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Totem Role

David Swerdlick
Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois

When will American sports teams stop using Indians as mascots?

Remember when Greg Brady and his Westdale High School chums stole Coolidge High’s mascot -- a live goat named Raquel -- before the big game? Just think how awkward that Brady Bunch episode would have been if Coolidge’s mascot had been a loin cloth-clad Native American warrior. It would have been undeniably tacky if the Coolidge Indian had been stowed away in the Bradys’ attic until Greg finally fessed up to mom and dad. Thankfully, the show’s writers had enough of a sense of propriety to go with a goat instead of writing a script in which an Indian had to sneak downstairs in the middle of the night for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, only to scare the bejesus out of Alice as she prepared her own midnight snack wearing a robe and curlers.

It was 1973 when The Brady Bunch writers (inadvertently, most likely) demonstrated such sensitivity; 33 years later mascots remain a touchy subject in the real world. On October 6, 2006, the University of North Dakota went to federal court to challenge the NCAA’s decision to require UND and two other schools to abandon their use of American Indian names and mascots or forfeit the right to host NCAA championship events -- in UND’s case, hockey. The University of Illinois Fighting Illini can no longer have Chief Illiniwek, the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux its Sioux Crew, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania will have to get rid of its highly imaginative name: the Indians. The Bradley Braves earned a reprieve, but are on a five-year watch list. It started last July when the NCAA took action to eventually ban the use of Native American mascots for NCAA teams, with a few exceptions given out to schools that can demonstrate specific historical ties between their teams’ names and particular American Indian groups.

Perhaps the issue seems outdated, a relic of the politically correct 1990s and indicative of a so-called culture of grievance. But what could be more of a whiny, petty grievance than complaining upon being asked to change the mascot of your university’s athletic program? What could be less gracious than throwing a tantrum in order to insist on being able to perpetually stereotype your fellow Americans? No one has asked these schools to repent for the sins of manifest destiny. But common decency demands a better rationale for Indian mascots other than “it’s always been that way.”

Maybe the issue has been made too complicated over the years. So rather than tackling this problem as a referendum on American history or an exposition of identity politics, perhaps it should be treated as a straightforward Emily Post-ian case of manners and deportment. Let’s just say that in 2006, it should be abundantly clear that naming a collegiate varsity sports team after a race or ethnic group is just too huge of a social faux pas to continue to let it slide.

At a bare minimum, anyone brought up with a modicum of home training would have to admit that naming your school’s team after the disenfranchised members of your own society is, at best, quite gauche. There are any number of catchy names, from the historically significant North Carolina Tar Heels to the stately, standard animal motif of the California Golden Bears. Not aggressive enough? How about the Michigan Wolverines? All of these names manage to convey something about the spirit of these respective universities without drawing unseemly attention to the fact that campuses now exist where long ago the indigenous people of the continent were once sovereign.

Even racists would think twice before using terms like spic or wop in polite company. But the imagery of bare-chested, war whooping, arrow slinging Injuns still pervades on college campuses, and hardly anyone gives it a second thought. Maybe if more of us actually were acquainted with American Indians (a real one, not someone whose great-great grandmother might have been part Cherokee) we’d feel a bit worse about it. But usually, out of sight means out of mind until game day, when the tomahawk chops and face paint come out.

It goes without saying -- hopefully -- that it would be untenable to have a team named the State University Koreans, the University of State Blacks, or the Private University Puerto Ricans, but it is still unbelievably normal for names like Red Raiders, Aztecs, and Indians to be used as the mascot names for major universities. Even more crass is the pageantry of real people dressed in costume as a school’s mascot “Indian,” performing in feathered headdresses, wielding spears, doing war whoops, and riding horseback onto football fields. Isn’t this all just a bit much in the 21st century?

Indian mascots are in essence an extension of a policy of really, really bad manners because ultimately we’re saying, “We took your land, herded you onto reservations, and now your heritage and culture are on par with a Bison, a Mustang and a Banana Slug.”

Why not just change? For example, Stanford University -- once the Indians, now the Cardinal -- remains secure with its legacy of producing Supreme Court justices, Yahoo! co-founders, and Super Bowl-winning Quarterbacks.

Universities like Florida State and Utah have argued that the tribes that they’re named after, the Seminoles and Utes, are supportive and proud that their ethnicity is associated with those institutions. But the suggestion that the leadership of these groups represent the sentiments of the rank and file begs for a reality check. Can anyone imagine the administration of a historically black college favoring a name like the Runaway Slaves, or Brigham Young University changing its name to the Defiant Polygamists? Again, it would be in extremely poor taste.

Just as Greg Brady eventually listened to reason and gave Coolidge its goat back in time for the big game, in the name of showing some couth, universities should suck it up, let go of the past, drop the Indian mascots and names, and let school pride be established on the playing field. If nothing else, in a world of ever increasing bad form, it would be a refreshing exercise of doing onto others. And if North Dakota changes its mascot to the Fighting Boredom, or Florida State changes its mascot to the Panhandlers, just think of all the new swag they’d be able to sell at the campus store.

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David Swerdlick writes “Hot Pop” for Creative Loafing, Charlotte, North Carolina’s independent weekly newspaper.

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