Fryberg’s APA Findings Questionable ‘Generalizability’ & Construct Reliability

Fryberg’s Highly Questionable ‘Generalizability’ and Construct Reliability

Dr. Stephanie Fryberg conducted a series of “American Indian” experiments in the early 2000s which have become ubiquitous in providing the underlying validation to the claim that the use of “American Indian” mascots hurt native youth’s self esteem.  This “finding” provides the change movement their last “argument” leg as it boasts an impressive 1,341 citations and provided the core argument behind the American Psychological Association’s 2005 national press-released announcement: 

"The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in schools and university athletic programs is particularly troubling because schools are places of learning. These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students."

The APA’s news release introduced Fryberg’s work claiming:  “American Indian” mascots are harmful, " … not only because they are often negative, but because they remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them," While this claim, and similar assertions, have been repeated often; it seemed that nobody cared to actually go back and check the work’s credibility – specifically its 'Generalizability' or its Construct Validity.

First, 'Generalizability' in this case is the degree to which her findings could be applied to members of a whole population - all “American Indian” middle and high school youth – as it is a true representation from the study sample.  Secondly, Construct Validity defines how well an experiment actually represents what it claimed; whether the operational definition of the test variable actually reflects the true theoretical meaning of a concept.  In this case, were the self identities of the tested “American Indian” youth actually tied to the experiment’s “mascot” variables to begin with… or did these native teenagers actually see themselves - identify with - Fryberg’s mascot examples?     

High School “American Indian” Test Subjects –Do They All See Themselves The Same Way?

As there are more than 2000 native themed high schools in American which are under pressure for change, Fryberg’s 2002 and 2008 experiments focusing on high and junior high school students were focused on in this assessment. Fryberg’s participants were “American Indian students” who attended both a high school(s) and junior high school(s) from Indian Reservations all located in one state - Arizona.

The driving theories behind Fryberg’s work attempted to build a case based on the concepts of stereotypes, social representation and social identity.  She claimed that, “Social representations are the building blocks from which the self is constructed. They provide the structure and the language that people utilize to answer the “who am I’ and the “who are we” questions.”

So, in short, the experiments assumed that “American Indians” are relatively invisible in mainstream media and that media gives “inordinate commutative power to the few prevalent representations of American Indians in the media.”  To represent this assumption, each respondent was primed - in part - with this leading statement which each child read before proceeding: “Most people know very little about American Indians beyond the mascot images portrayed in newspapers and on television… We hope to portray American Indians as they really are today.” 

So, to begin with, she had her test subjects believing that most Americans didn’t know who they were expect through the viewing of the popular  “mascots” she presented.  The “mascot” used to represent how Americans supposedly saw native teenagers was expressed by Fryberg through two cartoons, 1) Chief Wahoo and 2) Disney’s Pocahontas.  


Both “mascot” images were called “romanticized Indians” from her late 1990s media analysis suggesting “what an American Indian is” and “what an American Indian is not”.  Her goal was to discover the children’s associations that came to mind when they were exposed to an “American Indian” mascot.

The initial findings met with great interest in that they found that these mascots, paired with the entering statement “Most people know very little about American Indians beyond the mascot images portrayed in newspapers and on television” depressed “American Indian” students while a very similar 2nd experiment set stated, among other findings, that the mascot presentations actually elicited positive feedback.  She stated in 2008 that, “Taken together, these results suggest that American Indian mascot representations are not always regarded as negative.” 

While these dichotomous findings over two experiments provide only a glimpse of the overall work, it does offer a compelling “jumping off point” to look at how Fryberg proposed that “American Indian” students, when stimulated with the “mascots”, would have measurable changes in their feelings about themselves and/or their larger social group as measured against “self concept” theories on a self-reported scale.  Beyond the initial opposed or mixed findings, other concerns quickly develop. 

Dr. Fryberg’s reliance on a “macro” approach in condemning “mascots” while deriving a “micro” recommendation is core weakness Dr. Staurowsky – another invited guest of the Red Clay School District -  is ardently against.  In 2013 she published a critique in Indian Country Today which tore into a Fryberg style “macro” or undefined sampling used to construct the 2004 Annenburg Public Policy Center survey which – like the recent Washington Post work - found that 90 percent of Native Americans did not take issue with the Redskins name.  She claimed:

 “These irregularities are compounded by the failure in the design or interpretation to recognize the definitional complexities of identifying an American Indian respondent pool.Social scientists have long held that treating American Indians as a singular homogeneous group does not account for the regional, linguistic, and cultural diversity that exists across the more than 550 American Indian nations.”

