- Indian Spectacle: College Mascots and the Anxiety of Modern America by Jennifer Guiliano
At a glance, Jennifer Guiliano’s subtitle seems ambitious for such a concise book. Her impressive contextualization of the rise of Indian imagery in college athletic mascots and halftime shows, though, fulfills it well. Relying on archival sources from five universities formerly or currently using American Indian mascots, Guiliano argues that the creation of American Indian mascots and halftime spectacles was bound to the larger project of higher education. From the late nineteenth century to the early Cold War, the mascots’ establishment reinforced the modern university’s mission to develop white male middle-class athletic bodies in the service of community and country. The mascots sanitized narratives of colonial expansion in the face of anxieties about industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and wartime fitness for service.
The work is organized chronologically in six chapters, each having a thematic emphasis. The first chapter chronicles the rapid rise in profitability of college football, showing how university identity became tied to the sport and its spectacle. The remaining chapters pan the scope of complicity in the Indian mascot’s invention and spread. The University of Illinois was historical ground zero, but the university’s influences were in the Great Plains. Progressive Era reformers like those with the Boy Scouts of America, often with connections to Dakota and Lakota people, trained early (white) Indian mascots in dance and costuming. The headdressed Plains Indian became the preferred image for mascots as far away as Stanford. Administrators, students, athletes, newspaper sportswriters, and band directors, among many others, embraced and disseminated ideas about community identities created through Indian mascotry. With variation between universities, the narratives were consistent: Indians could be present in the modern university when called forth by university mythology, or cued to perform by the band’s “sounds of ethnicity” (51), but must nobly cede university space to whites and remain in the past.
Guiliano’s samples are well chosen for institutional diversity. However, she mischaracterizes the University of North Dakota as a “frontier agricultural school” (8) when, in fact, part of that university’s mission in creating an Indian identity was to distance itself from North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University), in addition [End Page 333] to assuaging fears about its proximity to the frontier and finding a suitable opponent to the agricultural college’s bison. This is a very minor oversight, but placing und’s founding in its liberal arts tradition might actually have helped her already cogent argument for und’s effort to appear more civilized to eastern audiences.
Begun as Guiliano’s dissertation, Indian Spectacle is tightly argued and well researched, theoretically rigorous and clearly written. It makes no effort to engage contemporary debates about Indian mascots or their effects on contemporary American Indians, yet illustrates why, amid never-ending battles over their use, we should understand the historical circumstances that bore them.