Twenty-nine years ago I wrote my first column about high school, college and professional sports teams using American Indians as mascots for their fun and games.
I wrongfully assumed at the time that if Indians opposed to this kind of treatment spoke out about it, the bright minds at the institutions of higher learning would surely see this as a human rights issue and voluntarily bring this racist practice to an end.
Over the years some boards of education in different parts of America have taken seriously the efforts of various Indian groups and have made every effort to remove offending nicknames from sports teams within their jurisdiction, but usually without success.
Like me, they were taken aback at the angry reaction from the alumni and student body of the schools in question. To these reactionaries, it was as if the mascot were sacrosanct and to even suggest changing the name an act of heresy.
A few years after my first column about mascots appeared, a young Indian woman of the Spokane Tribe in Washington, a student at the University of Illinois, was bothered and angered by the antics of that school’s mascot, Chief Illiniwek. The chief was a white boy dressed in Indian attire. In an effort to emulate the traditional Indian dances, he would prance out on the football field, jump into the air and touch his toes, and otherwise perform a dance that was at best comical to some but insulting to her.
That young lady, Charlene Teters, discovered that her efforts to get supposedly educated faculty and students to understand the racial significance of this issue would take many years, and she would face threats, insults and physical assaults in the process.
Like me and others, she would soon discover that the word “fan” is the shortened version of “fanatic,” and this revelation would stay true to form over the years. A maelstrom of opposition from “fanatics” across America rained down on those Indians protesting one of America’s last bastions of racism.
Teters continued her protests after she graduated from the University of Illinois and each year returned to the school at the start of the football season to express her displeasure and disappointment in the alumni, faculty and student body. In the beginning she was a lone figure standing at the entrance to the stadium dodging cups of water and soft drinks and even the butts of burning cigarettes flipped in her direction. But soon she was joined by Indians from across this great land.
In the end her efforts paid off and Chief Illiniwek was put to rest, but he still pops up now and then almost as a figure of reverse protest on the part of diehards who refuse to let go.
At the University of North Dakota, the same battle took place over its mascot known as the “Fighting Sioux.” This month the North Dakota Board of Higher Education took the high road and agreed to drop the nickname and Indian-head logo, a move they hope will bring to an end the decades-long dispute.
Supporters of the mascot still have high hopes that the mascot can be saved if the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake tribes agree by Oct. 1 to give the university permission to use the name for 30 more years. Chances of this happening are slim to none. The board voted 8-0 to retire the logo and nickname.
But a recent discussion on ESPN radio, featuring a white man, a black man and a white woman assuring each other that using Indians as mascots didn’t bother them, lacked only one defining ingredient: the opinion of a red man or woman.
It is no great victory for me, Charlene Teters, Suzanne Harjo, Michael Haney, Bill Means, Vernon Bellecourt and others to witness these small successes because there is still a long road ahead of us.
We will take these small successes in stride because it proves to us something we have been preaching for nearly 30 years: Educating Americans about using Indians as mascots that are demeaning, hurtful and racially motivated is still an ongoing process, and if schools like Dartmouth, Stanford, Marquette, and now North Dakota and Illinois, can finally see how Indians as a people find this practice objectionable and can actually change, Americans are finally joining Indians as a part of the 21st century.
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