Use of 'Savages' mascot debated
By Jenni Carlson
DURANT C.W. Mangrum has argued about legalizing drugs and fighting
organized crime, averting energy crises and providing government-funded
A longtime debate coach, hes used to examining and researching every angle
of an issue, then taking up sides.
No wonder Mangrum was picked to help lead the discussion about the future
of the Savages as Southeastern Oklahoma State Universitys mascot.
Originally selected by the student body as a way to honor the strength and
courage of American Indians, the term savages is seen by most in a
different light now. A harsh glare.
Like so many times before, the man who now oversees the universitys School
of Arts and Sciences is set to engage in one of the nations biggest
debates. This time around, it is the use of American Indian mascots. Should
his schools teams be called the Savages? Or should a recent NCAA decision
deeming such nicknames hostile and abusive kill them?
University presidents and chancellors serving on the NCAAs most powerful
committee decided a week ago that these schools would forfeit the
opportunity to host postseason play. Their mascots and nicknames would be
banned regardless of where they played. Redmen, Seminoles, and Chippewas.
Braves, Utes and Choctaws. Indians, Illini and Fighting Sioux. Savages,
For the NCAA, its a question of image and inclusiveness.
For Southeastern, its a slightly different question. Should it ditch a
tradition dating back to the 1920s or surrender any chance of having
home-field advantage in the playoffs?
I just dont know, Mangrum said. I thought I did ... but then I got all
He slapped his palms on a pair of two-inch-thick manila folders. They bulge
with photocopies of Sports Illustrated articles and printouts from cnn.com.
Mangrum began gathering the information almost four years ago when
Southeastern president Glen Johnson formed a group to study the future of
the schools mascot. Mangrum was named co-chair of the Mascot Task Force.
Those 20 people must figure out what to do about the Savages, a mascot that
moved one West Coast columnist to suggest the disbanding of the entire
athletic department. Yet this small school has produced big-time stars.
Dennis Rodman played here. So did Brett Butler. Southeastern has won
championship in a bunch of sports, and with continued success since moving
from NAIA to Division-II baseball claimed the title in 2000 winning
seems sure to continue for the Savages.
In this town an hour east of Ardmore the nickname elicits shrugs from most
folks. The Choctaw Nations headquarters are less than a mile from the
school, while the Chickasaw Nation sits just up the road, but the tribes
are more concerned about health care than athletic mascots.
I would not say its not an issue, Mangrum said. I would say if you
listed the top 100 issues, it might not make the list.
Yet the NCAAs decision has thrust the debate upon Durant. Over the past
decade, Southeastern has gradually but steadily distanced itself from much
of the imagery associated with its nickname, but now the school will be
penalized if it doesnt move away from the mascot completely. Even though
Southeastern is not planning to appeal or take legal action against the
NCAA, the university still faces a big question.
Are the Savages days numbered?
* * *
John Massey goes to every Southeastern football game. Basketball games are
a different story.
I dont go, he said. I get so enthused inside that I cant sleep.
Sitting in his second-floor office at the bank building on Main Street, he
Ive asked them to move the games to Saturday afternoons.
Maybe then Massey would have time to wind down before he went to bed. Even
though he cheers for Oklahoma, Southeastern has his heart. Consider him a
Savage super fan.
And he doesnt see anything wrong with that.
The NCAA is stepping in something probably they shouldnt have, Massey
said. This needs to be worked out between the tribes and the colleges.
All the Choctaws I know of were very pleased that (Southeasterns) called
the Savages. I havent heard any of the Choctaw people complain about it. I
havent heard any of the university people or alumni complain about it.
Its just something we always took pride in, being Savages.
Massey rolled an unlit but well-chewed cigar around in his fingers.
I dont know what the problem is.
If anyone is fit to gauge the pulse of the campus and the community, it is
Massey. A former representative in both houses of the state senate and a
current member of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, he has
given Southeastern several major financial gifts. The school of business is
named in his honor.
His involvement extends beyond the university, though. Massey is chairman
of the board at First United Bank, which is headquartered in Durant. That
has launched him into education programs in the public schools as well as
business development in the surrounding community.
Massey has seen Durant grow in recent years as industry has expanded and
population has blossomed. The town of about 15,000 still has a
quintessential downtown of brick buildings and plate-glass store fronts
untouched by national chains. Other areas, though, are reminiscent of any
American suburb, complete with fast food and strip malls.
Durants combination of yesteryear and modern day have created some issues,
but not one about Native American mascots. There is no issue here, Massey
said. The chief is on my board here, and I have not heard him ever say
anything about it. He and the president ... are very close.
Massey pointed to the wall beside his desk.
Theres a picture of the three of us right there.
A black-and-white image captured Massey with Choctaw chief Gregory Pyle and
Southeastern president Glen Johnson. They smiled and shook hands, a picture
* * *
The woman who speaks on behalf of the Choctaw Nation held her right index
finger four inches above her left index finger.
We had a stack of council bills this high, Judy Allen said.
She spent all morning and a good part of the afternoon Friday at the
Committee of the Whole. The monthly meeting brings together the chief, the
assistant chief and all of the 12 elected officials on the tribal council.
They addressed all sorts of problems and heard all measure of requests.
We have people that are needing basic things, Allen said. They have
roofing problems, electricity problems, water problems, education problems,
health problems. Thats where the focus of time and energy ... go.
Not to the debate about American Indian mascots.
Weve not made an issue of it because we have a lot going on, Allen said.
