A video of a school's racist depictions of Indigenous people went viral on TikTok, which led to a major potential rebranding and mascot change at a high school in Anderson, Indiana.
Numerous studies dating back decades have proven repeatedly that the use of Indigenous mascots has a negative impact on Indigenous children. The practice has been denounced by the National Congress of American Indians, Indigenous activists and tribal leadership across the United States as well as national education, child psychology and psychiatric societies like the American Psychological Association.
The viral video from Indiana was originally recorded by Sarah Holba, who goes by @rradregina on TikTok.
In the video, a pair of students were dressed in faux Indigenous ceremonial "chief" and "maiden" dress, then reenacted a "sacred ceremonial dance" as a part of the school's pep rally.
In the video, the female student rose from the center of a circle of cheerleaders who were warming up, dressed as a "ceremonial Indigenous maiden" and holding what appeared to be a wooden "peace pipe."
The student can then be seen passing the pipe to a male student who was wearing an appropriated jumbled version of ceremonial dress, in Indigenous ceremonial regalia with a Plains Native style headdress.
The performance continued with the pair of students moving out to the center of the gymnasium—called "the Wigwam"—where they did a "sacred war dance."
You can watch more about the incident, including clips of the TikTok video, here:
The original TikTok video has since been taken down, but clips of the video including a student's use of a pipe and performing a supposed war dance, are still available in response videos and with various news outlets.
Anderson High School's school board responded by opening an investigation into their use of the mascot and whether or not to continue.
Joseph Cronk, the superintendent of the Anderson Community School Corporation, stated:
"We're taking this very seriously. You know it's always our intent to honor our Native American tradition, and maybe that was ignorant. Maybe we don't know what we're honoring. Maybe we're not honoring at all."
The school board claimed to have previously sought out the blessing of the original Chief Anderson's ancestors before creating the mascot and their wide variety of materials, including logos, letterhead, clothing and more.
But the symbolism is a jumbled mass of influences from across multiple different tribes. Headdresses, pipes, buckskin dresses, breechcloths, chestplates and other items the school cobbled together perpetuate the myth of the pan-Indigenous identity where all North American peoples dressed and looked the same.
The reality is the United States alone has over 560 recognized individual Indigenous tribes. While some tribes within a single region might share clothing, art or shelter styles, there were also over 250 different Indigenous languages spoken in the United States.
The culture of the Haudenosaunee Confederated tribes is as different to the Tsalagi, Chumash and Oceti Sakowin cultures as the culture of Norway is to England, Portugal and Greece.
The public reaction to the use of the racist mascot provoked feelings of invalidation and cultural appropriation in the community surrounding the school and online.
But despite the school board already making an effort to update their mascot, TikTok was openly debating whether or not it was an investigation worth having.
Before the video was deleted from TikTok, users saved their own copies and shared them on their profiles. People used clips from the video to point out why this mascot was so racist and why it was important for the Anderson school administration to change it.
One TikToker, Christian Wassana who goes by @cwrelentless on the platform, discussed the sacred nature of what was being culturally appropriated.
"Those two things [the use of the peace pipe and the regalia] are sacred to our Native American people. Smoking that peace pipe and wearing that warbonnet are very sacred things that we do within our tribes and our culture and our customs."
"There are other ways to go about spreading awareness, showing off information about who you are and your history, and this is not one of them."
Another TikToker, Lizzy Smith who goes by @c0_0l__ on the platform, was furious about the "shameless racism" and the school's use of a mockery of a sacred dance during a time when it was legally punishable for Indigenous people to participate in their own culture.
"As an Indigenous person, on one hand, I am never surprised to see things like this, but on the other hand, I am surprised every single time that things like this are still happening in the year 2022."
"I am not going to explain why this is wrong. You should know why this is wrong. But this does need to be stopped."
"The audacity. The audacity of this."
Smith also pointed out something about the sponsor of the school's team spirit, Anita Smith.
"Anita Smith is the current faculty member who oversees the mascot scenario and the little dancey dance they do."
"This article [referenced in Lizzy Smith's video] was published in 2007 when Anita Smith was helping her daughter be the Indian Maiden. But she says in this article that she was the Indian Maiden in 1977."
"The Native American Freedom of Religion Act passed in 1978. Before that, it was illegal for Indigenous people to practice ceremony or their religion or most parts of their culture, because the government was trying to culturally eradicate us."
"Yet at the same time, it's totally okay for a bunch of white people to totally make a mockery out of our sacred traditions for their mascot, for fun, for their school spirit."
Most were appalled by the mascot and the community's longterm use of it.
But some clung to "tradition."
They argued "imitation is the greatest form of flattery."
While the Anderson school board claims to be investigating how best to proceed with their current mascot and traditions, it's unclear what will happen next, based on the community and online response to the potential change.
But if the people they claim to honor tell them to stop, who are they really honoring when they ignore Indigenous people's voices?