What's in a nickname?

May 28, 1993

Although a matter of controversy for the past couple of decades, the use of Indian-related nicknames by sports teams received probably its most intense scrutiny just over a year ago.

That's when the Atlanta Braves appeared in the World Series and, a few months later, the Washington Redskins played in the Super Bowl. Native Americans picketed both sporting events to protest nicknames, "tomahawk chops" and touchdown-celebrating war chants that they claimed demean Indians.

There was some irony in that the two events took place in Minnesota, where the state Board of Education has discouraged the use of Indian nicknames, mascots and emblems for school sports teams since 1988. More than half of the 50 schools that had Indian nicknames have since changed them or begun the process of changing them.

A similar switch was made recently at a Howard County school. At their principal's urging, the students of Columbia's Longfellow Elementary have dropped the school's nickname -- the "Indians" -- as well as its Indian mascot, and adopted "Eagles." The new name beat out "Stars," "Owls" and "Poets."

No doubt detractors of political correctness are enjoying a good howl over this story, lambasting the way these kids have been brainwashed by the all-too-PC adults around them.

We'd agree that political correctness is sometimes carried too far. And maybe the Longfellow students are only parroting their elders.

Still, in this case, we can think of far worse lessons for educators and parents to pass on to children.

It shouldn't require protests from Native Americans to make the rest of us realize it's wrong to take something as trivial as team names from the historic and even sacred traditions of a particular ethnic group, especially one as long-suffering and mistreated as the Indians. The fact that they take such strong offense should be reason enough to do away with these names once and for all.

Along with the laws that form the closest thing to an American national religion, tolerance keeps our ethnically diverse country from experiencing the genocidal conflicts that erupt elsewhere in the world.

It's a long way from Bosnia to Columbia, in more ways than one. But if dropping an Indian nickname can make some Howard County students more understanding of other ethnic and religious groups, then it is a very good thing.

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