She said the Annenburg survey did not, “capture the consequences of the legacy of forced assimilation where the strength of identity can vary greatly among the American Indian population, with some identifying strongly as American Indians and others identifying strongly as Americans with still others identifying somewhere across the spectrum. Those variations affect the reading of the data and call into question whether the sample was truly representative from the start.” 

While Staurowsky’s critiqued Annenburg’s lack of social scientist recommended sampling diversity in assessing the real voice of any given nation, she nonetheless relied on Fryberg’s outcomes during her anti-name delivery at the Red Clay District.  There, she took the Monolithic – all American Indians Are the Same Approach – in ignoring the rich and positive Redskins history of the Delaware region.  

Many of Fryberg’s claims start to fall apart when viewed through the standard social science standard ofGeneralizability.  This issue is played out in the  fact that student test subjects were only from Native American reservations and only from Native American high schools and only in one state where only a fraction of the near 600 Federal and State recognized tribes live. These issues are problematic in that researchers have long demonstrated that reservation populations are measurably different from native populations who do not live on reservations. Thus, without any research differentiation between reservation vs. non-reservation or even Arizona based tribes vs. other regional or national tribes, the ‘generalizability’ of applying Fryberg’s research to not just to non-reservation but to non-native and non-reservation communities is questionable.  

Further, she assumes that native youth in Arizona - let’s say a Navajo - identified with her test “mascots” in the same way as an Abenaki native in Maine or even the same as a mixed European/Native Seminole youth in Florida. The questionable assumption was that the small pool of native youth in one state would represent all native youth.

A second issue related to the ‘generalizabity’ of Fryberg’s findings is the assumption of the impact of mass media.  Her leading question posits that “Most people know very little about American Indians beyond the mascot images portrayed in newspapers and on television.”Notably, at the time of her studies, internet reach, smart phone use, web and search browsing and on-demand entertainment were nowhere near as prevalent. Thousands of studies and experiments have been conducted on this subject where many indicate that technology use predicted positive dimensions of self-concept and self-esteem.

Thus, we would expect “American Indians” tested in 2016 would certainly have a greater ability to find tailored ways to view or measure themselves in ways well beyond that offered by limited T.V. or in newspapers (generally controlled by what Fryberg would call outgroup member) during the early 2000s. Native youth-edited websites, homemade videos and Facebook have clearly changed since then to empower any cultural group to engage in socialization with “like” people like never before.  

Construct Validity – Does it Actually Measure What it Says it Does? 

In this research, “Native American” students assessed images of Chief Wahoo and Pocahontas to measure their feelings of self and notions of “in-group/out-group”.  However, there are significant and obvious influential factors at Arizona reservation high schools which would – by their very nature – suggest that the viewing of two “mascots” would not actually measure how they felt about themselves or be identified as surrogates for “out-groups” from the start. 

Fryberg notes that these “mascots” were used as each had media relevance in the 1990s.  Thus, most would know that Chief Wahoo was not from the Southwest or Arizona but from Cleveland. Further, they would know that Pocahontas was not a representative or any one of the 21 Arizona based Native Nations, but was in fact a representation of a Powhatan Nation in Virginia.  Perhaps, as another problem to Fryberg’s assumption, was that many teenage boys already had positive or negative feelings about their favorite baseball team; it could either be Cleveland – thus positive -  or the team beat by Cleveland – thus negative. Perhaps Pocahontas was shunned in that she fell in love with a non-native in the Disney movie?                               

Further, and closer to home for all of the tested native students, is that a significant number of Native American reservation schools in Arizona already and actively promote the use of culturally representative native “in-group” symbols, language, titles and “mascots”.  It’s reasonable to assume then that these strong associations to “mascots” which weren’t either of the test variable cartoons provided a built in bias regarding in-group or out-group “mascots” – key variables and outcome in Fryberg’s work.    

Let’s assume Fryberg did her work at the Arizona reservation High School named The Tuba City Warriors (orLady Warriors), The Red Mesa Redskins or the Shiprock Chieftans.  Clearly each of these schools fall into this category and there are many more.  Thus, one can reasonably assume that there were student feelings (strong rivalries) between “we” Warriors and “those” Chiefs (for instance) which were years and generations in the making.

In this example, a student might conceptualize their in-out group relationship based on their not just their feelings, but in their actions of being physically competitive with another native themed school. In this very likely situation then, not only does Chief Wahoo not warrant as an appropriate variable used to measure one’s personal native identity, it does not work either as a measure of the student’s larger group social identity either!