Even if those other issues were taken care of, the Choctaw Nation still
might not raise a stink over Southeasterns mascot. The tribe and the
school have long been strong partners. Most recently, they combined efforts
to secure a $965,000 grant that will provide scholarships to American
Indian students who want to teach in areas with high concentrations of
Then there are the renovations at Choctaw Tower. School officials asked the
tribe if it wanted to partner in the overhaul of the on-campus dorm that
already bore its name. The Choctaws provided $345,000, then took it upon
themselves to call the historical society, purchase dozens of vintage
pictures from the tribes history, and pay to frame and hang them in the
The Chickasaw Nation provided similar funding for the renovation of
Chickasaw Tower, next-door twin of Choctaw Tower.
Theyre good neighbors, Allen said of the university, and weve been
good neighbors back to them.
* * *
Paintings of Indians in colorful, traditional dress cover one wall in Glen
Johnsons office. A carved pipe with intricate beading occupy a shelf near
the window. The decor in the presidents office at Southeastern is obvious
Same goes for the Native American influence on campus.
About a quarter of the universitys 4,300 students are American Indian, but
while the Choctaws are filling dorm walls with their heritage, the rest of
the campus is almost devoid of it. There are no towering statues. There are
no larger-than-life depictions. The heritage is there, but it isnt over
the top and teetering toward offensive either.
We had a Native American Indian head designation on the gym and the
bookstore, Johnson said. When it came time to do renovations ... we took
those designations down. That was done consciously.
Where athletics is concerned, the word Savages as well as arrows and
feathers have been removed from teams uniforms, placed by the more neutral
Southeastern or SE. Not all references have been erased. The scoreboard
at the baseball field proclaims it Home of the Savages. The pressbox at
the football field has SOUTHEASTERN SAVAGES in letters as tall as young
Whether all that should change was a question Southeastern began exploring
long before the NCAAs ruling.
After the issue arose during the schools annual Native American Symposium
in 2000, Johnson decided to form the Mascot Task Force. The group consisted
of 20 people from a variety of backgrounds. There were students, alumni and
faculty, and some had strong ties to the athletic department while others
Is retaining the mascot the best interest? Johnson asked the group. Is
it time for us to look at a change and make a change?
The task force began looking into how the mascot affected the recruitment
of students and the retention of them as well as how it impacted
fundraising. The group met monthly for about a year and a half and was on
the verge of beginning focus groups and conducting a broad survey when the
NCAA alerted Southeastern that it was going to be looking at the issue,
As it did in 2002 with all of the 33 schools deemed to have American Indian
mascots, the NCAA asked Southeastern for some basic information. How the
mascot originated. What images are used in its portrayal. Whether there has
been any controversy or institutional review. Whether there were American
Indian programs on campus and connections with local tribes.
Southeastern filed its report with the NCAA late in the summer of 2003.
In the winter of 2004, the NCAA requested more information from all the
schools in question. Southeastern filed a 35-page report that went more
in-depth with information about the mascot, its origins and its impact on
the campus and community. The school also went into detail about its
American Indian students and its relationship with the local tribes.
Then, it waited.
About eight months passed before last weeks ruling.
Immediately the question is, Are you going to appeal? Johnson said.
At this point, we dont have plans to. Weve taken the issue seriously
before 2002 when the NCAA put it on its radar screen. It was before then
and continues to be a very serious issue for us.
Johnson plans to reconvene the Mascot Task Force, which suspended
operations when the NCAA made its initial inquiries. Just as he did before,
Johnson will ask the group to consider what is in the best interest of the
Several of the athletic venues are being improved. The citizens of Durant
passed bond issues funding new turf and renovations at the football field
as well as a new basketball arena. If the NCAA ruling about American Indian
mascots stands, though, Southeastern will never be eligible to host
postseason play at any of its facilities.
That is a factor, Johnson said. Theres going to be some very practical
discussions about what that means. Whats the best for the university?
Whats the best for our future?
Those answers have yet to be determined.
We want to do the right thing, Johnson said.
* * *
The magnolia-lined loop brings the world to the heart of campus and the
view from C.W. Mangrums window. The last days of summer are fading fast,
students returning to campus and classes beginning next week. There will be
fewer parking spots and more pedestrians.
For now, though, all is quiet.
Same goes for the mascot debate.
Were not as high profile as the Seminoles, obviously, Mangrum said of
Florida State, which has promised a legal battle if it isnt given an
exemption from the NCAA. But it does seem that even with non-Indians,
Savages is particularly irksome.
Several media pundits from around the country have been harsh on
Southeastern. Among them, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plashke,
who last weekend wrote of the school, considering its nickname is the
Savages, one can only hope they disband the athletic program entirely.
Campus leaders say they are not concerned by national perceptions. They are
focused on local ones.
Were in the national headquarters of the Choctaw Nation, Mangrum said.
Were going to set out intentionally to offend them?
I dont think so.
Mangrum flipped open one of his manila envelopes and retrieved a single
sheet of paper. On the right side, a picture of a hand raising a
Southeastern football helmet. On the left, a poem titled Being a Savage.
Penned by John K. Sullenger III, a player on the 1999 conference
championship football team, it is a window into the emotion of many who
have called themselves Savages. The school might decide that home-field
advantage in the playoff is paramount, but those ties to such a long-held
tradition will be hard to undo.
The final stanza says:
Being a Savage
Means brothers to the end.
They dont quit on you
And you never quit on them.