Monday, April 20, 2015

What's in a Name?

A Florida State student dresses as the warrior Osceola at home football games.
While pressure builds for teams to drop nicknames and imagery that are “hostile or abusive” to Native Americans, some tribes sanction symbolic use. 

Editor's Note: From time to time, this blog will deal with subject matter that has no connection with November Ever After. In this instance, here's a feature piece about the use of Native American images for college sports teams in America. Even among the Native American populace, there are varying points of view about what's OK and what's inappropriate. This article appeared in Convergence Magazine, which is a supplement to  the publications DIVERSE Issues in Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

By Craig T. Greenlee

When the National Collegiate Athletic Association issued letters to schools that had Native American nicknames and mascots, few would have predicted the massive changes that would occur. The year was 2005, and 19 colleges were informed that their nicknames and mascots were potentially “hostile or abusive” to Native Americans.

Those schools were given an ultimatum. The NCAA mandated that they make changes or face severe sanctions. Non-compliance guaranteed two penalties. The NCAA would be banned from displaying their mascots and logo images during post-season play, and from hosting NCAA tournament events. Most schools made the required changes, but the NCAA granted exemptions to a handful of schools with mascots named for specific tribes – Central Michigan (Chippewas), Mississippi College (Choctaws), University of Utah (Utes) and Florida State (Seminoles).

While it is undeniable that attitudes about potentially racist mascots and logos have changed, opinions vary. Many people are offended saying that the imagery often used by teams reinforces stereotypes about Indians, and they argue that the use of such names and images is demeaning. On the opposite end of the debate is the view that the images serve as a viable means to honor Native Americans and are not offensive.

Suzan Shown Harjo
For nearly 40 years, Suzan Shown Harjo, a noted Indians rights activist, has stood at the forefront of efforts to persuade schools, colleges and professional sports teams to do away with the use of Native American nicknames and mascots.

Harjo was involved in the campaign that persuaded the University of Oklahoma to retire its “Little Red” mascot in 1970. More recently, the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office granted Harjo's petition to cancel the federal trademark registrations of the Washington Redskins, a team that has been under tremendous pressure to change its name but has resisted. Last November, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is America's highest civilian honor.

“We've eliminated two-thirds of those teams (grade school and colleges) who had Indian nicknames and mascots,” said Harjo, who is part Cheyenne and part Hodulgee. “That's huge progress. We still have a little over 900 to go and that includes pro sports. Our goal is still zero.”

Harjo said she is optimistic that the use of Native American images for sports will be eliminated.

“When we first started out, it seemed like an insurmountable task,” she said, “but with the passage of time, you come to understand that eventually, those remaining teams will drop those nicknames.”

Dr. Anton Treuer, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, actively campaigns against the use of Indian names and imagery by sports teams. A member of the Ojibwe tribe, he is the author of Everything You Wanted To Know About Indians But Were Afraid To Ask (Borealis Books, 2012).

“The use of human mascots enables a line thinking in which people look at others as objects and not people,” he said. “As Native people who have not been fully understood, it’s so much easier to imagine us in a negative light. So, ultimately, I think we need to get rid of human mascots all together. It’s not just the victims who get dehumanized – the perpetrators and all the impartial observers do too.”

Aside from the use of the names and images, another area of concern is the behavior of some fans at the games who make racist comments or use offensive gestures when Native American symbols are associated with a team. “At sporting events, opposing fans always defile the other team’s mascot in the name of team spirit,” said Treur.

Dr. Anton Treuer
One of the more notable examples occurred three years ago at a hockey game between the University of Minnesota/Diluth and the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux. Some visiting Minnesota/Diluth fans repeatedly chanted “small pox blankets” to the North Dakota fans, a reference to a claim that during the 1750s, white settlers delivered blankets infected with the small pox virus to Indians in an attempt to weaken and kill them.

At the University of North Dakota over the years, the Fighting Sioux nickname has surfaced as a hot-button topic with strong and passionate views on both sides. For some, the nickname was an integral part of school tradition and a source of pride. For others, it was a source of angst and discontent. In retrospect, the death knell for the nickname sounded loudly when the school failed to gain full approval from the Sioux nation.

The curtains finally closed on this decades-long fight in 2012. In a statewide referendum, two-thirds of the voters agreed that it was time for the school to part ways with the nickname it had for 80 years. Since then, UND has had no nickname, no mascot and no logo. A task force is expected to deliver a new nickname, mascot and logo in 2015.

Although the school is no longer using its nickname, the students at North Dakota found a way to keep the memories intact. In this instance, however, it proved to be a case of exercising poor taste. During the spring of 2014, some UND students posted pictures of their Springfest T-shirts on social media. The words “SOUIXPER DRUNK” were printed on their custom-made shirts. Positioned below the words was a drawing of an Indian chief, resembling the retired logo, drinking out of a beer bong. This act of brazen insensitivity was widely condemned and drew a sharp rebuke from the school's president.

