April 16, 2001
WHAT’S IN A (TEAM) NAME?
The war against Indian symbols
Call it a case of March Madness. As the NCAA’s basketball tournament prepared to get under way, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights signaled its intention to condemn the University of Illinois and its top-seeded team, the Fighting Illini. Actually, the commission didn’t single out the poor Illini; it blasted all sports teams that use Indian names and images. In a way, that’s great news: If the commission has the time and energy to fret over such trivia as the University of North Dakota calling its hockey squad the Fighting Sioux, then perhaps the state of civil rights and race relations is better than we thought. The commission once investigated and exposed examples of authentic discrimination; now it’s just playing games.
Then again, this is an issue of great seriousness to some people, and it has been for a while. It’s a bit surprising, in fact, that the commission waited so long to tackle the subject. Three decades ago, Stanford University quit using the moniker “Indians” (now its teams go by “The Cardinal,” as in the color). Dartmouth soon followed suit, and now every year or two another college or university scraps an Indian nickname. The Marquette Warriors morphed into the Golden Eagles. The St. John’s Redmen have become the Red Storm. In Ohio, Miami University switched from the Redskins to the Redhawks. On March 13, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois was hauled into the scrum over the Fighting Illini and their mascot. “I think it’s done honorably. I think it’s done professionally,” he said. “I don’t see any degradation to it at all.”
The commission couldn’t disagree more: It sees degradation everywhere. A draft statement discussed at the panel’s March 9 meeting said that Indian team names perpetuate “harmful stereotypes” and foster “a racially hostile environment”; “they also encourage biases and prejudices”; “they are offensive, harmful, [and] dehumanizing”; and so on. In the midst of all this came a whopper: the notion that schools employing these names “may violate” federal civil-rights laws because they discriminate “on the basis of race, color, or national origin” and prevent “‘full and equal employment’ in places of public accommodation.” In other words, the commission thinks the Department of Justice should go on the warpath against at least five dozen colleges and universities, plus hundreds if not thousands of high schools-all because of what they call their sports teams.
That’s not likely to happen. Statements adopted by the commission carry only the force of suggestion, and they are easily (and appropriately) ignored. The legal principle involved here is pretty thin, too. But that doesn’t mean the commission’s statement will have no effect when it’s approved, probably on April 13. Harsh rhetoric is sure to generate plenty of media attention, especially in places where a local team is the object of the controversy.
It should matter, however, that Indians themselves don’t uniformly believe that “these references . . . are disrespectful and offensive,” as the commission’s proposed statement asserts. It is true that some Indians feel this way, and their sentiments shouldn’t be dismissed. But it is also true that many Indians have a rather different view of the issue. The first point is an obvious one: People don’t name teams after things they hate. A team name is designed to project some quality fans and athletes can admire and emulate, whether it’s toughness (Georgia Bulldogs), ferocity (Michigan Wolverines), or regional pride (Kansas Jayhawks). The Michigan State Spartans use what is basically an ethnic term, albeit a classical one, to convey a sense of military vigor. (Is there a team anywhere in sports called the Athenians?) This is, at bottom, a sign of respect-and it should come as no surprise that many people believe they honor Indians when they name teams after them.
It makes sense that people would want to do this. Indians, after all, occupy a special niche in the American imagination, in which they are associated with martial courage and a spirituality grounded in the natural world. It is no accident that the environmental movement’s most effective symbol was the Indian (portrayed by actor Iron Eyes Cody) who shed tears in the “Keep America Beautiful” anti-litter commercials of the 1970s. Because of these positive associations, tribal names find their way onto all kinds of consumer products, such as the Jeep Cherokee and the Dodge Dakota. For the same reason, Indian images appear on U.S. currency, such as the old Indian-head nickel and the new Sacajawea dollar. The Army even names its helicopters after tribes: the Apache Longbow, the Kiowa Warrior, the Comanche, and the Blackhawk. If we were to follow the commission’s principle to its logical conclusion, a number of cities (e.g., Chicago, Miami, and Milwaukee), plus about half the states, would have to be renamed.
Complicating the picture is the fact that Indian tribes aren’t the only ethnic groups to have teams named after them. The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame-perhaps the most popular college-football team in the country, thanks to what is essentially a tribal loyalty among Irish-Americans-are probably the best-known example of this. And they’re not alone. There are also the Bethany College Swedes, the Edinboro University Fighting Scots, the Iona Gaels, and the Sonoma State University Cossacks. (The Idaho Vandals and the Southern California Trojans arguably belong in the club, too.) Then there are the San Diego State University Aztecs: In a student referendum last fall, 95 percent supported keeping the name and 87 percent supported keeping the “Monty Montezuma” mascot and logo. In professional sports, there are the Minnesota Vikings and the Montreal Canadiens (note the French spelling). The San Diego Padres introduce not just an ethnic Hispanic dimension but a religious Catholic one. Yet few if any people think these team names are slanderous, even after a losing season. The Catholics are so relaxed about team names, in fact, that Pope John Paul II once said Mass at Sun Devil Stadium, where the Arizona State Sun Devils play football. (The school at least had the decency to cover up pictures of the team mascot: “Sparky,” a devil complete with horns and pitchfork.)
