Native American mascot for teams still rankles

October 13, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

I find that I keep returning to the issue of the use of American Indians as mascots for sports teams. It may seem like a trivial matter to some people -- as Famine, War, Drought and Pestilence gallop across the world like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Millions of Americans are out of work. Families are disintegrating.

And it is true that those disasters are more crucial than the tender sensibilities of the 2 million or so American Indians in this country.

Yet, there is something about this issue that seems to goes to the core of what we are all about: We say that we aspire to a multicultural society. But are we willing to respect the feelings of a minority group if that group lacks the political muscle to compel respect? Seemingly not.

There is no doubt that American Indians resent being used as team mascots, even though team owners insist the practice is meant as a gesture of respect. American Indians have picketed sporting events. They have written letters of protest. They have tried every tactic they could devise to appeal to the good taste of the rest of us. And they have done this consistently since the early 1900s, when major league franchises first began adopting Indians as team mascots.

Tim Giago is a Lakota Indian, founder of the Native American Journalists Association and editor of Indian Country, America's largest Indian-owned weekly newspaper, published in South Dakota. In March, Mr. Giago described for the New York Times the reaction some American Indians have to the nickname used by the National Football League franchise in Washington: "Redskins is a word that should remind every American there was a time in history when America paid bounties for human beings. There was a going rate for the scalps or hides of Indian men, women, and children. Along with coonskins, beaver skins, and bear skins, the selling of redskins was also profitable."

Most people seem to consider this an Indian problem.

In 1989, for instance, I spoke with some of the coaches of area high school teams that used Indians as mascots. They all were aware of objections to the practice and tried to be sensitive to those concerns. But no one had considered choosing a different symbol.

Joseph Cassidy, then the athletic director of the Edmondson High School Redskins, recalled that when his daughter went to college at Dartmouth, she found that her American Indian classmates were offended by the Edmondson High logo she wore.

George Wagner, then the athletic director at Franklin High School in Baltimore County -- home of the Franklin Indians -- felt that a picture of the school mascot that hung in the lobby was an unflattering caricature of American Indians. He replaced the picture with photos of sports legend Jim Thorpe and moved the unflattering caricature to the sports department. (Neither school has changed its mascot.)

Similarly, most newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun, consider it the responsibility of the teams to change potentially offensive names, such as Redskins, although no newspaper would use that word to refer to American Indians.

In July, the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) called upon major news outlets to "discontinue the use of Native American and other culturally offensive nicknames, logos and mascots related to professional, high school and amateur sports teams."

The Portland Oregonian, the Seattle Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune have adopted such a policy. A spokesman for NAJA said yesterday there was little evidence that other news organizations even considered the matter.

Is this issue worth bothering about?

I think it is. In April, President Clinton met at the White House with 200 tribal representatives. After the meeting, he announced that the federal government would "strike a new partnership of respect" with those he called "the first Americans."

But perhaps we should hold our celebrations until the time when respect is a given, not a goal. And perhaps we get there by starting with the little things.

And perhaps we will get there faster when we accept that this is not an American Indian problem, but of importance to all of us.

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