Issues

SCSU President Roy H. Saigo's presentation on the use of American Indian Mascots

Presented to the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee on Monday, Jan. 28, 2002

Thank you for this opportunity to talk about the issue of American Indian mascots, logos, and nicknames in college athletics.  It is a practice that has generated controversy on campuses across the nation and will continue to do so as long as there are non-Indian teams with names like Warriors, Chiefs, Redmen, Braves, and Savages. 

I would like to make it clear that I am not here on my own behalf.  I am here representing the many voices that have called on us, as educational leaders, to continue the process of eliminating racism from our colleges and universities.

Believe me, in the past year I have heard all sides of this controversy.  I have received impassioned e-mail memos and letters not only from fans of the University of North Dakota but also from many others asking why I am wasting my time on an issue that’s none of my business. 

I have heard and read messages that claim that this is a trivial issue, or that such nicknames bring honor to American Indians. 

However, I also have talked with and heard from many American Indians as they have shared with me the hurt and degradation they and their children feel when they see caricatures of American Indian persons, culture, and spiritual symbols. 

They and other advocates of change on our campus and in our community question how others would feel if faced with such demeaning depictions of themselves as humans.

When I became president of St. Cloud State University a year and a half ago I realized that the demonstrations and emotional turmoil over this issue had been steadily escalating over the past several years. 

I knew this was a topic that deserved a broad forum for discussion and resolution.  I also knew that this was a controversy that many other campuses were coping with. 

So, last winter our campus hosted The Midwest Forum on American Indian Mascots to allow regional schools the opportunity to share their challenges and explore solutions. 

Last March, in response to all the concerns and proposals I heard, I drafted resolutions first to our regional athletic conferences and then to Division II President’s Council Chair Patricia Cormier, asking that the issue be raised for discussion. 

This Fall the MOIC responded positively to this initiative.

As you know, many colleges and universities have retired their Indian-related mascots, logos, and athletic team names.  Stanford and Dartmouth did this 30 years ago, in response to student actions.  Colgate, Marquette, and Minnesota State-Mankato are other examples. 

Quinnipiac University in Connecticut is the most recent school, with the Board of Trustees voting this past December to replace the "Braves" nickname with a yet-to-be-determined choice.  

In making the announcement, Vice President for Academic Affairs Lynn Bushnell stated:

“Although fond of the tradition we’ve had for 50 years, the university community clearly recognized the difficulties of using a name that has the potential to misrepresent and denigrate an entire group of people.  And, despite our clear intention to honor and remember the Native Americans once known as the Quinnipiaks, to do so only through athletics was found to be no longer appropriate.”

The QU news release went on to identify some of the strongest factors that motivated their change.

They—like many others—squarely identify this as an educational issue.

Despite the hundreds of high schools and colleges that have made the change in recent decades, at least 42 American colleges and universities still have retained their Indian symbols.  Some of these schools have compromised in some way, such as by dropping offensive mascots or replacing them with a non-racial or non-human mascot.

For instance, Minnesota’s Winona State University retained the name “Warriors” but now uses a classical Greek soldier as their logo. 

Just recently, San Diego State University—the Aztecs—announced plans to revamp their dancing “Monty Montezuma” mascot.  Monty will be replaced by an “historically accurate” character who will serve as a “university ambassador.”

The most interesting compromise might be that of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who retained the nickname “Indians” for its athletic teams, but the team symbol is an animal, the black bear.

Some of you—and I know many of our colleagues—may be wondering, “what’s the harm in this?”

Today I would like to share some examples of the harm.

I ask you to put yourselves and your own family members in the place of Indian parents, children, and college students, and imagine what it would be like to experience what they experience.

I ask you to consider the testimony and requests of individual American Indians, tribal governments, and American Indian organizations.

I encourage you to review the reasoning behind decisions that other institutions and organizations have made on this topic.

I hope that you will be persuaded by the will of the American people as expressed in the 1974 Civil Rights Act and in the recent, strong statements of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

In April of 2001 the Civil Rights Commission issued a statement calling for a halt to the use of Native American images and nicknames as sports symbols.  In the words of the Commission:

“The stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious or other groups when promoted by our public educational institutions, teach all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, a dangerous lesson in a diverse society.  Schools have a responsibility to educate their students; they should not use their influence to perpetuate misrepresentations of any culture or people.”

This statement echoes again the theme that this is a highly appropriate issue for all educational institutions.

As for the assertion that mascots bring honor to American Indians, student Dan Lewerenz of the Kansas State Collegian newspaper voiced an articulate answer in a 1995 editorial:

Suppose Kansas City had chosen to honor Jackie Robinson by naming their baseball team the Negroes.  Diehard fans would come in blackface, and plastic spears would be sold by the thousands so fans could do the Hottentot chop….

What’s the difference between the reality of teams with American Indian mascots and the imaginary Kansas City Negroes?”

Does that example offend you?  I find it very uncomfortable.  But, I think it makes a strong point about society’s differential sensitivity to specific examples of racism.

This editorial cartoon provides another illustration of this point.

