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Mascot Flap Shows Race-Based Ignorance

Nov. 13, 2013
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The insistence of some high schools, colleges and even one professional sports franchise in our nation’s capital that they have a right to use racially offensive caricatures and names for their sports teams is one of those dumb arguments that refuses to go away.

The funny thing is racism doesn’t seem to be the primary motivation. It’s racial and cultural insensitivity, certainly, and willful blindness to the feelings of others, especially Native Americans who have legitimate reason to be offended by being reduced to mascots, pets and cartoons.

But, most of all, the over-heated emotions around the issue seem to stem from simple—some might say simple-minded—resistance to change.

A million years ago, I was growing up in small-town Indiana when our school district first adopted the name Indians for its basketball team.

You’d never guess why that was controversial at the time. Because Union City’s basketball team had always been named the Wild Cats. Now we were losing our proud feline nickname, tradition and history.

But the school located in the big city (pop. 3,000) was consolidating with a rural district to become Union City-Wayne and the combined districts had to come up with a new team name, a subject of much public anguish and debate.

But I can swear not a single thought was given nor a single word was uttered about adopting the name Indians as a way to honor the bravery and strength of those proud Native Americans whose land we now occupied after killing most of them and running them off.

We ultimately chose Indians because we thought it suggested a savage ferociousness we liked to boast about in our sports teams. It was the same reason that we’d chosen the wildest of cats for our animal name.

We didn’t do any tomahawk chops or war whoops, fortunately. But I do remember one totally cringe-worthy chant led by our cheerleaders.

The girls would sit cross-legged in the middle of the gym floor and pretend to be pounding on war drums as they chanted: “Boom-boom-boom-boom. Boom-boom-boom-boom. Send them to their doom-doom-doom-doom.”

At least back then we could claim ignorance since we literally knew nothing other than cartoon clichés about Native American culture.

We elementary school students were probably the only ones really offended because, in keeping with the Indian motif, our starter basketball team of fifth and sixth graders had to bear the humiliating name of the Papooses.


Marquette Did the Right Thing

Here in Wisconsin, the biggest flap over a race-based team name wasn’t the stubborn refusal of Mukwonago High School to drop its Indian nickname. It was alumni objections that continue after two decades over Marquette University’s moral decision to change the name of the Marquette Warriors.

In 1994, Father Albert J. DiUlio, president of Marquette, decided on his own it was inappropriate for a religious institution of higher learning to perpetuate an Indian team name from the 1950s that Native Americans found offensive.

Not only that, in refusing to cave after the resulting alumni uproar, Marquette showed itself to be one of those all-too-rare universities to put moral principle above financial gain.

In 2004, the vice president of the board of trustees publicly announced he and another anonymous trustee would donate $2 million to Marquette if the university would change the name of the Golden Eagles back to Warriors.

Father Robert Wild, the president who succeeded DiUlio, immediately refused the offer. And, after a year of consideration, the board of trustees again passed a resolution stating: “Marquette will prohibit the use of Native American references, symbolism or imagery in its athletics logo, nickname or mascot.”

Previous Marquette administrations had made their own embarrassing racist history under the Warriors name. From 1961 to 1971, students were entertained at games by a goofy mascot named Willie Wampum.

For a while in the ’80s, Marquette attempted to create a cleaned-up version in the form of First Warrior, a Native American student performing authentic dances. That was discontinued after Native American students declined to participate.

The fact that those examples of whites making a mockery of another culture are decades old may not take us off the hook entirely, but at least most of us can honestly say we didn’t know any better at the time.

Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans in the Legislature can’t say that.

In 2010, long after many others had recognized how inherently racist it was to adopt Indian names to denote the fierceness of athletic teams, Wisconsin gave the state superintendent of public instruction the power to order schools to drop race-based names and mascots.

Now, as they have so often, Republicans want to move Wisconsin backwards. They’re creating barriers that would in effect take away the right of Indians and other minorities to challenge racially offensive names.

Back when whites were ignorant and racist, they used to call that being an Indian giver.


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