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From the Comanche to the Anteater: How Mascots are Influential Shapers of Identity

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The year is 1965 and 900 of UCI’s 1,589 students are attending a water polo game against Cal Poly Pomona, UCI’s first ever on-campus athletic event. Roll-out party favors are handed out to the crowd and cheerleaders yell, “Give ‘em a tongue!” UCI wins the game by a landslide, and soon after, the Anteater is voted in as the school’s official mascot. Around a decade later, a short drive from UCI, students from junior high schools in the Anaheim Hills area participated in a steering committee to choose the mascot for the young Canyon High School. After considering multiple options that could alliterate with “Canyon,” the Comanche mascot was chosen.

These two stories of schools undergoing the process of choosing a mascot are different in that the Anteater is an animal, while Comanches are an entire nation of human beings. Yet they are similar in one way: the processes were intentional. Each school asked students to express their sincere opinions and vote on their new mascot. After all, choosing a mascot is no simple matter. A school’s mascot is a choice that represents what the school stands for. More importantly, a school’s mascot is key in molding a student’s identity, whether that be through their relationship to their school or their ethnic identity. 

This is especially true for my experience with Peter the Anteater, an icon I sincerely owe for sparking my deep connection to UCI. I find that many Anteaters do not appreciate their mascot for what it represents, or more significantly, what it does not represent. While the mascot may seem silly to many, to me, it was a much-needed relief from my high school’s Comanche mascot.

Throughout my years at Canyon High School, I felt uncomfortable with my school’s mascot. I was alarmed by the giant caricature of a Comanche painted onto our gym, which was recently replaced by a giant “C,” as well as the fact that my classmates were proudly wearing merchandise of an ethnic and cultural group they themselves did not identify with. 

In an attempt for others and myself to understand the source of my discomfort, I wrote an investigative piece for my school newspaper on this very topic, in which I interviewed various faculty members, employees at the school district and the vice chairman of the Comanche Nation, Cornel Pewewardy. I was shocked by the contradicting testimonies I received from the interviewees, as well as the lack of dialogue between my school and the Comanche Nation. Pewewardy completely condemned the mascot as disrespectful in my interview with him, which further pushed me to denounce my mascot, increasing my distance from my high school, the institution that the offensive symbol represented. 

A groundbreaking report written by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg argues that Indigenous mascots can substantially impact the identities of Indigenous students in a negative way. The report concludes, based on four studies involving Indigenous high school and college students, that exposure to stereotypes, caricatures and negative depictions of Indigenous people, such as mascot images, result in a lower self esteem and sense of community among young Indigenous people. Fryberg also discussed the ways in which social representations of Indigenous people in American society have been historically limited and one-dimensional. 

This form of representation, such as my high school’s Comanche mascot, tells young Indigenous people that there is only one way for them to exist and only one way for them to imagine themselves: as spiritual warriors with bleak futures.

Evidently, Indigenous mascots have real, harmful impacts on the group that they are supposed to be representing. Schools are supposed to be centers of learning where students of all backgrounds can experience equal opportunities. When a Comanche student attends Canyon High School and witnesses students parading a version of their culture without any sincere respect and acknowledgement of the Comanche Nation, how is that student expected to feel equal to their classmates? How can they feel any sense of community and connection to their school? 

When I was accepted into UC Irvine, I felt an instant connection with Peter the Anteater as anteaters rained down my acceptance letter screen. For so long, I was stuck with the Comanche, a symbol that I was expected to feel pride for but only felt shame towards. I desired an icon that I could feel attached to without any regrets, and Peter became just that. As a first-year student, I feel like I have been an Anteater my entire life — that I was just waiting for the revelation of my true mascot. During orientation, my first tour and my first events with UCI’s Muslim Student Union, I could proudly “zot” and feel reverberating gratitude for being able to unabashedly call myself an Anteater.

Peter is not just a fun symbol to fuel school spirit. He is a testament to how UCI can be welcoming to everyone and proof that mascots can be powerful determinants of students’ identities. Ultimately, mascots can isolate and harm Indigenous students just as much as Peter the Anteater has allowed me to finally call my educational institution home.

Siraj Bajwa is an Opinion Intern for the Winter 2023 quarter. He can be reached at sirajb@uci.edu.