Not all Native Americans, however, have opposed the use of tribal names. Among tribes that have supported use of their names are the Utes. The University of Utah has used the Utes name for more than 40 years.

Forrest Cuch, a Utes representative, contends that the Ute tribe benefits immensely from having the state's flag ship school use its name and logo for its sports teams. The logo, known as the circle and feathers, was designed by a Ute tribe member. Even though the school has an Indian nickname, the mascot is a red-tailed hawk called “Swoop.”

“Since we don't control media, having the university use our name and logo works out very well,” said Cuch. “It's our only means to maintain our past and present connection to the Salt Lake Valley and the state of Utah.”

The state of Utah and the Ute Indians have a long-standing relationship. Not only was the name of the state derived from the name Ute, but the University of Utah is located on the Utes’ ancestral tribal lands.

“We're very sensitive to not engage in the use of stereotypical, racial caricatures,” said Fred Esplin, vice-president of institutional development at Utah. “There's a consistent pattern of working closely with the tribe to make sure that we honor them by the use of their name. We've made it clear that if the day ever comes that the tribe wishes for us to stop using the Ute name for our athletic teams, we'll discontinue its use.”

A year ago, the university and the Utes signed a formal agreement. Under its terms, the tribe fully endorsed the continued use of the Utes nickname and logo. In exchange, the school provides scholarships for American Indians which includes a permanent scholarship source for Ute tribe members. Some of the other provisions include: creation of a position as adviser to the President on American Indian Affairs, who must be approved by the Utah Tribal Leaders Council; preparation of Ute-approved materials to educate the public about the history of the Utes; and a code for conduct for fan behavior that encourages respect for Ute traditions.

“This new agreement has substance and provides excellent opportunities for Indian students,” said Cuch, who helped to draft the agreement. “The educational campaign will be very helpful. Plus, the upgrade in the Native studies department will go a long way in telling the complete story about the Indian tribes in America.”
Of all the schools that have a Native American connection, Florida State may have the most unique relationship with a tribe, the Seminoles. FSU is the only school that continues to use Indian images for both its mascot and logo, and the Seminole tribe has given its wholehearted support. At FSU football games, Osceola, the Seminole warrior, rides an Appaloosa horse named Renegade. Playing the warrior – whose clothing is designed by Seminoles – is considered a privilege, and he's not even perceived as a mascot. 

“Florida State does not have a mascot,” said Browning Brooks, FSU spokesperson. “Instead we have the honor of calling ourselves 'Seminoles' in admiration of the only Native American tribe never conquered by the U.S. Government.”

The federal government waged three wars against the Seminoles in the 1800s to make the Indians’ land available to the white settlers. Tribe members, in the meantime, were expected to vacate their land and live on a federal reservation in Oklahoma. The Seminoles put up fierce resistance and never surrendered. The remnant of the tribe that remained lived in the Florida Everglades. After the third war ended in 1858, the government halted its efforts to relocate the Seminoles. That’s why they’re often referred to as “the unconquered people.”

In 2005, the Seminoles Tribal Council took an unprecedented step and invited T.K Wetherell, then president of FSU, to the Big Cypress Reservation. He received a written resolution from the council voicing its overwhelming support for the school.

Over the years, Florida State has made a conscious effort to make tribe members an active and visible part of campus life. For example: Tribal members travel to Tallahassee each year to crown the homecoming chief and princess, who dress in authentic Seminoles regalia; and at every university commencement, tribe members wear brightly-colored Seminole clothing to serve as the color guard.

The university has a scholarship program for students from the reservation and tribe members helped to design a popular course, “History of the Seminoles and the Southeastern Tribes.”

“FSU considers it a great privilege to represent a group of people whose courage and spirit we honor and respect,” said Brooks. “We won't ever engage in any activity that does not have the approval of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Tribe members do not just give a stamp of approval from afar. They are full participants in the activities of the university.”

Despite the willingness of some tribes to have their names used, Treuer of Minnesota remains steadfast that the names and mascots must go. “Even though there isn’t universal agreement in the Native American community, most Native people do object,” Treuer said. “Organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) have voted to repudiate the use of Native American imagery for sports teams. So, they’re not just saying don’t use the Redskins. They’re saying don’t use Native imagery. Period.”

Established in 1944, the NCAI is the oldest and largest national body that represents all of the 566 tribes that are federally-recognized. In a position paper published six years ago, the organization gave its full support to the NCAA edict against Native American nicknames and mascots.

“The use of Native American mascots, logos and symbols depicting American Indian people are offensive to us, and such depictions are inaccurate, unauthentic representations of the rich diversity and complex history of the more than 560 Indian Tribes in the United States and perpetuate cultural and racial stereotypes,” the paper said.