Review of Indian Spectacle

Guiliano, Jennifer. Indian Spectacle: College Mascots and the Anxiety of Modern America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015. Pp. 194. Notes and Index. $80.00 cloth. $27.95 paper.

Reviewed by Andrew McGregor

Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Most Americans are familiar with the controversy surrounding American Indian mascots, best exemplified by the current pushback against the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Few, however, understand the history and embedded social, cultural, and political values within these names and displays. Jennifer Guiliano’s Indian Spectacle: College Mascots and the Anxiety of Modern America, provides this background, and unlike other studies of the mascot issue, offers insight not just into the choices of specific institutions but a moment in American history.

Indian Spectacle tells the story of how college football grew into a commercialized mass spectacle in the early twentieth-century. The book connects anxieties over modernity and masculinity with sport, community identity, and education, positioning colleges and universities as important sites of producing and distributing a “white male middle-class heterosexual worldview” (p. 15). That worldview harnessed displays of Indianness as a means to reinforce the success of American modernity and colonial dominance as well as buttress American exceptionalism by appropriating indigenous culture. The persistence of these representations, Guiliano argues, underscores their ability to serve an important pedagogical function for colleges.

More than just team names and logos, Guiliano artfully explains the depth of the “spectacle.” Halftime performances and the establishment of marching bands transformed game day into an event that blended written, aural and visual elements. The book’s opening chapter explains the historical background of game day and the gradual adoption of American Indian mascots, setting up the second chapter’s exploration of the historical fascination with Indians. Here, Guiliano connects college football to Progressive Era impulses and organizations, such as the YMCA and Boy Scouts that focused on issues of citizenship, masculinity, and race. This was joined by the expansion of college bands in chapter three to illustrate how a specific ideology was embedded in the cultural experiences of a generation. These shared experiences and worldviews manifested themselves on campus through the formalization of halftime shows.

These discussions focus on college football and its attending spectacle as a form of public relations and cultural education. The sport itself became a political technology that grew out of the Progressive Era and was codified in the wake of the Great War as a tool to display and instruct Americans about masculinity, race, and nationalism. American Indian mascots operated within the language of sports to reinforce and extend these functions.

Guiliano moves deftly from thematic historiographic discussions to specific examples. This sets up later chapters by grounding the reader in a complex historical moment. Equipped with background knowledge, the second half of Indian Spectacle digs deeper into the performativity and appropriation of Indianness on campus. The topics range from the establishment of new mascots and athletic identities at the University of North Dakota and Miami University in chapter four, to the role of students in shaping the spectacle at Stanford University and Florida State University in chapter five.

With each example, Guiliano balances the mythology of mascot origins with the historical context of the decisions. She relies on a wealth of research from personal papers and university publications (such as yearbooks) to historical periodicals and photographs. The inclusion of photographs enhances the narrative by providing powerful visual evidence of the spectacles she describes. Additionally, peppered in throughout the book is the history of American Indians. This is one of the real strengths of the text as it allows Guiliano to highlight historical ironies and inconsistencies. As a result, the reader sees, side-by-side, the decisions by university officials to create Indian mascots, how Indian mascots are used and represented, and the history of the very people being represented. This works particularly well in the sixth chapter, when Guiliano offers two examples of appropriation and performativity where the spectacle is privileged over gender and ethnicity.

Throughout these examples, the form, function, and rationale of American Indian mascots becomes apparent. For example, North Dakota and Miami used their new athletic identities for marketing purposes because it allowed them to connect to public fascination and craft a community identity that gave a nod to history. To be sure, this history was often problematic but the power of nostalgia was particularly effective in whitewashing the past and transforming mascots into honorific emblems.

As the book draws to a close, Guiliano reminds readers of the importance of history in understanding contemporary debates: “It is easy to forget that at the core of the discussion over the use of Native American representation are the historical conditions that influenced the creation and use of “Redskins” and other Indian monikers as mascots” (p. 108). Indian Spectacle describes those historical conditions linking American Indian mascots with the colonial history of the United States, American anxieties over modernity, and the creation of big-time sports.

For such a short book, the breadth of Indian Spectacle is impressive. It combines a handful of complicated, overlapping histories into a single narrative, providing the context to explore, analyze, and understand Indian mascots. This allows Guiliano to offer a nuanced understanding of the role of college sports in America and the power of their images and experiences. While college sports and mascots are the focus, Indian Spectacle further challenges us to explore issues of community identity, cultural heritage, and mass marketing in other settings.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His master’s thesis explored the lives and representations of iconic Native American athletes, Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.

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