The civil-rights commission’s proposed statement doesn’t mention any of this, but merely asserts that Indians fall into a special category owing to “the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.” What the commission and its allies want, however, is their own kind of forced assimilation: a government directive ordering schools to abandon distinctive names in favor of generic ones. This is what happened ten years ago in Michigan, when the federal commission’s state-level affiliate bullied Eastern Michigan University into changing its team name from the Hurons to the Eagles. The regents voted to make the switch, without even consulting the descendants of the Hurons. The Huron-Wyandotte Association of Southern Michigan complained that nobody at the school had bothered to contact them, and that they actually had been proud of the Huron-EMU connection. Chiefs from tribes in Oklahoma and Canada visited the campus and urged the school to reverse course, but without success. The name Huron has been totally purged from campus, except for a small meeting room occasionally used by students who probably think it’s named after the nearby Huron River.
If the Hurons have been assimilated out of sports, Cleveland’s professional baseball team gets its name from a case of successful integration. In 1915, the club decided to honor Louis Sockalexis, the first American Indian to play in the major leagues, by calling itself the Indians. Many tribal activists seem unaware of this history-a fault that may lie more with the team than anybody else-and bitterly complain about the organization’s smiling-Indian logo.
There are, in fact, many examples of teams and tribes cooperating for mutual benefit. Florida State University has an outstanding relationship with the state’s Seminole tribe. The team mascot is Chief Osceola, a mounted student who plants a burning spear in the middle of the football field right before kickoff. His costume was designed in collaboration with the tribe, and he is named after a specific historical figure: The real Osceola confounded federal soldiers during the 1830s, and, as both kinds of Seminoles like to point out, he was never defeated. At FSU’s annual homecoming game, tribal members crown the king and queen. The school band is called the Marching Chiefs. And the Seminoles’ biggest fan may be Seminole Chief James Billie, who has criticized non-Seminole Indian groups that oppose FSU’s team name. The tribe doesn’t receive any sort of compensation, but it does earn a different kind of payoff: Because of Florida State’s success on the gridiron, the Seminoles are probably one of the few Indian tribes ordinary Americans can place on a map. It’s an unconventional form of education, though it’s hard to think of one that would produce better results.
Central Michigan University isn’t a sports powerhouse like FSU, but the same principle operates for its Chippewas. “The team name helps people recognize that we’re a tribe in the middle of Michigan,” says Frank Cloutier, a spokesman for the Saginaw Chippewa tribe. The CMU administration works closely with tribal members to keep them comfortable with the association. The school has agreed, for instance, to keep the image of a Chippewa off its logo. Fans don’t perform the “tomahawk chop” at games. There’s no drum-beating in the stands. Architects are even consulting with Chippewa leaders to incorporate cultural symbols into the design for a new health building on campus.
Students at these schools can gain a special opportunity to learn about their affiliated tribes. Although several tribes formally oppose the University of North Dakota’s team name, the Spirit Lake Tribal Council passed a resolution last December saying that “if the University is going to be representing the ‘Fighting Sioux,’ the students should be made aware of the unique culture they will be representing.” That’s a good idea, and it’s exactly what happens at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, Colo., where students cheer for the Warriors on the football field and learn about the real Arapahoe in the classroom. The school gym is named after Anthony Sitting Eagle, an Arapahoe leader, and every year the students celebrate “Arapahoe Day.” Tribal members travel from their reservation to teach about their customs and history. A similar exchange occurs between students at Arcadia High School near Los Angeles and an Apache tribe in Arizona. Last fall, the school band performed at an Apache reservation, and Apache leaders spoke and danced at Arcadia. None of this would have happened but for the school’s team name. An added twist is that many of Arcadia’s students come from Chinese-immigrant families.
There are plenty of cases in which the objections to Indian names are reasonable. The descendants of the Lakota Sioux leader Crazy Horse have sued the brewer of Original Crazy Horse Malt Liquor. But even if they had not, naming a brand of beer after an Indian leader or tribe is in egregiously poor taste, given the sordid history of “firewater” and the chronic problem of alcoholism on reservations.
The sports world, too, could stand some improvement. A few years ago, the Alcorn State Scalping Braves appropriately lost their adjective. There are a handful of high schools that call their teams the Savages, and use cartoonish Indian mascots. Traditions often are worth defending simply because they’re traditions, but some teams may want to ask themselves whether their name or logo is one that, say, an expansion club might proudly adopt today. By this standard, the Washington Redskins should reconsider their name. The team’s Indian-head logo is perfectly respectable, and it was even designed by an Indian artist. The real problem, however, is a distasteful name that is the equivalent of other teams calling themselves the Palefaces or the Yellow Horde. The teams’ owners and fans may mean no disrespect, but the name is functionally a slur. Indian activists have targeted the Redskins on this basis, and they’ve experienced some success. In 1998, they sued under an old copyright law that forbids disparaging trademarks-the team currently earns millions annually from the sale of T-shirts, hats, and other merchandise. The Indian activists won the first round, but the case remains in court. There would be some measure of justice in the Redskins’ owners losing the lawsuit.
But there would be no justice in vanquishing every last Indian reference found in the wide world of sports. Imagine that no teams had ever chosen to name themselves after a tribe: There would still be bunch of clubs called the Cowboys, a few dubbed the Bison or the Wranglers-but not a single one derived from the indigenous people of North America. It’s tempting to think that the same activists who now complain that the presence of Indian team names is an insult would then say that the absence of Indian team names is proof of racism. And in that latter claim, there would be substantially more justice.