MASCOT: A striking response to FSU
Native American, Continued
By Whit Watson Sun Sports
Date: Aug 12, 2005
The previous blog entry regarding the NCAA's ban on Native American
nicknames in postseason play generated enormous response - from readers,
from viewers of our "Sports Talk Live" episode on the topic, and from the
world at large. Of all that I have read on the subject, however, the
following e-mail was, to me, the most striking.
The author holds both a Ph.D. and a J.D., and teaches law at a small
college in California. We have never met, and I do not know how he came
across my blog. I hope he won't mind that I published his letter to me, but
just in case, I will keep his identity private. In the interest of
fairness, I also included my response. This is terribly long, but I hope
you will enjoy the debate as much as I did.
First, the e-mail, sent to me on August 10th:
"As someone who has studied issues of Native American culture and politics
for years, I would agree with you that the FSU "Seminole" issue is a bit
more complex than that of other mascots. Nevertheless, even your more
nuanced summary doesn't really do justice to that complexity. The Seminole
Tribe of Florida has indeed sanctioned the use of the Seminole mascot, but
you don't point out:
First, about 75 percent of the Seminole live in Oklahoma, and the Seminole
govts there are vigorously opposed to the use of the name. 75 percent is a
lot of Seminole people, and the NCAA has to take that seriously. Apparently
you disagree, but you don't explain why. Instead, you assert without
explanation that one Seminole tribal government of Florida has the only
opinion that matters on the issue (and not the other two - see point two
below), and that the opinion of the majority of Seminoles "doesn't matter."
I'm sorry; I just don't see how or why that should be true.
Second, there actually are three Seminole tribes in Florida, and only one
tribal govt-the one which uses the name "Seminole Tribe of Florida" - has
formally signed on to the use of the mascot. I don't know the formal
position of the other two Seminole govts, but it's wrong to misrepresent
the opinion of one tribal govt as representing all Florida Seminoles.
Third, prior to getting the Seminole tribal endorsement, Florida State
announced the establishment of scholarships covering 80% of tuition costs
for "Seminole Scholars" recruited from reservations, and also announced
plans to establish ties to a Seminole charter school and a branch campus in
Immokalee, Fla. Florida State also has proposed the creation of a museum of
Seminole heritage and culture on the Florida State campus. The minority of
Seminoles who agreed to the use of the mascot benefit from a quid pro quo
that doesn't do much for the other Seminoles. And if those things are so
valuable, why have they only come up when FSU is trying to save its mascot?
Finally, though a lot of FSU fans insist that their use of the Seminole
mascot is not offensive, FSU fandom is full of references to "scalping,"
"the chop," being "on the warpath," and so forth, and these caricatures
undeniably demean and trivialize Native American culture.
And when I say "undeniably," I mean that literally; there is simply no
basis for denying it. These caricatures are specifically offensive because
it was the caricature of Indians as savage and warlike - a carefully
constructed image of Indians as barbarians incapable of living side-by-side
with the settler society - that was used as the official reason from
removing them from Florida (and elsewhere) and penning them up on
reservations. People created these mascot images in the late 19th and early
20th century not as a way of celebrating local links to Indian cultures or
local animals, but to extol the physical prowess of their team. The
earliest team names were from large carnivores: tigers, lions, leopards,
etc. The animal doesn't feel demeaned, of course, and the metaphor works
because it doesn't intend to imply that the team is like wild animals in
all aspects of their life, only that they play with vigor and intensity
similar to that we associate with peak predators. The step from wild
animals to Indian mascots was unfortunately small, given the prejudice and
stereotypes about Indians at the time.
