I am critically aware that way too much has already been analyzed, re-analyzed, written, and re-written by scores of well-meaning academicians and dedicated activists on the subject of Indian mascots, and I am now deeply compelled to describe my own beliefs as to why this particular issue continues to linger on ad nauseam.
Until recently, I have never really given much thought to the Indian mascot controversy before as I have always found competitive sports (aside from boxing and martial arts) to be very uninteresting. However, I have come to believe that American sports institutions have embraced Indian imagery largely because Indians are--in the collective consciousness of modern non-Indian America--something to be greatly feared. To Euro-Americans, the Indian is the original example of "shock and awe."
Sports teams seek any edge they can get. Striking fear into the hearts of opponents, even to a small degree, is psychologically and strategically valuable. Hence the psychodramas before and during the game: the wild dances, the spear chucks, the tomahawk chops. At some level they're meant to intimidate or disconcert the enemy.
Indians as predatory animals
From my relatively new perspective, Indian sports mascots are eerily akin to the colorful paintings of tiger and shark teeth (and even flames) that have appeared on various combat aircraft, naval vessels, and other forms of mechanized equipment since World War II. They are all starkly produced images designed to strike a deep sense of fear into the hearts and minds of enemy forces.
The white man has always feared Indians as the most singularly hostile and fearsome opponents on the battlefields of yesteryear. Non-Indians still consider Indians worthy antagonists on a wide range of fronts--not only cultural but political and socioeconomic fronts as well. What better method of psychological warfare to employ in the rarefied realm of athletic competition than historically rich symbols with the power to frighten one's adversaries?
The psychodynamics of fear are clearly at work here. One easily observes this phenomenon in the natural world with (primarily) predatory animals imbued with bright colors; huge mouths of dagger-like teeth; large, penetrating eyes and powerful physiques or the ability to pump themselves up to towering heights over other predators. Discounting the sillier kinds of Indian mascots (of which there are not really many), most mascots are fearfully rendered in terms of form and color to resemble the myriad beasts of prey. Facial war paint in the color of blood red, anyone?
SWMs seek manhood
I can now see why sports mascots are so highly valued by those individuals and institutions who are so unwilling to relinquish them (despite decades of highly organized opposition to them). It is the basic symbology of the American Indian as a unique and profound source of fear that provides these people with their sense of “warrior-hood” and masculinity. In a world where even perceived notions of strength and power (and most importantly, the ability to kill) still prevail, associating oneself with warlike Indians provides a security blanket of support. If a man can't act like a "savage" in reality, at least he can pretend to be one.
In today’s popular American culture, traditional ideals of masculinity are under a constant state of attack. Gays, women, and minorities are (seen to be) advancing and gaining parity at all levels of society. In this environment, the all-American (essentially white) male is indeed a threatened species. And perhaps one of the last remaining bastions of this male superiority is the world of contact sports, where a man can still “be a man” in spite of the gay team member, the female trainer, or the minority head coach.
The Indian sports mascot is not so much an example of honoring the so-called “character” of the American Indian. Rather, it is a process of co-opting the impressive cachet of overwhelming fear that the Indian, in the collective mindset of white America, still possesses to a remarkable degree.