Mascot spotlights Indian grievances
It's a question Indians across the country are asking - in e-mails, conference calls and meetings - as they watch the provocative strategy unfold.
Some mascot activists said they got a good laugh from a novel twist in a long-running debate, and they hope the Fightin' Whities prompt useful discussion about the core issue of Indian stereotypes. But others said they are loath to mock racism, knowing irony is often misinterpreted.
"If the Fightin' Whities gets the message across, we fully support it. It would be a major contribution to our effort," said Vernon Bellecourt, a member of the Anishinabe-Ojibwe Nation and a leader of the American Indian Movement, which has battled for three decades to end the use of Indian mascots.
Meanwhile, some Greeley residents are considering a campaign that would urge informal teams elsewhere to adopt the Fightin' Whities tactic.
"I look at it as a reverse perspective," said Dan Ninham, a member of the Oneida Nation. "I think this kind of approach could be used nationally. It touches people."
Early this year, Ninham formed a multiethnic committee to oppose the Fightin' Reds mascot at Eaton High School - a caricature of a defiant Indian with a misshapen nose, eagle feather and loincloth. Ninham has called it "one of the most blatantly racist mascots in the country," but school officials in the farm town north of Greeley have refused to meet with the committee to discuss concerns.
The University of Northern Colorado intramural basketball team, made up of American Indians, Hispanics and Anglos, took the name Fightin' Whites as a jab at the nearby high school. The team, whose name evolved into the more in-your-face Fightin' Whities, has its own mascot on player T-shirts: a caricature of a middle-aged white guy with the phrase, "Everthang's gonna be all white!"
Charlie Cuny, 27, team founder and a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, said he and his college buddies never predicted the response. They've been swamped with T-shirt requests, and news of the Fightin' Whities has been in countless media outlets, from talk radio to The New York Times.
"If it opens the lines of communication, that's great," Cuny said. "I would hope people would be smart enough to see through to the real issue - that we have to respect all cultures."
Eaton school officials have questioned the team's motives and complained that their tiny district is being unfairly targeted. The superintendent and principals have called the Fightin' Reds mascot a "nonissue."
Indian mascots have long provoked debate. Mascot protesters estimate that 3,000 high schools, colleges and professional sports teams use Native American nicknames and caricatures - including the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, with their grinning Chief Wahoo mascot.
At least 20 Colorado schools are on that list, including the Loveland High School Indians, the La Veta High School Redskins and the Lamar High School Savages. (Lamar, on Colorado's Eastern Plains, is near the site of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, where Col. John Chivington and his cavalry slaughtered more than 150 peaceful Indians.)
About 600 schools and teams nationwide have changed names and dropped Indian imagery, and the list is growing.
In Colorado, Arvada High School switched from the Redskins to the Reds in 1993; the school stopped using its Indian mascot and recently adopted a bulldog. Likewise, the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo transformed from the Indians to the Thunderwolves in 1995, and Adams State College in Alamosa switched from the Indians to the Grizzlies in 1996.
Mascot debates are emotional, with defenders typically arguing that Indian nicknames and imagery are meant to honor Native Americans and are important elements of school and team pride.
A recent Sports Illustrated poll reported that many American Indians don't oppose such mascots. But for those who do, sensitivities run deep.
"These mascots distort a living people's culture and identity," said Bellecourt, president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. "When they say they're honoring us, they become culture vultures."
The terms "Redskins" and "Reds" have their roots in what Bellecourt called the "rhetoric of genocide." The phrases were first used by European colonists referring to the bloody scalps of native people killed for bounties, he said. "Envision a scalp dripping with blood, like a rancher clips a coyote's ears to collect the bounty," Bellecourt said. The terms later were used as slurs referring to skin color and ceremonial paint, he said.
Merry Ketterling, a Cheyenne River Lakota, has protested the University of North Dakota's mascot, the Fighting Sioux. She and other mascot foes note that American Indians are the only race used as mascots, a role most often filled by animals.
Ketterling, at 64 a Lakota elder, said it is painful to see Fighting Sioux hockey fans tromping across an arena floor that bears depictions of eagle feathers, which are sacred cultural and religious symbols to her people. At the same stadium, fans can eat "Sioux dogs."
"They're not honoring us - they're dehumanizing us," Ketterling said. "You get to the point that you don't know what you can do anymore."
Yet she and others said satire must be used carefully in the mascot debate so that it doesn't backfire by inflaming hostilities or trivializing human rights. Case in point: Some people clamoring for Fightin' Whities T-shirts have said in e-mails that they cheer white dominance.
Charlene Teters, a professor at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, has fought to change the University of Illinois' mascot, the Chief of the Fighting Illini, because she thinks the representation prevents others from understanding Native Americans as real people with contemporary concerns. Indian caricatures, she said, cause painful racial divisions.
