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Collegiate mascots still a serious issue

National Collegiate Athletic Association Executive Committee to take a principled stance in the part of the sports season they control - post-season play.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="yes" status="yes" scrollbars="yes"><p>Indian Country Today</p></a

Persistence is the operative principle in the fight to convince the sporting world that it is doing a disservice to American Indian and Native children by labeling teams and mascots with Indian nicknames and imagery.

It speaks to American obtuseness that so many sports people and media are so thick-headed about the brazen insult and the easy dismissal of the predominate Indian position on the subject.
The national media channels will sometimes put on a serious Indian viewpoint, but then assume the issue is bogus and not worth respecting. Now comes forward the National Collegiate Athletic Association Executive Committee to take a principled stance in the part of the sports season they control - post-season play - that ''abusive'' or ''insulting'' names will not be allowed billing.

18 "hostile" nicknames
The NCAA has identified 18 nicknames or mascots as ''hostile or abusive'' to Native peoples. In what some are calling a small, incremental step, others are announcing it as a victory ''in the right direction.''

One certain outcome: the NCAA has touched off a firestorm that it will hopefully weather with courage and dignity.

The issue of racial or ethic labeling, particularly when epithets are used regularly in public life, is a cause for grave concern, regardless of how the national media will treat the subject. For an American Indian viewpoint, Cindy La Marr, executive director of Capitol Area Indian Resources in Sacramento and former head of the National Indian Education Association, pointed out the danger of identifying ethnic identities with win-lose, emotional situations such as sports. This use of stereotypes, she summed it up, ''harms our children.''

Says the NCAA statement: ''Colleges and universities may adopt any mascot that they wish, as that is an institutional matter. But as a national association, we believe that mascots, nicknames or images deemed hostile or abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin should not be visible at the championship events that we control.''

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (who, by the way, laments the fact that he can't tax Indians), among others, is denouncing the NCAA decision, which comes in the same vein as the recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. that revived the suit against the Washington Redskins' trademark of a racially derogatory mascot. That one is the result of a tenacious pursuit by Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Shown Harjo, et al., including several other noted American Indians who objected to the use of the derogatory term ''redskins'' as a brand name by the football franchise of the country's capital. Beyond a reasonable doubt, plaintiffs in the case proved the clearly insulting and demeaning nature of the term in their lives and in the lives of so many other American Indians throughout history.

Slow but sure trend
Many are up in arms about both the slow but sure trend toward honoring general American Indian wishes on this subject. In Jeb Bush's state, Florida State President T.K. Wetherel (who, to be fair, has a direct relationship with a tribal base) called the NCAA's decision ''outrageous and insulting.'' He pointed to a resolution by the tribal council of the Seminole Tribe of Florida expressing support of the use of its name.

In Wetherel's case he has Seminole Tribal Council President Max Osceola in his corner. It's a pretty unique ''permission'' arrangement, however, apparently also true for the Utah Utes. In both of these rather unique cases, plenty of tribal members and related tribes disagree with the granting of permission for teams to use the names.

Many universities defend themselves with the argument that the use of Indian team and mascot names constitutes institutional tradition. Again, the persistence of an Indian campaigner: ''Florida State University's tradition is that it trademarked its team's name, 'Seminoles,' even though the Seminoles predate the coming of the Europeans and the founding of the school,'' wrote Harjo. ''FSU reduced a great Seminole hero, Osceola, to a sports mascot and further 'honored' his memory by portraying him on the football field as a Plains Indian, complete with horse and feathered war lance.''

Of course, for the other nearly 1,000 teams in both professional and student athletics still using American Indian symbols and nicknames, including most of the 18 specified in the NCAA's new regulation, there is no such permission or arrangement, and each case within the whole suspect practice deserves serious scrutiny.

Stanford 1st university to change nickname
The first major university to change its team name - from the ''Indians'' to the ''Cardinal'' - was Stanford, in 1972. It did so after 55 Indian students challenged the national exposure of the racialist term upon consecutive Rose Bowl wins in 1970 and 1971.

Since 1970, two-thirds (approximately 2,000) of the known use of such names has disappeared. One-third remains to be changed or moderated, but this is a trend moving in the right direction.

The challenges to wanton depiction of Indian images and names go on, despite how they irritate some sports commentators. A legislative attempt to ban the use of ''redskins'' from use by the Calaveras, Chowchilla Union, Colusa, Gustine and Tulare Union high schools, in California, failed last year (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill) but is a bill in the books again this year. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights requested that non-Native schools drop the use of Native images and team names. As of August 2008, the uniforms of cheerleaders, dance teams and band members at NCAA championship sites must drop the display of such nicknames. The now constant threat of potential controversy has many teams with American Indian mascots shy of their own names. Often these, such as the ''Chief Illini'' at the University of Illinois, are ''used only at home games,'' according to an article by Los Angeles Times writer Robyn Norwood.

The schools prohibited at post-season NCAA games from using American Indian imagery or references in their nicknames, logos or mascots are: Alcorn State University (Braves); Central Michigan University (Chippewas); Catawba College (Indians); Florida State University (Seminoles); Midwestern State University (Indians); University of Utah (Utes); Indiana University - Pennsylvania (Indians); Carthage College (Redmen); Bradley University (Braves); Arkansas State University (Indians); Chowan College (Braves); University of Illinois (Illini); University of Louisiana-Monroe (Indians); McMurry University (Indians); Mississippi College (Choctaws); Newberry College (Indians); University of North Dakota (Fighting Sioux); Southeastern Oklahoma State University (Savages).

They represent 18 more places in the country where the discussion on the use of Indian stereotypes and on the surviving reality of tribal peoples is guaranteed. Despite the easy dismissal of general as well as private Indian feelings on this subject by major media, the debate must be joined on offensive language that involves actual peoples and ethnic sensibility. It is never proper to insult whole peoples wantonly, and such discourse diminishes the society that allows it. Using the most polite but firm tone possible, raising our critique against inappropriate and sometimes obnoxious racial identifiers is very much welcome at this time in history.