Persistence is the operative principle in the fight to convince the
sporting world that it is doing a disservice to American Indian and Native
children by labeling teams and mascots with Indian nicknames and imagery.
It speaks to American obtuseness that so many sports people and media are
so thick-headed about the brazen insult and the easy dismissal of the
predominate Indian position on the subject. The national media channels
will sometimes put on a serious Indian view-point, but then assume the
issue is bogus and not worth respecting.
Now comes forward the National Collegiate Athletic Association Executive
Committee to take a principled stance in the part of the sports season they
control -- post-season play -- that "abusive" or "insulting" names will not
be allowed billing. The NCAA has identified 18 nicknames or mascots as
"hostile or abusive" to Native peoples. In what some are calling a small,
incremental step, others are announcing it as a victory "in the right
One certain outcome: the NCAA has touched off a firestorm that it will
hopefully weather with courage and dignity.
The issue of racial or ethic labeling, particularly when epithets are used
regularly in public life, is a cause for grave concern, regardless of how
the national media will treat the subject. For an American Indian
viewpoint, Cindy La Marr, executive director of Capitol Area Indian
Resources in Sacramento and former head of the National Indian Education
Association, pointed out the danger of identifying ethnic identities with
win-lose, emotional situations such as sports. This use of stereotypes, she
summed it up, "harms our children."
Says the NCAA statement: "Colleges and universities may adopt any mascot
that they wish, as that is an institutional matter. But as a national
association, we believe that mascots, nicknames or images deemed hostile or
abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin should not be
visible at the championship events that we control."
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (who, by the way, laments the fact that he can't tax
Indians), among others, is denouncing the NCAA decision, which comes in the
same vein as the recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington,
D.C. that revived the suit against the Washington Redskins' trademark of a
racially derogatory mascot. That one is the result of a tenacious pursuit
by Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Shown Harjo, et al., including
several other noted American Indians who objected to the use of the
derogatory term "redskins" as a brand name by the football franchise of the
country's capital. Beyond a reasonable doubt, plaintiffs in the case proved
the clearly insulting and demeaning nature of the term in their lives and
in the lives of so many other American Indians throughout history.
Many are up in arms about both the slow but sure trend toward honoring
general American Indian wishes on this subject. In Jeb Bush's state,
Florida State President T.K. Wetherel (who, to be fair, has a direct
relationship with a tribal base) called the NCAA's decision "outrageous and
insulting." He pointed to a resolution by the tribal council of the
Seminole Tribe of Florida expressing support of the use of its name.
In Wetherel's case he has Seminole Tribal Council President Max Osceola in
his corner. It's a pretty unique "permission" arrangement, however,
apparently also true for the Utah Utes. In both of these rather unique
cases, plenty of tribal members and related tribes disagree with the
granting of permission for teams to use the names.
Many universities defend themselves with the argument that the use of
Indian team and mascot names constitutes institutional tradition. Again,
the persistence of an Indian campaigner: "Florida State University's
tradition is that it trademarked its team's name, 'Seminoles,' even though
the Seminoles predate the coming of the Europeans and the founding of the
school," wrote Harjo. "FSU reduced a great Seminole hero, Osceola, to a
sports mascot and further 'honored' his memory by portraying him on the
football field as a Plains Indian, complete with horse and feathered war
Of course, for the other nearly 1,000 teams in both professional and
student athletics still using American Indian symbols and nicknames,
including most of the 18 specified in the NCAA's new regulation, there is
no such permission or arrangement, and each case within the whole suspect
practice deserves serious scrutiny.
The first major university to change its team name - from the "Indians" to
the "Cardinal" - was Stanford, in 1972. It did so after 55 Indian students
challenged the national exposure of the racialist term upon consecutive
Rose Bowl wins in 1970 and 1971.
Since 1970, two-thirds (approximately 2,000) of the known use of such names
has disappeared. One-third remains to be changed or moderated, but this is
a trend moving in the right direction.
The challenges to wanton depiction of Indian images and names go on,
despite how they irritate some sports commentators. A legislative attempt
to ban the use of "redskins" from use by the Calaveras, Chowchilla Union,
Colusa, Gustine and Tulare Union high schools, in California, failed last
year (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill) but is a bill in the
books again this year. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
requested that non-Native schools drop the use of Native images and team
names. As of August 2008, the uniforms of cheerleaders, dance teams and
band members at NCAA championship sites must drop the display of such
nicknames. The now constant threat of potential controversy has many teams
with American Indian mascots shy of their own names. Often these, such as
the "Chief Illini" at the University of Illinois, are "used only at home
games," according to an article by Los Angeles Times writer Robyn Norwood.
The schools prohibited at post-season NCAA games from using American Indian
imagery or references in their nicknames, logos or mascots are: Alcorn
State University (Braves); Central Michigan University (Chippewas); Catawba
College (Indians); Florida State University (Seminoles); Midwestern State
University (Indians); University of Utah (Utes); Indiana University -
Pennsylvania (Indians); Carthage College (Redmen); Bradley University
(Braves); Arkansas State University (Indians); Chowan College (Braves);
University of Illinois (Illini); University of Louisiana-Monroe (Indians);
McMurry University (Indians); Mississippi College (Choctaws); Newberry
College (Indians); University of North Dakota (Fighting Sioux);
Southeastern Oklahoma State University (Savages).
They represent 18 more places in the country where the discussion on the
use of Indian stereotypes and on the surviving reality of tribal peoples is
guaranteed. Despite the easy dismissal of general as well as private Indian
feelings on this subject by major media, the debate must be joined on
offensive language that involves actual peoples and ethnic sensibility. It
is never proper to insult whole peoples wantonly, and such discourse
diminishes the society that allows it. Using the most polite but firm tone
possible, raising our critique against inappropriate and sometimes
obnoxious racial identifiers is very much welcome at this time in history.
The NCAA deserves all of Indian country's appreciation and respect.