Native American Mascots Big Issue in College Sports

May 9, 2001 -- On fall Saturdays, 80,000 screaming Florida State University fans jam into Tallahassee’s Doak Campbell stadium. Just before kickoff, the school’s mascot, Chief Osceola, and his powerful steed Renegade charge onto the field waving a flame-burning spear.

They sprint from one end of the field to the other before stomping to the fifty-yard line where he slams the spear into the mascot’s image painted onto the turf. The crowd goes crazy.

Meanwhile, outside the delirious stadium a small group quietly stands with signs protesting the use of Seminole Indian imagery for the school’s sports mascots. They came two hours before the game and they will stay two hours after, holding vigil as fans file in and out, paying little attention to the authentic Seminoles who attend every game, rain or shine.

The scene, repeated week after week, is a precarious compromise. FSU, one of the most successful football teams in the country, worked closely with the state’s Seminole leadership to craft a compromise regarding Chief Osceola. Although some national Indian groups still want the mascot eliminated, both sides in Florida have learned to live with him.

But at most other colleges and universities, the debate over the use of Native American images as sports mascot rages on.

For the first time in its history the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for college sports, is taking a close look at the use of Native American images and names for sports teams.

While the teams and many of their fans insist the use of the names is a tribute to Indian people, Native American groups and civil rights organizations disagree. The issue has divided many campuses and is forcing sports fans and others to take another look at athletic traditions.

About 100 U.S. colleges sport Indian mascots or names today. At the high school level, more than 1,000 schools use such mascots. Five professional sports teams use Indian images: the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball; the NBA’s Golden State Warriors; and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins.

In the late 1960s the National Congress of American Indians began an effort to eliminate negative stereotypes of Native Americans in the media. Although their targets included cartoons, cinema and television, their protests of sports organizations garnered the most headlines – and in many ways the most success..

In the last 25 years over a dozen colleges and universities, including nationally known Dartmouth, Stanford and St. John’s, have changed their team nicknames.

Florida State University set aside a visible, protected area for protestors. The Seminole tribe designed the costume that Osceola wears. Osceola only appears at home football games and at the homecoming parade. And Tribe members are eligible for scholarships to the University.

But inside the stadium, the University has failed to stop fans from singing a “war chant” while doing the “tomahawk chop.” Tribe members consider this an offensive reinforcement of “savage” Indian stereotypes.

At other schools, the issue remains an open controversy. Ground zero is the University of Illinois and its “Chief Illinwek” mascot, created in 1926 when a student first dressed in costume and danced on the field at halftime. In 1943 one woman filled the role when there was a shortage of men due to the war, but none of the student “Chiefs” has been Native American.

The attempt to remove Chief Illinwek has raged for years, an effort chronicled in the PBS documentary In Whose Honor.

In 1990 the Board of Trustees called the mascot a “dignified” symbol: “His ceremonial dance is done with grace and beauty. The Chief keeps the memory of the people of a great Native American tribe alive for thousands of Illinoisans who otherwise would know little or nothing of them.”

Among the school’s most ardent critics is Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

“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? To me, Native Americans are our most spiritual people. They believe that we all live within the one circle of humanity, no matter what the color of our skin. We wait for our sports teams to honor that circle.”

In January 2000, Illinois administrators launched a comprehensive ‘dialogue’ on the issue, but the 20,000 comments received so far lean toward keeping the mascot. Even the opponents believe their chances for compromise are low.

Money, Money, Money
On many campuses, the mascot issue is not just about tradition. It is also about money, the fuel that drives college athletics.

At Florida State and Illinois, for example, the sale of mascot paraphernalia brings in millions of dollars. Thousands of fans buy jerseys, hats, t-shirts, pom-poms, inflatable chairs and almost anything else the schools can print their logo on.

At those schools and three other colleges, booster clubs have promised to boycott should the logos and mascots be changed. Large numbers of alumni also have made it clear that a name change will end their contributions.

At the University of North Dakota, casino magnate Ralph Engelstad committed $100 million dollars to his alma mater, with half earmarked for an 11,500-seat state of the art hockey arena. Engelstad, a former All-American player for North Dakota, was outraged when President Charles Kupchella formed a commission to study the controversy around the team nickname, the Fighting Sioux.

In a letter to Kupchella, Engelstad threatened to turn off the heat, cease construction of the arena, and withdraw the entire $100 million commitment. The very next day, the State Board of Higher Education voted 8-0 to keep the name.

The North Dakota fight is particularly intense because Native Americans are the only significant minority in one of the least diverse states in America, according to Census 2000.

‘Making the Tough Stand’
One of the national leaders of the anti-mascot campaign is Roy Saigo, president of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Saigo, a Japanese-American, experienced institutional racism when his family was interned during World War II.

“This is the time to raise the question,” said Saigo. “As college presidents, we are charged with building communities of learning and tolerance. If we can not make the tough stand for this issue, who can?”

Saigo convinced the NCAA to open a “formal discussion” of the issue. His efforts are backed by an historic statement issued in April by the United States Commission on Civil Rights calling for “an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools.” The Commission argues that children are most vulnerable to accepting mascot images as accurate portrayals of Indians.

“Until we resolve this,” said Saigo, “we will continue to inflict pain on one of our nation’s most scarred communities.”

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