Now, there's nothing wrong with calling a person brave and celebrating
physical prowess in combat. Similarly, there's nothing inherently wrong
with a caricature of an ugly person who is stingy or a caricature of a
goofy child eating a watermelon, but when the images are applied to Jews or
blacks, it becomes offensive, because those Shylock and Sambo caricatures
were popularized specifically as part of the dominant society's efforts
trivialize and exclude certain other groups. The same is true here. The
Seminole of the 19th century probably exhibited no more or less bravery and
military skill than you'd find in most other cultures then or now. But
whites explicitly justified their prejudices against the Seminole and other
tribes by reducing their culture to only physical aggressiveness and
Let's be honest about the history of this imagery as we debate the meaning
of the mascot. White society and the American government actually and
intentionally said the Seminole were little more than fierce wild animals
because this stereotype served the conscious plan to justify "removal,"
what we would now call the "ethnic cleansing" of the Southeast. For the
heirs of those who did the ethnic cleansing to turn around and use that
image as a source of amusement really isn't that funny, and can't really be
justified as a celebration of the people who were the target of that
Terrific stuff. Naturally, I couldn't wait to answer it - which I did, in a
private e-mail back to my reader, also dated August 10th:
"Thank you for your thoughtful and well-reasoned note. This topic, which I
covered in my blog and Sun Sports covered last Monday on our weekly talk
show, "Sports Talk Live," has generated a predictable blizzard of response.
As you might expect in football-crazy Florida, many of the responses have
been blanket indictments of the NCAA - which I will get to in a moment.
First, I wanted to address your points, step by step, because I find them
extremely compelling and thought-provoking.
True, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is by no means the only group of
Seminoles living in the United States. However, they are the only tribe of
any lineage to enter into a bilateral agreement with Florida State
University over the use of Seminole symbology. Should the NCAA, and FSU,
take the Oklahoma Seminoles seriously? Of course. But are the Oklahoma
Seminoles the sole arbiters of that name? Do their greater numbers give
them greater authority? If 75 percent of the Seminole live in Oklahoma,
does that imply that the opinion of the Florida Seminoles - who have
drafted numerous resolutions stressing that they not only approve of FSU's
athletic identity, but in fact are directly involved in creating it, via
ceremony and consultation on the symbology - is somehow less relevant?
Perhaps it is incorrect for me to state that the Florida Seminoles' opinion
is "the only one that matters." I will grant that point. However, it is
also incorrect to imply that their opinion is in any way less weighty than
that of a tribe that lives by the same name in another state. There is also
an argument to be made that Florida State University, being a school in
Florida, might place a greater emphasis on the views of Seminoles IN
Florida, but I can't speak for the Tribe, and I also grant that the line of
argument is not the strongest in this case.
Further, there are legal issues that have only been touched upon to this
point - do the Seminoles of Oklahoma own the rights to that name? Do the
Seminoles of Florida? And if the Seminoles of Florida have entered into an
agreement with FSU to "license" the name, does the NCAA ban constitute a
violation of copyright law? Is the NCAA preventing an independent body from
trading on their own name? Does the NCAA - a voluntary, non-governmental
congress of schools - have the legal right to make such a decision? We
might consider such questions trivial in light of the greater social
issues, but they remain unanswered.
That there are three tribes in Florida using the Seminole name is indeed
news to me, and has not been widely reported as part of this story. Good
point, well taken.
Your third point, regarding Florida State University's efforts to recruit
Seminole students, create ties to charter schools and branch campuses, and
create a museum dedicated to Seminole heritage and history, seems to me to
fall directly in lock-step with FSU's argument that their "Seminole"
identity is indeed a method of honoring the "unconquered" spirit of the
tribe, and incorporate its members into the University community. In fact,
that paragraph you wrote sounds like something one might find in an FSU
press release. To suggest that Florida State University would devote the
time, money, and resources to such plans solely in response to an NCAA
resolution regarding postseason tournaments seems illogical to me, and a
tad cynical, but I have no proof otherwise. Having grown up in Florida (and
with an immediate family member on the faculty at Florida State), I am more
likely to give the school the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the
altruistic nature of their relationship with the tribe. Then again, I'm not
The tomahawk chop, face paint on football fans, terms like "warpath" and
"scalping" - indefensible. I do not deny their demeaning nature, and if you
go back into the blog entry in question, you'll see that I stand firmly in
the camp of removing, as the NCAA put it, "hostile and abusive" terminology
from college athletics.
Your lesson on the history of mascots as symbols of aggressiveness,
barbarism, and physical prowess is spot-on. However, unlike many other
colleges and universities that sport Native American icons, Florida State
University has made a concerted and organized effort to incorporate the
Seminole way into its community, going so far as to ask the Seminole Tribe
of Florida itself to design the costume of "Chief Osceola" and even select
his horse. This relationship dates back to 1978, when the Seminole Tribe of
Florida created and approved the icon that we still see today on the field
in Tallahassee. Again, we go back to the argument regarding the Florida
Seminoles versus other Seminole tribes, but my point is this: the Seminole
Tribe of Florida has been complicit in perpetuating this very public
display of Seminole symbology for nearly thirty years. If Chief Osceola is
offensive, the Seminoles of Florida are, in part, doing the offending. Who
are we, or the NCAA, to tell them otherwise? Hold that thought.
