As a culture wars issue, there’s no way American Indian school mascots can compete with abortion or gay marriage.
Still, the occasional public flareups over the use or misuse of Native American imagery on the football field and basketball court provide insight on what happens when tradition collides with political correctness.
In the case of two Guilford County high schools, political correctness recently scored a slam dunk. By a 7-3 vote of the Guilford County Board of Education, Southern Guilford High School will have to give up its name, the Indians, while High Point Andrews High School will be allowed to retain the name Red Raiders but must retire an American Indian mascot.
Although the new regulation passed in March is worded to prohibit the use of any existing ethnic group as a mascot, there never was any question over the intent of the regulation — although a few critics asked, not entirely in jest, whether one high school might have to give up its Viking mascot, lest any residents of Scandinavian extraction take offense.
The activist argument that Indians are the only extant group of people who are given stereotyped treatment as sports mascots is only partly correct. Granted, American Indian mascots have been uniquely popular all over the country. But if there are any complaints from Baptists over Wake Forest’s snarling deacon, or Irish-Americans over Notre Dame’s pugnacious leprechaun, they are getting little attention.
Still, both the Department of Education and the State Advisory Council on Indian Education have made it clear they want Indian mascots gone as soon as possible. So, it seems likely that many other county school boards will soon have to deal with an issue that’s guaranteed to alienate parents and students alike. About 60 public schools statewide have American Indian mascots.
The state authorities have no power to force county school boards to ban American Indian imagery. But recent events in Guilford County demonstrate that their expressed wishes are often treated as a mandate. “We figured it was pretty much a done deal,” said Jay Terrell, a 30-year agriculture teacher at Southern Guilford High School. Terrell helped organize a rear-guard effort to retain the name Indians, a tradition dating to 1926. But he said school boosters sensed from the start that few members of the Guilford County School Board would have any sympathy for their cause. In effect, their fate was written from the time the mascot issue was put on the agenda.
Ironically, Terrell noted that his school has gone out of its way to research the American Indian heritage of its community. They learned that the first Quaker settlers who came south from Pennsylvania beginning about 1755 owed a lot to the help of the Saura, Keyauwee, and Catawba tribesmen who inhabited the area. While other frontier areas were torn by conflict by Indians and whites, southern Guilford was a model of the peaceful cooperation — an 18th century example of multiculturalism.
Terrell, himself partly of Indian heritage, said that, based on these facts, it’s hard to think of a better image for the community than that of the Indians. He said the school also invested in an authentic costume, including getting advice from the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
Meanwhile, Southern Guilford’s principal, Steve Hodgin, said retiring a school mascot costs money. He estimates it will cost about $125,000 to replace items ranging from stationery to signage. He said he has yet to get clear guidance from the school board on where the money will come from or how much time the school will have.
Public debate on American Indian school mascots has been slow gathering momentum in North Carolina, compared to some other parts of the country. Significantly, the North Carolina Cherokee have so far stayed neutral on the mascot issue.
The state’s other large tribe, the Lumbees of Robeson and adjoining counties, also hasn’t made any strong public statements on the issue. Usually when the mascot issue has come before a school board, it has been at the instigation of a few activists.
In the case of Guilford County, some boosters were upset because a perceived outsider, Monroe Gilmour, was called in by the school board to provide expert testimony on the bad effects of Indian mascots on the self-esteem of American Indian students. Gilmour is a self-described “community organizer” who resides in Black Mountain and heads an activist organization called the N.C. Mascot Education & Action Group. He was involved in the first major campaign against a North Carolina high school Indian mascot, at Erwin High School in Buncombe County in 1999.
National precedents have been all over the map, although they suggest that schools wishing to continue using Indian mascots should be prepared to defend themselves against activists.
In California, Stanford University retired its Indian name and mascot several years ago to become the Cardinal, a reference to the color of its uniforms and presumably the most neutral logo that anyone on campus could think up.
But Florida State University stole a march on critics by striking an agreement with the Seminole tribe to continue using its name. So, in one of the more striking bits of college football pageantry, Chief Osceola continues to throw a flaming spear at the start of every FSU home game.
Traditionalists advance the common-sense argument that mascots are symbols of strength, pride, and teamwork. They are therefore inherently positive and should be accepted as such. In the case of Native American mascots, they also argue that the imagery is a tribute to the Indian heritage of whatever part of the country they appear.
Critics flatly state that this is no tribute at all. They object that Native American sports imagery owes more to Hollywood than any historically accurate depiction of Indians. Also, they note that most Indian mascots were adopted during an age when ethnic stereotyping was routine. Therefore, the mascots that today are supposed to be symbols of Native American dignity probably owed more to “wild Indian” stereotypes than anything else.
Louise Maynor, chairman of the State Advisory Council on Indian Education, said her group has been cautious about raising the mascot issue, but at last felt compelled to take a position in its 2003 report.
Historically, the council’s focus has been on the high achievement gap and dropout rate of the state’s roughly 19,000 American Indian public school students. So, the mascot issue was discussed in last year’s report mainly as a point in passing.
“Much too often American Indian children are placed in the position of refuting negative and false stereotypes perpetuated by biased and inaccurate depictions of themselves and their American Indian community,” the report stated.
Maynor, who is herself of Lumbee heritage, said the council’s 2004 report will have more to say on the mascot issue. She said the feeling on the council is that Indian mascots should be removed from North Carolina public schools by 2005.
Maynor said she recognizes that many schools are trying to maintain their Indian identity in a dignified way. But she said that having an Indian mascot opens the door for opposing schools to weigh in with offensive stereotypes. She noted that when Buncombe County decided to make Erwin High School give up its Indian mascot, one of the factors that swung the school board’s vote were photos showing opposing teams’ banners bearing slogans such as “scalp the Warriors,” along with plentiful fake blood. Another issue was the use of the word “squaw” for female student athletes.
Anita Sharpe, a Guilford County school board member, said schools shouldn’t be forced to give up their identities because of the boorish behavior of their opponents. Initially, Sharpe was the only Guilford school board member to favor retaining Indian mascots. Ultimately, she was joined by two others, not nearly enough to mount any serious challenge to the ban.
After the final vote, Sharpe said she still thinks that the way to attack the problem is to be stricter about how fans support their teams. Her rule: “You can say anything you want to about your own team, but not the other team.” Sharpe said she hopes the N.C. High School Athletic Association will take a look at this approach and crack down on taunting of opponents.
Rick Strunk, NCHSAA associate director, said his organization has avoided weighing in on the issue. He said it’s perhaps significant that he knows of no new schools that are adopting American Indian mascots. As for the sportsman issue, Strunk said he doesn’t foresee any crackdown on banners, partly because NCHSSA is more concerned with curbing taunting and showboating by the athletes themselves.
Bob Fliss is a contributing writer of Carolina Journal.