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MASCOT: Are Native American Nicknames Appropriate?

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  • Robert V. Schmidt
    http://www.dnronline.com/sports_details.php?AID=663&CHID=46 Posted 2005-09-16 Are Native American Nicknames Appropriate? (An opinion column.) By Chris Simmons
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 20, 2005

      Posted 2005-09-16

      Are Native American Nicknames Appropriate? (An opinion column.)

      By Chris Simmons

      To me, it’s 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.

      That’s 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.

      I’m guessing the Southeastern Oklahoma State Savages won’t 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 he’s OK with "Indians" and
      individual tribes – with a caveat.

      If people use them, he said, they should portray Native Americans

      "It’s 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 don’t 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. That’s
      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
      in society.

      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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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
      challenged them.

      When his family watched sports on television, he recalled, major-league
      baseball’s Indians and the NFL’s 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.

      "It’s just a white word. It doesn’t 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 nation’s 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, it’s 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 doesn’t matter.

      So, now, I feel uncomfortable with "Indians." Tribes? If it’s OK with the
      Choctaws, it’s OK with me. But "Redskins" and "Redmen," I think, are

      Maybe there’s a compromise – a very cool compromise -- for the NFL team in
      our nation’s capital. Keep the noble Indian visage, if you must, but change
      the name to simply "Skins."

      It turns out, as Begay informed me, that’s what Native Americans call

      "Skins with an ‘s’ or Skinz with a ‘z,’" he said.

      But not Skins with a race attached to it.
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