MASCOT: Are Native American Nicknames Appropriate?
Are Native American Nicknames Appropriate? (An opinion column.)
By Chris Simmons
To me, its a black-and-white issue, or perhaps red and white: For one
culture to stereotype another culture is wrong.
Especially when that other culture is a race.
Thats why I was one of the few people who applauded the NCAA last month
when it decreed that Native American nicknames and mascots would be banned
from postseason competition.
No more "Indians," no more "Redmen," no more "Savages."
Wisely and for the National Collegiate Athletic Association to be wise in
anything might be the biggest upset in sports this year the NCAA agreed
to exempt nicknames supported by individual tribes. Most notably, that
means the Florida State Seminoles can still chant and chop and cheer their
way through the playoffs.
Im guessing the Southeastern Oklahoma State Savages wont be given such a
waiver, if only because of the reaction of a Native American acquaintance
when I informed him of the nickname.
"Are you [freaking] serious?" Othell Begay said via telephone from New York
City, where he recently graduated from Columbia.
Interestingly, though, Begay has a more nuanced view of the mascot
controversy than I do. He finds the most extreme nicknames, such as
"Redskins" or "Savages," offensive, but hes OK with "Indians" and
individual tribes with a caveat.
If people use them, he said, they should portray Native Americans
"Its sort of a like a neutral name " Begay said of "Indians," "but once
you take images and start to twist them and portray Native Americans how
they dont want to be portrayed like the guy doing the stupid tomahawk
chop, he was mixing images."
Begay, 23, grew up on a Navajo or Diné reservation in Shiprock, N.M.
His own high school, he said, used "Chieftains" as a nickname; his junior
high used "Warriors."
But, remember, those schools were populated by Navajo kids. Thats
different from a majority white or majority black or majority Asian school
deciding to take an American Indian image as its own.
Imagine if Ole Miss had called itself the "Negroes" or if Hampton had
called itself the "Caucasians," or if San Francisco State had called itself
the "Asians." Or worse: the Blackskins, the Whiteskins or the Yellowskins.
Whites, blacks and Asians are too powerful in our culture for that to
occur. Native Americans are not.
As a result, many American Indian children start life with
less-than-glowing self-images, images reinforced by the realization that
their ancestors were driven from their homes by European settlers, images
reinforced by silly cowboy movies, images reinforced by their marginal role
Even Begay, who did a postgraduate year at exclusive Phillips Exeter
Academy and earned a pre-med degree from an Ivy League college, felt he was
different from mainstream America as he grew up in Shiprock.
"It wasnt the best image," he said. "It definitely took me a long time to
accept that I was part of this minority with this history of subjugation
and domination. I wasnt proud."
Now, of course, he is. But as he was growing up, images like the Cleveland
Indians Chief Wahoo were perfectly acceptable to him. No one in his orbit
When his family watched sports on television, he recalled, major-league
baseballs Indians and the NFLs Washington Redskins ignited no indignation
from his parents.
"They never brought up any sort of issue about it," he said.
And as a child, he found Wahoo simply a "cute" cartoon in large part
because many Native Americans apparently see themselves much as Europeans
see themselves. An Italian is an Italian. A German is a German. A Scot is a
Scot. And a Navajo is a Navajo, a Cherokee a Cherokee, a Sioux a Sioux.
"From my perspective," Begay said, recalling his mindset as a boy watching
the Redskins or Indians play, "that was a tribe that was completely
different from mine."
Living on a reservation, he also was intimately aware of his heritage,
which differed from what he saw on TV.
"I was protected in that I knew my people, I knew what they looked like, I
knew they never ran around acting crazy and wild or had huge noses and
feathers in their hair," Begay said.
The term "Indians," he suggested, was hardly even relevant.
"Its just a white word. It doesnt really conjure up anything spiritually
relevant," said Begay, who served as co-chair of the Native American
Council at Columbia.
Begay is just one voice among the nations 2.5 million Native Americans.
Others, no doubt, have more polarized views. Some, obviously, would agree
with me that using racial nicknames marginalizes and diminishes a people,
that they make it easier to see them as "different" than the majority.
For Begay, though, its not Topic A on his agenda.
"I think there are other, more pressing issues on the reservations that
need to be dealt with," he said.
Personally, for many years, I was among those who felt American Indian
nicknames were worth keeping simply because of tradition. Which was stupid.
How many corporations have bought naming rights to venues and events,
disrupting tradition in everything from college football to NASCAR? It
simply doesnt matter.
So, now, I feel uncomfortable with "Indians." Tribes? If its OK with the
Choctaws, its OK with me. But "Redskins" and "Redmen," I think, are
Maybe theres a compromise a very cool compromise -- for the NFL team in
our nations capital. Keep the noble Indian visage, if you must, but change
the name to simply "Skins."
It turns out, as Begay informed me, thats what Native Americans call
"Skins with an s or Skinz with a z," he said.
But not Skins with a race attached to it.