While the study of Fryberg’s method does not disclose which reservation was tested, the Navajo reservation is America’s largest and, as such, we know that the students of Red Mesa High School routinely participate in public sports and other celebrations as Redskins.  It’s worth noting that the Red Mesa High School logo is the same as the NFL’s Redskin logo and it’s not a mascot at all! It’s the very real and very respected profile of a Native American Chief named Two Guns Whitecalf.

Now, contrary to the wildly grinning cartoon character or Disney princess, the use of the term Redskins on this Navajo high school actually accentuates the “red” spiritual relationship between the Navajo and their gods of Nayenezghani and Tqobajishchlni.  These gods required, in war dances, that Navajo warrior’s skin be painted with red clay thus becoming literal Red-skinned warriors.  Clearly then, this spiritual, human, emotional and symbolic relationship of being Redskins and being represented by a very real native leader would certainly run deep within the student body culture and psyche.  Clearly then, this sophisticated relationship of “self” and “group” could in no way be adequately measured in an experiment using Cleveland’s cartoonish Chief Wahoo.

Test Variables Should Measure What the Experimenter Hopes to Measure

Like the Redskins Chief Two Guns, the differences between the actual native representations at many Arizona high schools and the two test variables utilized by Fryberg are literally worlds apart.  Fryberg seems to ignore these Arizona student’s considerations of realism, locality, region, religious or tribal associations.  Fryberg’s approach seemed to wrongly pool all native students into one giant “monolithic” methodological approach where existing independent regional cultures, school identities or tribal differences were not accounted for. 

Along these lines, photos from Arizona reservation high schools using their own Native American names, symbols, mascots and celebrations which arguably contribute to the students sense of self and regional cultural as seen here.  

While Natives Nations Themselves Are Quite Different – They Almost all Agree that Redskins is Not Offensive

The most concerning core issues with Ray Halbritter’s “Change The Mascot” group, Merriam Webster’s Dictionary and Dr. Stephanie Fryberg’s work is that its logic works from baseline concept which implies that the North American Native American “Indian” community is a one-culture-fits-all monolithic entity. They assume that this native North American conglomerate only holds a negative view of Native American school names or imagery like the Redskins no matter their tribal appropriateness, geographic significance or symbolic public conveyances.  But we know, and now the Washington Post now agrees, that this approach is simply not true.

Historian James Maxwell attempts to defend against these problematic assumptions in the opening paragraphs of his 1978 book Americas Fascinating Indian Heritage.  He artfully utilizes a “we” vs. “they” approach in attempting to showcase - to presumably non-native readers - that they should not assume a grand collective or native sameness in saying, “Although we tend to think of Indians as a single people, they were, in fact, as diverse as the various national of Europe.” 

In taking his Euro-centric rhetorical example a step further, Maxwell provides an example of European Nations - not U.S. States - asthe strongest example in conveying the dynamic differences between native languages, culture, history and long-standing-traditional spirituality. His point is driven home in this comparison, “The Tlingits, for example, were as different from the Sioux as the Greeks are from the Danes.  As the people spread over the North American continent, more than 200 languages and dialects developed, and two were usually no more alike than Russian or Spanish.”  

So,while there will be more research on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Redskins definition and the Fryberg ‘generlizability’ controversies, you can be certain that truth will prevail and Native Americans can go about their business as usual.  Meanwhile the “Change The Mascot” group will undoubtedly pick themselves up off of the deck and simply walk away from their now-legless stool; a four legged narrative built on nefarious claims which was never intended to carry the weight of misinformation they placed squarely upon it. 

Already school board around the United States have dismissed Halbritter’s “Change The Mascot” spokespersons while rejecting the for profit Adidas sponsored fusillades against their schools.  So far in 2016, the Redskins Board in McLoud Oklahoma and the Redmen’s Board in Tewskbury Massachusetts have sent these groups home while other, majority native Redskins High Schools in Arizona (Red Mesa & St. John’s) and Washington State (Willpinit) have done the same in defending their rightful and dignified name. 

Meanwhile, for those school boards that took the ill-conceived recommendations of Habritter’s followers such as John Kane or the eradicate advice of Dr. Staurowsky, real chaos and tension has followed impacting the community and the student body that persists to this day. In Lancaster New York, for instance, a rushed school board decision led to the mass protest of several hundred High School and Middle School students acted outagainst policy and threats of punishment. The bitterness of their non-supported and ill informed decision is evident over a year later as the community has been divided. 

A final message to the Red Clay School Board members rests within the sage words of the Native Leaders of the Native American Guardians Association forwarded in a Conrad School National Resolution forwarded and approved by 500 signatories.  They ask the honorable Conrad leadership to stop the cultural genocide and stand up to the activists working for a shoe company and a politically connected gambling mogul.  


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