This article originally appeared in the October 1993 issue of Athletic Business
Schools are urged to reconsider their Indian nicknames and logos
Although this month’s World Series may be the first since 1990 without the Tomahawk Chop, the chant/gesture inspired by the Atlanta Braves has helped reignite a flame of controversy that this time may not be extinguished until all sports teams drop their use of Indian nicknames, logos and mascots.
It’s a dispute that had lain largely dormant in the national consciousness since the 1970s when, at the height of the American Indian Movement, several universities changed their team names. But protesters greeted last year’s World Series participants, and now several other high-profile teams have been targeted. For example, a bill introduced this summer by Ohio State Senator Jeffrey Johnson of Cleveland would bar public funding of any agency that uses a mascot or logo that treats “a recognized racial or ethnic group in a demeaning manner”—targeting his city’s Indians and their Chief Wahoo logo.
This hasn’t been the typical trickle-down situation, where high schools follow the lead of colleges and the pros. On the contrary, it was Minnesota’s State Board of Education that asked its schools to desist back in 1988 after a Native American parent (and Minneapolis resident) objected to the Southwest High School Indians and their mascot, a whooping Caucasian student wearing an Indian headdress.
This year, Wisconsin State Rep. Frank Boyle introduced a resolution urging Wisconsin public schools that use Indian names, logos and mascots to reevaluate their usage. At least six affected schools — about 70 of the state’s 420 public high schools currently use Indian names—have changed their names, but there has been strong opposition in some locales. (This much is typical—after the Michigan Civil Rights Commission asked its state’s sports teams to stop using Indian names in 1988, only two of 58 high schools did, amid widespread grumbling.)
“It is an extremely volatile issue in a lot of small towns,” says Boyle. “It’s predominantly the alumni who hold those names sacred. It’s folks who graduated 20, 30 years ago, when the Red Raiders made it to the state tournament and this old fuddy-dud still has his letter sweater hanging in the closet and probably pays homage to it every couple of weeks. It’s a symbol of that time of freedom and spirit in their lives when they were all young and athletic.”
Boyle’s legislative aide, Nan Cheney, calls the resolution “the greatest consciousness-raising thing that’s come along,” something she knows from personal experience. Her old high school, the Indians of Menomonee Falls, Wis., are currently trying to decide whether to give up their longtime identity.
“When I think of the floats we used to have and the funny cheers,” says Cheney, her voice trailing off. “It never occurred to us.”
Students at the schools in question have shown themselves to be more aware, Boyle says, “of the kind of connotation that many of these symbols project.”
But the adults have had to tread carefully, hoping to appeal to people’s better natures, since requiring schools to change team names could be seen as an infringement of the First Amendment (which, among other things, protects the right to insensitivity). Doug Chickering, executive director of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, says his group “has no authority in this area at all, unless our members give it to us. But we have indicated to schools that it would be appropriate for them to give some consideration to their usage of nicknames, logos and mascots, and to try and trace it to their heritage. If they continue to use this kind of symbolism, they should do it in a very positive vein.”
Chickering believes schools should pay particular attention to their logos and mascots.
“There are different ways of depicting logos,” says Chickering, “and I think that’s where the objections come — the way the logos are put together and the activities of the people that do things under the guise of ‘team spirit.’ “
Is the use of Indian names ever appropriate? Perhaps only at schools primarily attended by Native Americans. (Wisconsin has one such school, in Keshena, which interestingly enough calls its teams the Menominee Eagles.)
For Boyle, whose resolution passed the state assembly and has now been passed to the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Education, the issue is fairly cut and dried.
“My position,” he says, “is simply that if a name offends even one single community member, then we ought to take a look at it. The bottom line of this whole discussion is that we allow the Indian people, their heritage, culture and religion to be demeaned and abused in the public school system unlike we would do for any other group. A comparable clearly would be to call the Wisconsin Rapids Red Raiders, a predominantly white school, the Black Raiders. Rather than a white kid dressed in war paint leading a tomahawk chop, let’s put black shoe polish on his face, dress him as an Aborigine and have him lead a cheer to the white kids. See where that would get you.”
Boyle isn’t the only lawmaker looking at this issue in the Badger State. Wisconsin Attorney General Jim Doyle wrote an opinion a year ago that use of certain names could violate anti-discrimination laws. It’s Boyle’s belief that this opinion “gives great credibility, at least in the state court system, to use Wisconsin’s pupil anti-discrimination statute as a precedent.”
In other words, if common decency won’t sway schools to act, litigation will.
“I think the ACLU is very interested in pursuing this course,” says Boyle. “Absolutely, no question about it, some school district’s going to get its pants sued off.”