We teach future citizens and leaders.  What we tolerate and teach in our colleges and universities sets a tone of acceptance or non-acceptance in society at large.

In his editorial, Lewerenz went on to answer those who ask, “If it’s such a big deal, why did nobody care until now?”

His reply was, “People have cared about and protested the use of Indian mascots for decades.  Certainly more people are paying attention to the issue now, but to assert that nobody cared until now is like saying nobody minded slavery until the outbreak of the Civil War.”

Many people DO care and care deeply about this issue.  While St. Cloud State University does not have an American Indian mascot, we do compete in athletics with a university that does.  When its teams come to our campus, we are faced with upholding the principle that our campus has long asserted, that we decry any form of racism. 

And many, many people do believe that the issue of American Indian mascots in college athletics IS one of full-fledged, anachronistic, institutionalized racism. 

This issue cannot be trivialized as simply a matter of “political correctness.”  Rather it truly is an EDUCATIONAL issue.  It is directly related to the key role of a public university in supporting social justice, equality, and educational opportunity.

Our society has phased out many other discriminatory customs and laws that once were considered acceptable, but now are considered shameful.  I believe this evolution will and should continue. 

African Americans no longer are required to ride in the back of the bus, and we no longer read “Little Black Sambo” to our children.

Asians are no longer openly depicted as buck-toothed individuals whose loyalties to America are suspect. 

Yet the racist practice of stereotyping American Indians as cartoon characters and sub-human creatures continues.  It is a deep wound, as it also trivializes and misrepresents Indian cultural and spiritual symbols. 

American Indian mascots perpetuate stereotypes and lock American Indians into stagnant roles as seen by others of the dominant culture, NOT themselves.  This is similar to how the old Aunt Jemima “mammy,” black lawn jockey, and minstrel show images perpetuated stereotypes of African Americans—stereotypes our society now sees as too demeaning.

What do the Indian mascot stereotypes teach?

According to many American Indians, those who argue to retain Indian mascots, or to regard them as harmless, don’t realize the depth and breadth of the harm they do.

No matter how noble the official statements about their mascots sound, colleges and universities can’t control behaviors that arise from the use of Indian mascots.  American Indian mascots provide numerous occasions for racist and derogatory “collateral damage” to occur.  Some of this damage already has been mentioned above, the impact it has in the classroom. 

Some of the ugliest damage, however, occurs through “behind-the-scenes” events that add to a hostile environment for American Indian students, non-Indian students of conscience, and faculty and staff members on our campuses.  These events may be subtle, but often they are vicious, such as racial taunting and acts of aggression.    

Collateral damage also occurs when a school’s mascot is depicted in a hostile or disgusting manner. 

For example, the University of North Dakota “Fighting Sioux” mascot has been portrayed in sex acts with the North Dakota State University “Bison.”  (Incidentally, this is the “after” version of a “before-and-after” exchange.  The “before” version was equally offensive.  You can imagine what was depicted in the cutout area on the bison’s back.)

Is this “honoring” American Indians?

The “Fighting Sioux” mascot also has been shown with x’s in his eyes, indicating drunkenness, along with other exaggerated stereotypical features initiated at the will of UND students, alumni, and fans.

And then there is the marketing. 

Many Indians are horrified by the disembodied head logos, as they resemble advertisements posted at stores that collected Indian heads as bounties during the days of political control by genocide.  So, what can the NCAA do?

According to its mission and stated values, the NCAA seeks to “foster individual empowerment and personal well-being;” to “promote respect, communication and teamwork;” and to “encourage diversity.” 

I do not believe that continuing the use of American Indian mascots fits with that mission.  I urge you to continue with an in-depth study of this issue and to seek understanding of the American Indians’ point of view. 

To assist in your work, I highly recommend that you view the acclaimed PBS videotape, “In Whose Honor?”  It presents this issue much more powerfully than I can.

It isn’t easy to foster change, especially when many wonder why there is a need to change something.  It is hard to shake the status quo.  However, we are hardly starting “from scratch.”  Rather, this is an intermediate stage in an ongoing continuum, and we are, at this moment, significant players.

In recent decades we have witnessed tremendous evolution in issues of civil rights and social justice.  I believe that 20 years from now the use of Indian mascots in college athletics will be on that long list of insensitive practices that Americans no longer abide. 

While you may not agree with our campus’s role as a catalyst for this particular issue, we will continue to encourage open and broad discussion on this and other important issues.

In closing, I’d like to share a piece of my mail with you.

I recently received a poignant letter from a father whose 11-year-old son, an American Indian, was picked on physically and verbally by other students when he openly objected to the use of Indians as mascots and logos.  He wrote:

“White students, parents, administrators, and teachers fail or refuse to understand or accept the fact that use of Indians as mascots is offensive. Racism stems from the lack of understanding, lack of knowledge, and lack of respect.  Many white people say it’s ‘honoring’ the Native Americans, but it is no honor when we are listed among animals and are abused daily in our lives.  We are people, NOT mascots.  And it hurts.”

We are educators.  We touch the future.

Thank you again.


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