In changing Indian nicknames, colleges lead the way

10/17/2013 3:34 PM

10/17/2013 11:32 PM

Developments in the debate over the nickname of Washington’s NFL franchise have become an almost daily occurrence. On Thursday, results of a poll commissioned by the Oneida Indian Nation showed 59 percent of respondents said Native Americans have a right to feel offended by the nickname “Redskins.”

This follows comments by television analyst Bob Costas, who said during halftime of NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast that the term was “an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”

Earlier this month, President Obama said he would “think about changing” the nickname if he owned the team.

The Star is among several media organizations that do not use the word unless it is the focus of a news story or debate.

The topic has been bandied publicly for decades and seems to gain steam, like now, every few years.

The basic argument: Is the nickname an insulting form of stereotyping Native Americans and does it represent a racial slur? Or does the name of a team with a deep and loyal fan base innocently connote courage and nobility?

I spoke with two former football players with Native American heritage, and both would prefer to see a new nickname in Washington. John Learned was a member of the Kansas football team in the early 1970s, and Levi Horn spent time with the Bears and Vikings during 2010-12 and now lives in Kansas City.

“We’re in agreement it’s racist,” said Learned, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. “I think it’s going to change eventually.”

Horn, a member of the Cheyenne Tribe, sat in on the interview with his 22-month old daughter, Isabella, and it was with her in mind that he regretted saying he wasn’t offended by the nickname when he talked to reporters during his career.

“Is that worse?” Horn said. “That I had gotten to a point that I was fine with it? That was wrong. The name is wrong. It’s not OK to teach, and our kids should know that it’s not OK.”

On this topic, the pros can learn a lesson from the college level.

At one time, Native American nicknames were common in the NCAA and amateur sports.

Do you remember the Stanford Indians, St. John’s Redmen and Marquette Warriors?

How about mascots such as Syracuse’s Saltine Warrior, the big-nosed Indian in attack mode? Or Oklahoma’s Little Red, the student who dressed as an Indian?

Long gone.

Learned said his mother, Juanita Lincoln Learned, sat on the board of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, and helped lead the fight against the Sooners’ mascot.

“Oklahoma would score a touchdown and there would be a war dance,” Learned said. “Mom wanted to put an end to that, and she did.”

When schools didn’t act on their own to change Indian nicknames, the NCAA took action. In 2005, the organization asked schools to evaluate their nicknames, mascots and imagery. Of the 31 schools with Indian names, 19 were cited as hostile or abusive. The NCAA had leverage: Change or be banned from participating in or playing host to NCAA tournaments.

They all changed, and some of the battles were emotional. North Dakota challenged the NCAA in court to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname, but last year the state voted to retire it. Today, the school competes without an official mascot.

Illinois did away with its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, in 2007, but the school kept its Fighting Illini nickname after getting support from the tribe. The same is true for the nicknames of the Florida State Seminoles, Utah Utes and Central Michigan Chippewas.

Change has come slower on the professional level, but there have been some moves. Atlanta Braves home runs are no longer celebrated by Chief Noc-A-Homa. There are no Indian depictions on the Golden State Warriors logo.

Learned sees a continued evolution in professional sports, even with the Redskins, who were named for Native American coach Lone Star Deitz when the team played at its original home in Boston.

“I think these things started for the right reason,” Learned said. “They were done in the spirit of honoring someone, or to suggest Native Americans were strong people. You weren’t going to name your team something weak.

“But attitudes change, the way we think about things changes.”

It did for Horn, when it comes to the nickname of Washington’s NFL team.

“Just because it’s been around for a long time doesn’t make it right,” Horn said. “It’s not right. It’s racist.”

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