Friday, November 27, 2009

Offensive mascots

Thanksgiving started when pilgrims and Indians had a meal together in peace, so it seems like a good time to think about those who want to make Indians and white people hate each other. I am referring, of course, to the small but loud-mouthed minority who object to sports nicknames based on Indians.

(I know, I should say "Native Americans," but I think that is offensive since the name "American" comes from an Italian, so it's not really any better than Indian, is it? We should call them some Indian name, but since Indians spoke over 1000 languages, we could hardly hope to come up with one name that identified them all. So I will stick with Indian, because it is a lot less typing than Native American.)

The issue of Indian team names also comes up this time of year because the NCAA ruled in 2006 that no college can host a bowl game or an NCAA tournament game if they have an Indian team name or mascot that the NCAA deems "hostile or offensive." Apparently the NCAA, along with many liberals, is under the misapprehension that team names are created to "exploit" and "disrespect" their subjects. If all but a few teams used nicknames like the wildcats, tigers, and panthers, there might be a case that Indian names are disrespectful. But how, then, could one explain the use of state nicknames such as the North Carolina Tar Heels, Indiana Hoosiers, Oklahoma Sooners, or Tennessee Volunteers? Why would many schools adopt nicknames based on their field of study -- the Navy Midshipmen, the Purdue Boilermakers, the UTEP Miners, and Aggies at a number of agricultural schools? Why would religious schools often use religious themes when choosing their names and mascots: the Providence Friars, the Holy Cross Crusaders, the Siena Saints, the Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops, even the Wake Forest Demon Deacons? I particularly like the fact that the University of Pennsylvania's teams are named the Quakers, since sports are competitive and often adopt war-like imagery, whereas Quakers are commonly pacifists. Strangely, I haven't heard of any Quakers complaining that their religion is being exploited or disrespected by Penn.

Some people try to draw a distinction between mascots that represent a college's origin and those chosen arbitrarily (see the Wikipedia article "Native American Mascot Controversy" for this and other arguments against Indian mascots). This may work for Louisiana Lafayette's "Ragin' Cajuns," but it is a complete flop for Notre Dame's Fighting Irish: as you might gather from the name, the school was founded by a Frenchman. Notre Dame may or may not have had a large Irish contingent prior to its naming (I have been unable to confirm this), but it is certain that another team, the Boston Celtics, has an Irish nickname with absolutely no basis in its founding or its players. The name "Celtics" was adopted, first, because of a successful prior basketball team with that name; and, second, because of the large number of Irish living in Boston.

In other words, the team's nickname was chosen not because of what the team represents, but because of what it thought its fans would identify with. Professional teams typically adopt names with strong local connotations, commonly an industry (Steelers, Pistons, Magic), but, in this case, a nationality. Similarly, college teams tend to adopt names associated with the college's type of education or with some local significance. That's why we have the Iowa State Cyclones, the Miami Hurricanes the Brooklyn Bridges, and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. It's also why we have the Florida State Seminoles, the Central Michigan Chippewas, the Utah Utes, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and the San Diego State Aztecs. Other teams choose animal names, but, in all cases, they choose names that will excite pride among their players and their supporters. (Except for the UC-Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, but they are just weird.)

Another argument used against Indian nicknames is to point out the lack of black, Mexican, or Asian nicknames in sports. As one person wrote, "Could you imagine people mocking African Americans in black face at a game?” he said. 'Yet go to a game where there is a team with an Indian name and you will see fans with war paint on their faces. Is this not the equivalent to black face?'"

No, no it's not. A person wearing face paint at a sports event is not trying to mock Indians, but to indicate his identity with them. People dress up and put on face and body paint because they are proud of their school and want to show it; and it is not just teams with Indian mascots whose supporters paint themselves. But why Indian mascots and not other nationalities? The unfortunate truth is that Indians and whites have spent much of their history at war. Even at a hopeless techonological disadvantage, however, Indians fought bravely, and we still admire their courage and tenacity in face of the odds. There is no such history of blacks, Mexicans, or Asians in America -- so much the better for their survival, but so much the worse for their suitability as mascots. It is also interesting that, apart from Indian names, the most common racial names are celtic: in addition to the Fighting Irish and the Celtics, there are the Iona Gaels and the Wooster Fighting Scots. Like Indians, Celts have a tradition of being the underdog, and of fighting stubbornly even though outnumbered and outmanned.

Opponents also argue that mascots do not provide "realistic" and "positive" views of Indians. Mascots are not sociology books, so I don't expect them to give a very realistic impression; mostly they emphasize characteristics relevant to sports. Not all mascots are about positive stereotypes, either; Notre Dame's symbol shows a short Irishman ready for a donnybrook, and the Deacon of Wake Forest is a grumpy old man with a cane. Since Baptists are in as much danger of being stereotyped today as anyone, I would have expected them to complain about this if it were a bad thing. But the stereotype Indian mascot is overwhelmingly positive: brave, loyal, and steadfast. If anything, it seems that Indians are idealized, not denigrated, in team mascots. As for historical accuracy, if a mascot named after a particular tribe uses an incorrect costume or is otherwise inaccurate in its portrayal, I suspect that the college would be likely to correct the problems if the Indians wanted to point them out.