With all due respect, however, this entire line of argument is completely
subjective. Your views as one who has "studied issues of Native American
culture and politics for years" competes with my view as a sports
journalist and native of Florida, which competes with the views of the
Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma, which competes with those of FSU and their
fans, which competes with the views of the NCAA. We could go round and
round on this for years and never achieve resolution, because we are
speaking in bromides. To me, the crux of the entire issue regarding the
NCAA ban on Native American symbols in postseason play is a very simple
point, one that I have yet to see answered satisfactorily, not even from
your thoughtful and articulate note:
The NCAA is a voluntary, non-governmental congress of 1300 member
institutions. According to Charlotte Westerhaus, the NCAA's VP for
Diversity and Inclusion (who was a guest on our show on Monday), the thirty
schools in the US that carried potentially "hostile or abusive" Native
American symbology were originally contacted in 2001 and asked to
"self-report" (i.e., justify) their use of such symbols. Four years later,
twelve of those thirty schools took steps deemed appropriate in the eyes of
the NCAA to merit their removal from that original list. The remaining 18
were notified that unless they changed their athletic identities, they
would not be allowed to display their team names or icons during NCAA
postseason play, and would not be allowed to host NCAA postseason events.
Here's what bothers me the most: according to Ms. Westerhaus, at no time
during those four years - and, as far as I know, at no time in history -
has the NCAA ever directly contacted the tribes or nations in question. In
other words, the NCAA's executive committee, made up of no more than 20
school presidents and administrators, has arbitrarily and capriciously
handed down a ruling that affects the use of certain indigenous peoples'
names - without ever consulting the people in question.
The NCAA's executive committee -- NOT the NCAA itself, a voluntary congress
of schools, but a committee -- has decided that the terms Sioux, Choctaw,
Seminole, Illini, and Ute, among others, are offensive when displayed on
athlete's jerseys. However, nobody from the NCAA has ever bothered to ask a
living Sioux, Choctaw, Seminole, Illini, or Ute, among others, for their
views on the matter.
This, to me, is an egregious misuse of authority, and borderline racist in
itself. Paul Kennedy, my co-host on "Sports Talk Live" on Monday night,
termed it a "power grab." It's so far beyond the bounds of reason that I
struggle to come up with an explanatory analogy. As Max Osceola, a Tribal
Council member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, stated in an interview
with the Orlando Sentinel:
"History repeats itself. Once again, non-Indians are telling Indians what's
good for them."
Frankly, I agree that the use of Native American symbology in athletics has
serious limitations, but as I attempted to argue in the blog, there is an
even more important question to be asked: who the hell is the NCAA's
executive committee to speak on behalf of any group, much less Native
American tribes, without any due diligence or consultation from the groups
in question? Taking the opinions of other Native American tribes is
critical, obviously, but not as critical as incorporating the stances of
those tribes directly affected by the ban. And as the NCAA's own vice
president told us on live television, the executive committee failed to do
so. On a broad scale, you're dead right on virtually every point you make.
On a practical scale, the only people in America who are truly qualified to
make these decisions have been completely excluded from the process.
Middle-aged white men in lofty offices have rendered judgment on those they
deem unable to defend themselves, and have lessened those "poor souls" in
the process. It smacks of a crusade. Truly, history repeats itself. Have we
I lack a law degree, but this is the best I could do with my critical
reading skills from the English department at Cornell. Again, I thank you
for your note, and beg forgiveness for the length of this answer. I look
forward to hearing your opinion again as this story plays itself out. If
this topic is covered in any of your classes, I'd love to know what
opinions take shape.
Very truly yours,
As of Thursday night, August 11th, still no answer. I'm intrigued. Maybe
he's passing this note on to his law school classes, to have them take it
apart; maybe he's decided that I am beyond help. The good news is, the
discussion has been advanced, rationally and thoughtfully. To me, that
makes this blog worth the effort.