The NCAA is learning what it's like to be mocked, cartooned, lampooned and
vilified -- in short, what it's like to be Indian in the world of sports.
After only days of this treatment, the NCAA should appreciate even more
keenly the importance of their decision to the health, safety and emotional
well-being of Native and non-Native students, who are and should be their
The NCAA decided that their teams can represent themselves as they will at
home, but they need to be on their best behavior in public. It's a mature
decision that provides an instruction about what is and is not appropriate,
fitting and proper for good sports and champions.
It's the rough equivalent of the civil rights movement sending the message
that the N-word is not acceptable in polite society. Is this PC? Yes, as
someone said long ago, it's Plain Courtesy.
Some NCAA schools had the decency to voluntarily drop their "Indian"
references before the decision was forced on them. Others are squealing
like stuck pigs and calling the NCAA decision-makers every name in every
book, and then some.
Schools that have appropriated specific tribal names and symbols are
pushing their Indians out front to say how proud they are to be mascots and
how well their schools treat them, and to accuse the NCAA of making an
Actually, the decision is pro-Indian -- the human being, not the mascot --
but a lot of folks just can't tell the difference.
Most of the commentators on this issue lump "Indian" sports references in
with the bears, tigers, banana slugs, geoducks and leprechauns.
They don't seem to notice that they are species hopping from humans to
creatures and mythical beings, and that only the "Indians" are based on
A few of the pundits feel they have to point out that the "Indian" sports
references aren't real, as if the NCAA and Native people thought they were.
And, they come up with the ever-popular question: don't you have more
important things to do for American Indians? No one who's ever asked that
question is doing anything to help Native people.
Here's my question to everyone who's in a dither about the NCAA's decision:
don't you have anything better to do than hang on to these toys of racism?
Some Native people are cutting deals with schools that haven't given them
more than a handful of scholarships in decades and haven't bothered to ask
before now if it's OK to use their names, heroes and symbols. The
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign would likely try to bargain with
the local Native nations, if there were any left in the state.
The excuse from the Native deal-makers in Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma and
Utah is this: if we give them what they want for sports, they'll leave our
casinos and land alone.
Non-Native deal-makers are turning this into a states' rights issue, daring
the NCAA to come into their state schools and upset their fine Indian
citizens. (Any Native people who object to being mascotted or tokenized are
subjected to the standard anti-Indian name-calling and slurs.)
Florida State University and the state politicians are so desperate for
tribal political cover that the Seminoles should demand that the school
change its name to Florida Seminole University. It wouldn't even have to
change its initials. While they're at it, FSU could call its team the
"Floridians" and use St. Augustine as its mascot.
There is dignity and respect in a school's name, but a mascot is not
dignified or respected.
It is shameful that the mighty Osceola is portrayed as a mascot. He is
represented with fakey "war paint," which he never wore; on an Appaloosa
horse, which he never rode; with a Plains Indian war lance, which he never
used; acting the fool, which he never was; and performing for non-Indians
-- which he never, ever did.
FSU may well get its way. They've twisted arms and gained support from the
Florida and Oklahoma Seminole governmental leaders, who now have the hard
job of explaining to the Seminole people why their nationhood is to be
diminished and their children to be raised as mascots.
You can bet that FSU would not dare to approach other countries or people
of other races to be their new team name or mascot. Imagine the reaction to
renaming the team "Cuba" or "Cubans." Would the Utah "Mormons" be embraced
warmly by the actual Mormon people?
Happily, there is a growing consensus about most of the "Indian" names --
"Redskins," "Savages" and other slurs have to go. The generic names are no
longer acceptable if they have a "Native" context.
Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell called the NCAA's decision "a major
step forward" and "a positive, important decision."
Campbell, who is Cheyenne, said, "A lot of people need help understanding
that it's wrong to use any derogatory name for a sports team. When I
explain to African-Americans that it would be like a team called the
'Washington Darkies,' they understand. When I ask Hispanics how they would
feel about a team called the 'Spics,' they understand."
Campbell served in the House from 1987 to 1993 and then in the Senate until
this year. "One way I explained this problem to colleagues in Congress was
through legislation," he said.
"I introduced a bill that would have prevented the 'Washington Redskins'
from using federal property [the RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.]. So Jack
Kent Cooke [the team's owner] picked up and moved to Virginia before we
could get it passed."
Campbell's bill had solid cosponsors, including civil rights luminary Rep.
John Lewis, D-Ga., and employed the same approach and stadium that were
used by the Kennedy Administration in 1962, when it forced desegregation by
with-holding approval of the federal lease renewal. The Washington football
club was the last in the NFL to allow African-Americans to play on its
"The NCAA decision, coupled with the recent decision in the case about the
Washington team's name, is very significant," said Walter R. Echo-Hawk, who
is an attorney for the Indian friends of the court in the lawsuit, Harjo et
al. v. Pro Football, Inc. (This writer is, ahem, that Harjo.)
Echo-Hawk, who is Pawnee and a senior attorney with the Native American
Rights Fund, represents the National Congress of American Indians, National
Indian Education Association, National Indian Youth Council and the Tulsa
Indian Coalition Against Racism in the case.
"These two decisions," said Echo-Hawk, "could mark a turning point in this
longstanding campaign to end this form of racism."
The NCAA can take comfort in knowing that the major national Native
organizations applaud their decision. Unfortunately, the NCAA also knows
how it is to be booed and hissed by loud, mean fanatics.
Welcome to our world, where courage is not only prized, but essential in
order to maintain a position of honor.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian