Around the campfire

Dean Chavers
1/30/08

The mascot issue

I was so happy that day in March 1970. I had just received my letter of acceptance into the Department of Communication at Stanford. I went by the Native American studies office at Berkeley later in the afternoon to tell everyone about my good news.

Russell Walden, my compadre from the Creek Nation, took all the air out of my balloon. ''So you're going to be a Stanford Indian,'' he said, ''Ha, ha, ha.''

A few days later, I thought about what Russell had said as my wife, Toni, and I drove in our little yellow Volkswagen down the Bayshore Freeway. We were going to visit the Stanford campus for the first time and see what we could get for housing. I told her what Russell had said, and exclaimed: ''That's not right! We have to make them change that racist mascot symbol.''

Remember, we were the students who had taken over Alcatraz Island the previous November. Most of us were mad, and I'm still mad about a lot of things. The mascot issue was minor in a way, but it is major in another way. It is insulting to a whole race of people.

To make a short story shorter, within less than a year we, the 25 Indian graduate and undergraduate students at Stanford, had made them change the symbol. But we learned before that how really racist the symbol had become. They had a Karuk Indian named Tim Williams, who worked for Gov. Ronald Reagan as his Indian flunky, as the mascot symbol.

Tim would do things like put an Indian ''hex'' on the other team on the football field before the kickoff. We met with him one Sunday night and he promised not to do demeaning things any more. The following Saturday he broke his promise and put an Indian ''curse'' on the other team. We were really steamed then.

Lorenzo Stars, from Pine Ridge, was the president of the Stanford American Indian Organization. Lorenzo carried the ball for us. He met with the other clubs and groups on the campus, and they backed dropping the Indian mascot as a symbol. The administration never went along with the change, but it was the student government that actually made the change. And it stuck. The Stanford teams are now known as the Cardinal (the color, not the bird).

I was reminded of this when I got an e-mail the other day from one of my Air Force buddies. I flew with Col. Tom Johnson in Vietnam for almost a year, and we were on the same B-52 crew before that and after that. So we were together for almost two years, sometimes night and day.

Tom taught me a whole lot, and I am grateful to him for that. It was his tutelage that let me get an instructor navigator rating while I was still a first lieutenant. And Tom and I never messed up a bomb run, an ETA, a missile program, a bomb drop, a refueling or anything else. Tom was top of the line and retired as a full colonel.

He finished at Renton High School in Washington in 1955. They are having their 50th high school class reunion, and Tom has been trying to convince me that having an Indian mascot symbol is a good thing. In September of 2004 I attended my first reunion of the B-52 and KC-135 crews, where I saw Tom for the first time since 1968.

He said it took him three years to find me. He finally found me on a list of Stanford people who had attended a reunion several years ago. He and I spent two days together again at the reunion, which was held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. We had a great time, except for the mascot issue.

His e-mail told me how the school got its Indian symbol. It seems the school was built in 1911 on land that originally belonged to the Duwamish Indian Tribe. For the first five years, the school had no symbol.

Then Henry Moses enrolled in 1916. He was the only Indian on the campus. He was the star player on the basketball team, but he had to take the razzing of the other teams who called the whole team ''Indians'' just because he was on it. Finally the school named ''Indians'' as the school mascot and symbol, and it has been this way since 1920.

Tom is all in favor of keeping the school symbol. His e-mail was another attempt to change my mind and get me to see the wisdom of endorsing the Indian symbol. Sorry, Tom. I still think calling somebody a racist name is not an honor; it is an insult.

I'm sure many other schools around the nation have similar histories. They are known as the Indians, the Bucks, the Savages, the Braves, the Warriors and some other names. Many of them have started changing their racist names over the past 20 years, largely due to Tim Giago and his campaigns on the issue.

But I remember a poster that had racist banners for the New York Jews, the Philadelphia Sambos, the New Jersey Wops, the San Francisco Chinks and the Los Angeles Greasers, along with the Atlanta Braves. At the bottom it said, ''Now you know how we feel.''

According to my friend Dr. Winona Simms, the director of the Indian program at Stanford, there are still 80 college teams that use Indian symbols. The worst names are Squaw Valley, Calif., and the Washington Redskins. Both of these are patently racist names and they need to be changed. It upsets me to hear the ''Indian'' chant of the Florida State University and the accompanying drum beat, and the ''tomahawk chop.''

The worst part of the ritual of the teams that use Indian symbols is the students dressing up as ''Indians'' and doing degrading and bastardized versions of Indian dancing and singing while the game is going on. Non-Indians never seem to understand the religious significance of Indian dancing.

To them, dancing and singing go with drinking and partying. To Indian people, dancing and singing go with worship and praying. There could not be a more stark comparison between the two cultures than this.

The non-Indian students could care less about how Indian dancing, praying, worship and singing were outlawed by the federal government for 50 years. They have no clue about the religious and emotional meaning of Indian dancing to Indian people. If they did, they would stop degrading Indian cultures.

How would they like it if Indians went to their churches and made a mockery of their ceremonies with breaking bread and sharing sacramental wine? An Indian who tried that would likely be strung up. But they do it to us all the time. Shame on you heathens!

Dr. Dean Chavers is the director of Catching the Dream (formerly the Native American Scholarship Fund), a scholarship and school improvement program in Albuquerque, N.M. Mellen Press published his book ''Modern American Indian Leaders'' in June 2007. His address is ctd4deanchavers@aol.com. He welcomes your comments and welcomes Native students to apply for college scholarships.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page