"We see the results of that pain in our children. We see it in the low self-esteem, the high suicide rates and the self-hatred," said Teters, a Spokane Indian. "Those of us on the front lines, we see this as an important issue."
In the end, said Susan Ninham of Greeley, an Ojibwe Indian, the success of the Fightin' Whities will turn on this question: "Are school officials willing to sit down and talk with us?"
By Chryss Cada, Globe Correspondent, 3/15/2002
GREELEY, Colo. - Besides handling all the media attention, the biggest
challenge facing the Fightin' Whities is coming up with a battle cry.
''It's interesting to sit around and think, what noise does a white person
make?'' said Solomon Little Owl, a member of the Fightin' Whities
intramural basketball team at the University of Northern Colorado. ''When
you say that about a white person, you realize how ridiculous the whole
idea of having people as mascots is. This is our way of making that
Little Owl, director of Native American Student Services at the
university, suggested adopting the mascot to draw attention to the use of
American Indians as mascots for sports teams.
All 10 team members - three Native Americans, two Hispanics, and five
Anglos - supported the move.
''I grew up in the Indian world, learning the traditions, learning what an
eagle feather means,'' said Charles Cuny, the Lakota Indian who organized
the team. ''And then I turn on a [Florida State University] game on a
Saturday and see a blue-eyed boy dressed up in eagle feathers throwing
down a spear and dancing around like a fool.''
Cuny said that he, and most other young Indians, are more interested in
larger issues, such as health care and land rights, but that taking on
offensive mascots is a good starting point to bring awareness to more
The use of American Indians as sports mascots has been an issue for at
least three decades. It was in 1968 that the National Congress of American
Indians launched a campaign to address stereotypes in the media. The
National Congress has approached the Cleveland Indians and the Washington
''Officially, the NCAI can't really sanction what they're doing, but it's
definitely a new and unique approach,'' said Adam Bailey, the legislative
associate who handles the mascot issue for the Indian Congress. ''They've
certainly opened the eyes of a lot of Americans.''
About 1,200 school teams have changed their mascots in the last 38 years,
said Dan Ninham, founder of Coloradans Against Ethnic Stereotypes in
Colorado Schools. ''We've still got about 600 who haven't.''
Ninham, a graduate student at UNC, launched a campaign at the start of the
year to change the mascot at nearby Eaton High School. The school's teams
are called the Reds, and the logo is of a big-nosed American Indian.
His coalition got a boost when the UNC intramural team, officially named
''Native Pride,'' adopted the ''Whites'' mascot to draw attention to the
issue. The coalition provided the team with T-shirts with a cartoon mascot
of a white male with slicked-back hair and wearing a tie and dark coat.
The T-shirts are imprinted with ''Every thang's going to be all white!''
on the front and ''The Fighting Whites '' on the back. The nickname has
since evolved to the catchier ''Fightin' Whities.''
''We've tried to open a dialogue for over two months with the [Eaton]
School District,'' Ninham said. ''But to them, we're invisible. Maybe this
will get their attention.''
At the University of Northern Colorado campus in Greeley, where grain
towers serve as the skyline, only 76 of the 11,000 students on campus are
officially identified as American Indian.
But UNC's small American Indian population is making a big impact with the
Fightin' Whities. Hundreds of e-mails and voice messages have poured into
Little Owl's office since the local paper did a story on the team. A march
by those supporting a name change for the Reds is being organized for late
Marchers shouldn't expect a warm welcome in the community of 1,900.
Among the farmers gathered at Eaton's North Bean and Seed, the consensus
is that the high school's mascot shouldn't be of concern to anyone outside
the town limits.
''I've lived here all my life, and that Indian is a part of Eaton,'' said
one resident who asked not to be identified. ''Some yahoos from out of
town want to come in and take that away.''
At the high school, where about 80 percent of the 416 students are Anglo,
the sentiment is the same.
''You'd think they'd [American Indians] would be honored to have some kids
wanting to fight in their name,'' said sophomore Mallory Bailey. ''It's
not something were putting down. In fact, we're very proud of it.''
Bill Mondt, Eaton High's assistant principal, said there has been no
discussion on changing the mascot.
''Our students and our community stand behind using the Reds,'' he said,
''and that tradition and support is what matters.''
Fightin Whitie Ryan White disagrees.
''They talk about tradition that goes back, what, 70 years?'' he said.
''Well, we've got our own traditions, and they go back, well, forever.''
This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 3/15/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
'Fightin' Whites' team
has rural town seeing red
The Los Angeles Times
Greeley, Colo. -- It began as a tongue-in-cheek response to a serious issue.