In this era of heightened awareness about the offensiveness of Indian mascots it seems shocking when a publicly funded institution like a school refuses to abolish one—especially a university. Such is the case at San Diego State University where Native students and faculty are once again pressuring the administration to abandon its Aztec mascot.
Leading the charge is Ozzie Monge, a lecturer in the American Indian studies department. Monge just earned a master’s degree and completed a thesis on the history of the school’s Aztec mascot. He’s been giving talks about that history, reigniting debates about the mascot that seemingly were settled in 2000.
Back then, the Native American Student Alliance (NASA) raised the same concerns—that the caricaturized Aztec mascot, known as Monty Montezuma, was disrespectful. NASA’s campaign to abolish the mascot blew up into a city-wide crusade to “Save Monty.” According to Monge’s research, SDSU’s President Stephen Weber—who stated that “Aztecs aren’t Native Americans”—circumvented the process by creating a referendum where a vote by an alumni committee and student body defeated the anti-mascot campaign.
Weber’s denial that Aztecs aren’t Native Americans is how SDSU managed to sidestep a ban on Indian mascots and logos imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 2005.
Student group leader at the time, Manuel Lieras said, “They say that they’re just honoring indigenous culture but.. some guy running around in stereotypical Native clothes, breathing fire and using sacred objects to whip up the crowd. This doesn’t sound like honor to me.”
This in fact is how the school’s Indian mascot continues to be enacted in fraternity parties and other student activities, according to Monge. Photos from a 2009 “Cowboys and ‘Navahoes’” party, for instance, show students dressed in stereotypical “Pocahottie” costumes and war paint while denigrating the name of an indigenous people (and women in general).
“It’s more than just about the mascot. It’s about the ideology of white supremacy that is ingrained into the university’s institutional identity. People have simply forgotten about it,” Monge told ICTMN
“There is a significant number of people on campus who agree with the assessment that [the mascot] is, given its history, inherently racist. What people want to do about that varies. Some want to ‘rehabilitate’ it by teaching ‘accurate history’ about the Aztecs and their culture. But I consider this yet another whitewash, an ‘Aunt Jemima-ing’ of the imagery —that is, revising it to make it ‘less racist’ (hide the racism) while not engaging with the history of racism that led to its creation in the first place,” Monge said.
On another side of the debate are complications for Chicano/a students, Monge points out. This video shows SDSU’s “Aztec Warrior” mascot Rudy Guzman, who as a Mexican American claims Aztec ancestry and feels the Aztec Warrior mascot a part of his identity.
What are the prospects for the retirement of the Aztec moniker and mascot this time around? Caleigh Cornell, a lecturer in American Studies at SDSU told ICTMN: “From my recent experiences in the classroom, there does seem to be more awareness amongst students about how harmful Indian mascots are not only for our campus but for any sports team. Most of my students immediately recognize how problematic cultural appropriation is and how in the name of ‘team spirit’ this can turn sports fans into, as Ozzie puts it, ‘accidental racists.’ Other students who do not at first recognize the harm in Indian mascots, and dismiss it as ‘pride’ or as ‘honoring a culture,’ quickly change their minds after being presented with firsthand accounts, facts, the 1491s video on mascots, the #NotYourMascot campaign on social media, and the Change the Mascot initiatives. This, in turn, results in productive classroom conversations about all mascots, including our own. I know these critical conversations will continue in various forms, and as awareness increases, a change is bound to come.”