Ax the Tomahawks!

October 26, 1991

A few sports-team nicknames actually were chosen to ridicule. In the countercultural '60s, students in various parts of the University of California system adopted Anteaters and Banana Slugs as mascots. The original Dodgers of Brooklyn got their name, abbreviated from "Trolley-Dodgers," as a commentary on city traffic.

Mostly, however, teams choose nicknames with positive associations -- superior fighting skills (Lions or Tigers), local history (Towson High School's Generals) or fauna (Orioles, Terrapins and UMBC's Retrievers). The names of the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves and Washington Redskins were not chosen to mock American Indians, as some Indian spokesmen have been charging this week. "The name has reflected positive attributes of the American Indian, such as dedication, courage and pride," the Washington football team said in a statement announcing that it would keep its nickname.

"Indians are people," countered Clyde Bellecourt, director of the American Indian Movement, "and we don't want to be mascots any more for America's fun and games."

"Fighting Irish" are people, too, as are Trojans and Spartans, Vikings and Yeomen (Oberlin). And there are or have been Demon Deacons, Battling Bishops, Fighting Methodists and, of all things, Fighting Quakers (Haverford).

The Indian argument is that while everybody knows the difference between the historical Vikings and the modern Scandinavians, or between Fighting Quakers and the kind that go to peace marches, all that most people know of Indians is war paint and feathers and the "tomahawk chop." This triumphalist maneuver has been demonstrated at the World Series this week by such authorities as the human-rights president, Jimmy Carter, and Ms. Politically Correct, Jane Fonda. Nevertheless, say the Indian spokesmen, imagine fans of the New York Jews wearing yarmulkes; imagine the triumph-song of the San Francisco Catholics swinging crucifixes to the rhythms of Gregorian chants.

These things are hard to imagine, all right. Our guess is that the Indians, Braves, Redskins, Florida State's Seminoles and the rest soon will go the way of the Last of the Mohicans.

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