American Indian mascots

by RITA TOTTEN

The use of American Indian tribal names as mascots and team names is widespread across the sports world. From high school to college to professional athletics, the names and images of American Indians have, in some cases, been exploited for novelty use.

The Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians are just a few of the well-known sports teams that use American Indian tribe names and stereotypes.

The National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media has been working for years to combat the trend of using tribal names and stereotypical names for mascots. The Coalition believes that not only are these names offensive, they also are harmful to native and non-native children. Images that represent Indians as savages and warriors teach youth that people are less than human.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association released a statement that stated it is the right of the university to choose whatever mascot it wants to represent its school. However, if that mascot is deemed hostile or abusive regarding race or national origin, the association will not allow that particular mascot to be visible at national championships. The ban of racially insensitive mascots went into effect Feb. 1, 2006. The decision to exclude offensive mascots from NCAA championships was made after the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee meet and redefined the boundaries.

Over the past 30 years about 30 schools were asked to reevaluate their use of American Indian imagery and name for mascot purposes. The schools then submitted a report to the NCAA. Those wishing to continue the use of the Indian name are now subject to the new NCAA policy that forbids their mascot’s presences at NCAA championships. The University of Utah is among the schools subject to that policy.

But there is support for the use of American Indian names and symbols. Fred Esplin, vice president of Institutional Advancement at the University of Utah, said the use of the Ute name was consented to by members of the Ute Indian Tribe. Tribal leaders agreed to have their name associated with the university as long as no imagery was used along with it, such as cartoon Indians and headdresses.

However, the road to this agreement was not simple. Until about the 1950s or 1960s, the university had used the name Running Redskins for its sports teams. Costumes and headdresses worn by cheerleaders accompanied this name. Conversations began with tribal leaders concerning the use of the Indian image, during which the tribe formally agreed to let their name be used, Esplin said.

Even with formal consent tension from the tribe relating to the insensitive way the Ute name was being portrayed continued, Esplin recalls. In 1984, he said an attempt was made to honor the Tribe in a seemingly sensitive way. A student, who was assumed to be of Ute Indian descent, was selected to don war paint and a headdress and ride bare-chested on a horse from one end of the football stadium to the other carrying a spear. This feeble attempt at honoring the Tribe was abandoned after one season, Esplin said.

The U was in need of a mascot that would be culturally sensitive and appeal to the masses. In 1986 the U formally adopted Swoop, the red tailed hawk, as its mascot. However, the Ute Tribe agreed to allow the use of the Ute name to continue. This agreement included that the U would not use any American Indian imagery, except for the drum and feathers logo, which Esplin said is slowly being phased out.

Since his involvement with the Ute tribe began in 1999, Esplin said he has met with tribal leaders many times about the use of the name. “The Ute Tribe has a sense of pride about being connected to the university through their name,” he said.

He acknowledges that not everyone on campus agrees with the use of the name, but says the decision was made by tribal leaders. If at anytime they are dissatisfied with how the name is portrayed, they have the right to ask the university to discontinue using the name.

Before coming to the U for graduate school, Debra Yazzie, a member of the Navajo Nation, hadn’t been concerned with the use of tribal names as mascots. Her attention was only drawn to it after a photo was published in the sports section of the Daily Utah Chronicle that depicted a racial remark made at a woman’s volleyball game.

In fall 2007, Brigham Young University and the University of Utah met to face off in a women’s volleyball game. Students on the BYU campus are allowed to bring dry-erase boards to games and write messages on them. At this particular match a female student wrote on her whiteboard an offensive phrase that resonated with Yazzie. A photographer from the Chronicle captured one of the offensive images in a photo that later ran in the sports section of the newspaper.

Yazzie said this is an example of why using the Ute name is a bad idea. People misrepresent the Utes and it leaves the Tribe open to cruel comments. But Esplin maintains that it is the right of the Ute Tribe to dictate how and when its name is used.

“It seems to me that other tribes may have a problem with the use of the Ute name, but the Utes themselves have approved it,” Esplin said.

More recently, students at the U sold T-shirts that depicted an American Indian roasting a horned frog over a fire. The image was of a cartoon character of a Ute and the horned frog, the mascot of Texas Christian University, a rival school. The shirts were sold on campus days leading up to football game on Nov. 6, 2008.

Amie Hammond, a U student and a member of the Ute Tribe, saw students on campus selling shirts on her way to class. She called Yazzie and other American Indian students, who asked the vendors to stop selling the shirts. The Indian students then explained to the vendors that the imagery was offensive and that in their culture the horned frog or toad was considered representative of their ancestors.

The students selling the shirts apologized to Yazzie and the rest of the Indian students but moved their operation to the tailgate lot located across campus. There, they were again confronted by a group of angry Indian students who requested that they be more sensitive and refrain from selling the shirts. Hammond said she wanted disciplinary action taken against the students for the misrepresentation of her people.

Esplin said that the students involved have been notified of their offensive behavior and have issued a sincere apology. He said he believes they honestly didn’t know they would offend anyone. Incidences like these are few and far between, he said. But when they do occur the university takes immediate action to correct the problems.

Esplin reiterated how proud the U is to be associated with the Tribe. “They have an honorable, rich tradition and we recognize that,” Esplin said.