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Tackling Indian mascots: An issue with more gray than black and white

Although this space is generally reserved for gaming/gambling issues in Indian country, this week we'll discuss games of a different kind. These games are played on the sports field and in the athletic arena and sometimes involve non-native teams using Indian names, images and symbols to characterize themselves.

When questioned on their support of Indian mascots, most non-Natives claim that the practice "honors" Indians, recognizing their bravery, valor, courage and ferocity of the so-called "noble savage." Such people dismiss Indian mascot opponents as suffering from too much political correctness.

Can you imagine teams with nicknames like "Micks," "Polacks," "Wops" or "Kikes," to say nothing of the "N-word"? Of course not. These are derogatory terms used to degrade particular ethnic groups; even before the advent of political correctness, such words were unacceptable as names of athletic teams. How do I know this? It's quite simple. I challenge readers to find for me a legitimate professional, collegiate, high school, or amateur club anywhere in the U.S. or Canada that has used such a name for one of its teams in the last 100 years. Can't find one? That's how I know.

Supporters often cite "tradition" as a reason to keep their Indian mascots. Indian people have traditions too, and such traditions certainly pre-date those of any modern sports team by hundreds if not thousands of years.

Why are Native Americans, individually and as tribes, excepted from such standards of common decency and respect? Are Indian people the only ones who consider "Redskin" a derogatory term?

Yes, Notre Dame calls itself the "Fighting Irish," while both Hofstra University on Long Island and Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. call themselves the "Dutchmen." The Montreal Canadiens professional hockey team is often referred to as the "Flying Frenchmen." But in these cases, such ethnically based names have not been appropriated without permission or consideration. They were adopted as proud indicators of the primary ethnic heritage associated with these schools or teams. I've seen plenty of people of Irish heritage proudly wearing Notre Dame apparel; I've yet to see someone of Indian heritage happily displaying the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo cartoon logo.

Despite the fact that numerous colleges and high schools have retired Indian names and symbols as mascots, teams called Redskins, Indians, Warriors, Chiefs, Braves, and the like still abound. Yet upon closer examination, determining how offensive a particular name might be is not always a clear-cut distinction. "Redskins," for example, is generally considered unacceptable by Indian people given the clearly pejorative origins of the word. "Indians" and specific tribal names ? Apaches, Commanches, Fighting Sioux, etc. are also generally considered out-of-bounds. Yet the Seminole Indians in Florida have reportedly approved of the use of their tribe's name by Florida State University athletic teams, which raises interesting questions on the propriety of licensing and trade-marking tribal names and symbols.

What about "Warriors"? When not accompanied by a native motif or logo, "Warriors" becomes a rather generic term. Without an Indian logo, "Raiders" may not cross the line, but "Red Raiders" probably does. The so-called "tomahawk chop" used by Atlanta Braves fans is unacceptable to many native people, but being called "brave" is certainly better than being called a "coward." As you delve deeper into the issue of Indian mascots, things become grayer and less black-and-white.

None of the professional major league teams sporting Indian-related names and logos have dropped them; the only minor league team that has done so (that I know of) is the Syracuse (N.Y.) SkyChiefs AAA baseball club. Formerly known simply as the "Chiefs," the team dropped its stylized Indian-head logo a few seasons back in favor of a flying baseball bat. Corny? Yes. Insulting? No.

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Eliminating Indians as athletic mascots is not about political correctness, it's about morality ? specifically, the morality of appropriating an ethnic group's image without that group's consent. The attitude of the pro-mascot crowd that such practice is acceptable smacks not only of cultural superiority, the assumption of "knowing better," but also of ignorance. I hesitate to use "ignorance" as it is a rather harsh word; labeling someone as "ignorant" is generally taken as an insult, which I do not intend.

Yet ignorance, according to Webster, is the state of being "unaware" or "uninformed." Pro-mascot folks are ignorant in that they fail to understand, and perhaps don't want to understand, the fact that feathers and face paint have great cultural and spiritual significance to Indian people. Feathers must be earned; face and body paint designs have distinct meaning and value. They are not to be taken lightly and degraded by someone dressing up to "play Indian" on the sidelines of some stadium.

Pro-mascot people claim to "respect" and "honor" Indians, yet they completely disregard the Indian point of view. How is this respectful? How can someone claim that a caricature or a symbol is meant as an "honor" if the people it is supposed to honor are offended by it? Does the pro-mascot crowd think it and it alone has the authority to decide what is offensive to other people?

This is exactly the attitude that has resulted in the whole Interior trust fund debacle ? the idea that Indian people were in some way inferior and incapable of managing their assets for themselves and that the white man had to do it for him. Regular readers of Indian Country Today know full-well how this mess has compounded upon itself over the years. It is precisely this same attitude, this same arrogance that permeates the Indian mascot issue and perpetuates their use.

The issue of Indians as mascots, while not always a front-page matter, continues to simmer in Indian country. Some tribes are now beginning to amass capital, due in large part to successful gaming endeavors; with that capital comes a degree of political influence and power as well as responsibility. Although Indian country can hardly yet be considered an overly potent political force, at least on a national level, its voice is getting louder and stronger.

Gaming tribes, as well as those seeking compacts, may be in a much better position than ever before to educate and influence the non-Indian world. Perhaps during compact negotiations, or re-negotiations, tribes can pitch the idea of seeking state support or even legislation for the elimination of Indian mascots. Perhaps a piece of the slot win contributed to the state could be set aside to educate non-Indians, both adults and kids, about that particular state's native people.

What's the best way to overcome ignorance? Honest, fact-based education. It's indeed ironic that lawmakers and citizens in Connecticut are now demanding local input in federal recognition decisions, presumably as a mechanism to halt casino proliferation. Yet most of these folks have apparently have made little or no attempt to educate themselves on the history, culture and traditions of their Indian neighbors. How can their input on recognition be in any way valid when they don't understand the people whose recognition they're attempting to squelch?

As people come to better understand each other, trust and respect grow while ignorance and fear diminish. Reinventing or redefining the relationship between the Indian and non-Indian worlds will not be easy given the history between the two peoples. But it is a rift that is worth mending; as it mends, Indian mascots will hopefully become obsolete.

For anyone interested in the debate over Indian mascots, I highly recommend "Dancing at Halftime" by Carol Spindel. This outstanding book, released in paperback earlier this year by New York University Press, is a well-researched and effective examination of this emotionally charged issue. It would be difficult if not impossible to read this book with an open mind and still favor the use of Indian mascots afterwards.