’s Chronicles of Oklahoma 10: 170-195 (1932) <> (5 May 2013): ‘I never beheld more intense devotion; and the spirit of the forms was a right and religious one. It was (…) with humility, with purification, with prayer, with gratitude (…) while strengthening courage’.

Cf. Taylor & Sturtevant, Native Americans, p. 29; Covington, Seminoles, pp. 6-8; Weisman, Unconquered People, pp. 91 and The Seminoles Tribe of Florida, ‘Green Corn Dance’ Culture. Who We Are <> (5 May 2013).

[14] Cf. Covington, Seminoles, p. 7 and Taylor & Sturtevant, Native Americans, p. 23/ 29.

[15] Cf. Covington, Seminoles, p. 11/ 14/ 25; Churchill, Genocide, p. 3 and Taylor & Sturtevant, Native Americans, p. 32f.


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Titel: The Native American Mascot Controversy