I am not completely insensitive to the idea that mascots could be offensive. Unlike some people, who think it is a fine thing to submerge a crucifix in urine or to spread elephant dung on a portrait of the Virgin Mary, I think society works best if we don't go out of our way to offend each other. Of course, no one has a right not to be offended, but I would certainly think twice about doing something offensive to others. That's why I consider it relevant that the vast majority of Indians are not offended by Indian team names. A Sports Illustrated poll in 2002 found that 83% of Indians favoured keeping Indian names on professional sports teams; even 67% of Indians living on reservations supported the use of Indian names. An Annenberg Public Policy poll from 2004 provided even more affirmative results: 91% of Indians approved a nickname that people commonly assume to be offensive, that of the Washington Redskins. The bounteous common sense of most Indians should shame liberal activists into silence. Here is Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, not only an Indian but director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office in Kykotsmovi, Arizona:

"I don't see anything wrong with Indian nicknames as long as they're not meant to be derogatory. Some tribal schools on Arizona reservations use Indians as a nickname themselves. The Phoenix Indian High School's newspaper is The Redskin. I don't mind the tomahawk chop. It's all in good fun. This is sports, after all. In my living room, I'll be watching a Braves game and occasionally do the chop."

Several Indian tribes have officially endorsed the use of their names by colleges: the Utes (Utah), the Seminoles (Florida State), and the Chippewa (Central Michigan). But the fact that most Indians take mascots in the spirit in which they are intended is no deterrent to the activists who want to get rid of them. Central Michigan University recently held a forum "to discuss different views on the use of the nickname." Not only does this seem to be superfluous in light of the Chippewa's professed support (including financial backing to the school), it's also odd that the "different views" on the panel did not include a single representative in favour of keeping the name.

Obviously, some Indians are offended by Indian mascots. But why are non-Indians so anxious to end the use of Indian mascots? Doesn't the approval of most Indians suffice for them? Of course not; for them, the use of Indian mascots is bad, and it doesn't matter what Indians think. (See, for example, this article from the American Indian Sports Team Mascot website which disputes, not the Sports Illustrated poll itself, but its significance in the debate). If I were an Indian, I would be more offended by this patronizing attitude than by any mascot.

Personally, I am saddened by the loss of Indian team names and mascots. Who would have thought, a century ago, that white people today would probably proclaim "I am a Seminole" or "I am a Ute"? We can't bring back those who have died, but we can honour them by holding them up for emulation. This was the case with Chief Illiniwek, the mascot for the University of Illinois until 2007. As recently as 1995, the chief of the Peoria Tribe (the closest living descendants of the Illiniwek Confederacy), declared:

"To say that we are anything but proud to have these portrayals would be completely wrong. We are proud. We're proud that the University of Illinois, the flagship university of the state, a seat of learning, is drawing on that background of our having been there. And what more honor could they pay us?"

Another tribal elder, Ron Froman, said that protesters "don't speak for all Native Americans, and certainly not us." At some time in the next 5 years, however, Froman changed his views entirely; as chief of the Peoria in 2000, he led the council to pass a resolution calling for the retirement of the chief. Under pressure from the NCAA, the university stopped using the chief in 2007.

Pressure will undoubtedly increase on other schools, and, eventually, they may give in. The University of Iowa is among those pushing for a change, as it refuses to schedule non-conference games with teams that have Indian mascots. Ironically, the Iowa nickname, Hawkeyes, was itself derived from an Indian. A friend of Chief Black Hawk suggested the name in order to "...rescue from oblivian [sic] a momento [sic], at least of the name of the old chief." The university has buried the Indian origin of its name by adopting a hawk as its mascot. And so Indians are steadily removed from one of the last areas of public life that their memory and heritage are preserved.

[Check out an update here.]


  1. It's not a "small but loud-mouthed minority" that's behind the effort to rid college campuses of hostile and abusive nicknames based on race, ethnicity, or national origin. It's rather the NCAA, a VOLUNTARY organization of 1,033 colleges and unversities "through which the nation's colleges and universities govern their athletic programs." Your observation that you have not heard of Quakers complaining about the Penn Quakers is riduculous, as I'm sure you realize. Comparing the history and challenges facing Quakers with that of Native Americans is laughable on its face.

  2. No, the effort to rid college campuses of "hostile nicknames" began among activists in the 1960's, long before the NCAA made their first ruling; and it is still, as the polls show, very much a minority opinion.

    Being in the NCAA is voluntary, but very much a requirement for large schools that make money from major sports. I'm sure some schools would have left by now if it wouldn't mean shooting themselves in the foot.

    Finally, it is disingenuous to say that people are trying to get rid of "hostile and abusive nicknames based on race, ethnicity, or national origin." First, none of the nicknames is at all hostile or abusive; the worst that can be argued against them is that they promote stereotypes. Second, people aren't trying to get rid of *any* nicknames except Indian ones. No one is trying to get rid of the Fighting Irish, the Fighting Scots, the Celtics, the Gaels, the Vikings, or the Spartans.

  3. Derek, the best article/blog I have read on this topic yet. Excellent points...I couldn't agree more.