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Note to Congress: Stop shielding ‘Indian’ mascots and start defending Indian people


It seems that you have to be an “Indian” mascot or an Abramoff-like high roller in a skybox to get the attention of some members of Congress.

At the same time that Native Americans are still denied full access to the justice system, some legislators want to throw open the courthouse doors to those who stereotype Native peoples.

Usually, it doesn’t matter when a few congressmen drop a private interest bill. But when one of the sponsors is Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, it matters.

The Hastert bill would hand a few schools a lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has ruled that its members’ “hostile” and “abusive” sports signifiers are not permitted in championship games. The bill is an admission that the schools don’t have a legal leg to stand on.

Hastert’s May 4 bill was introduced in reaction to the NCAA’s April 28 decision to retain three universities on the list of those “subject to restrictions on the use of Native American mascots, names and imagery at NCAA championships.”

Among the objectionable “Indian” references is one in Hastert’s home state, “Chief Illiniwek,” mascot of the University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign.

The other schools are the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s “Indians.” Illinois and Pennsylvania cleared their states of Indian people long ago. North Dakota shares borders with Native nations and none of them supports the “Fighting Sioux.”

In denying the universities’ appeals of earlier decisions, the NCAA concluded that their “Native” references “create hostile or abusive environments inconsistent with the NCAA constitution and inconsistent with the NCAA commitment to diversity, respect and sportsmanship.”

The NCAA’s decision means the schools “will only be invited to participate in NCAA championships if they elect to do so without Native American references on their uniforms and associated athletic program activities. It also means these institutions will not be allowed to host NCAA championship events.”

Hastert’s bill would allow institutions of higher education to reach back to August of 2005, before the NCAA rendered any decisions, to sue the NCAA and collect attorney fees and damages. The bill specifies that lawsuits would be “against entities that improperly regulate intercollegiate sports activities.”

It is virtually unheard of for Congress to provide retroactive causes of action because courts usually toss them out as unconstitutional.

Two other Illinois members co-sponsored the bill, Rep. Timothy Johnson, a Republican who represents the district home of “Chief Illiniwek,” and Rep. Jerry F. Costello, a Democrat.

The other original sponsor is Rep. F. Allen Boyd Jr., who represents Tallahassee, Fla., home of the Florida State University “Seminoles.” The NCAA let FSU off the hook after Gov. Jeb Bush and state legislators professed undying admiration for the Seminole Tribe, which gave its blessing to FSU.

Johnson says House Bill 5289 is “in the interest of preserving the sovereignty of member institutions.” That statement envisions creating an academic sovereignty that is on a par with tribal sovereignty, and it’s a slam at the NCAA for recognizing tribal sovereignty in matters regarding usage of tribal names and images.

The NCAA “has assumed the mantle of social arbiters,” says Johnson. “They need to go back to scheduling ballgames and leave the social engineering to others.”

Stephen J. Kaufman, a UIUC professor of cell and structural biology, says the bill is “hypocrisy” on Johnson’s part. “Johnson was a co-sponsor of a bill in the Illinois State Legislature to make Chief Illiniwek the symbol of the (school),” says Kaufman, “thus taking away the decision-making power from the university.”

Kaufman also points out that the “elected Student/ Faculty Senate of the University of Illinois voted overwhelmingly, 97 to 29, to remove (the mascot). It was political interference by people like Mr. Johnson that subverted the autonomy of the university and quashed that vote.”

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Johnson paints a dire picture of economic chaos: “Local economies across the country would be impacted if the NCAA’s recent decisions are allowed to prevail unchecked.”

It is difficult to imagine the negative economic impact Johnson predicts.

NCAA rulings only affect NCAA-member schools and only those with “Indian” names and symbols that are “hostile” or “abusive.”

The schools are voluntary members of the NCAA and aren’t forced to change anything. They just have to leave their racial stereotypes behind when they compete for championships.

Even if the schools do change their “Indian” references, they have only a one-time cost, but a double sales opportunity in both memorabilia and new paraphernalia.

When the Washington “Wizards” changed from the “Bullets” in 1997, the merchandise sales offset the costs of converting to the new name.

There are fans and there are fanatics. The UIUC diehards will likely wear their orange “Chief Illiniwek” shirts to the nursing homes.

It’s an odd spectacle to see the occasional septuagen-arian fans in tattered “Indians” paraphernalia at Stanford University and Dartmouth College games, where their “Indian” references were jettisoned in 1973 and 1974, respectively.

Most people don’t recall that the University of Oklahoma once had a mascot called “Little Red.” That was the first “Indian” reference to be eliminated from the American sports scene. Then, in 1970, there were over 3,000 “Indian” sports references. Now, there are fewer than 1,000.

In the past 36 years, as over two-thirds of the schools have eliminated their “Indian” sports references, the economic impact has been negligible. Native people measure the difference in terms of a more civil society.

Most of the remaining “Indian” references remaining are in athletic programs of elementary, middle and high schools.

Of the institutions of higher education on the NCAA list, the NCAA reports that four were removed because of approvals by “namesake” tribes; five changed or are changing their references; six remain on the list, with one appeal pending; three are pending NCAA staff review; and one is on a watch list.

The Hastert bill is the “Protection of University Governance Act of 2006.” Its name is so innocuous that Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., mistakenly added his name to the bill because he thought it “would help schools such as Southeastern Oklahoma State University (formerly, “Savages”) recoup costs associated with eliminating offensive mascots.”

Boren withdrew support for the bill on May 9, saying, “Upon further inspection it is clear to me that this bill does not achieve that goal. Rather, this bill helps those schools that refuse to change and I cannot support that effort.”

Every major national Native organization since the 1960s has advocated for the elimination of all “Indian” names, images, symbols, logos, mascots and behaviors.

At the same time, Native peoples have pleaded with Congress, to no avail, for a right of action to defend sacred places. Without that, irreplaceable treasures are being desecrated and destroyed.

It is disgraceful that any member of Congress would open the door to frivolous lawsuits to shield offensive sports signifiers while keeping the courthouses barricaded against living Native Americans who are trying to gain religious freedom.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.