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Last of the Redskins

What can sports mascots teach us about Native American relations today?
By RICK WORMWOOD  |  December 2, 2008

The term’s first users were Native Americans
describing themselves.

It’s been asked before, but what’s in a name? Scarborough voters had the chance to ponder a variation of the Bard’s tricky question on Election Day, when they were asked if the School Board should reconsider Scarborough High School’s mascot nickname, the “Red Storm.” The non-binding referendum, which narrowly failed to pass, came in response to a petition from a group of Scarborough alumni who were calling for a return to its previous nickname, the “Redskins.”

The Scarborough School Board changed from “Redskins” to the “Red Storm” eight years ago, at a time when high school and college teams around the country were trending away from using Native American mascots, because they were deemed offensive and exploitative by Native Americans. According to the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition’s Web site, six Maine high schools still represent their teams with Native American names and images. Three high schools call their teams the “Warriors” (Nokomis Regional, Southern Aroostook Community School, and Wells High); only one school, Skowhegan High, calls its teams the “Indians.” As for the most contentious of Native American mascot names, “Redskins,” Scarborough’s change left only two high schools employing the term: Wiscasset and Sanford (from which this reporter graduated in 1988).

Putting aside whether or not the names Warriors or Indians were questionable on their own merits, when considering Maine’s remaining “Redskins” teams, a question arises, as we commemorate the pilgrims and the Indians breaking bread together in brotherhood, way back in the colonial day. That question, with apologies to James Fenimore Cooper, was which town will be the last “Redskins” holdout, Sanford or Wiscasset?

College and the Pros: Two Messages
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has been at the forefront of the Native American mascot battle for years. Although they cannot force member schools to abandon Native American mascots, in 2005 the NCAA’s executive committee adopted a policy forbidding schools from “displaying hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery at any of the 88 NCAA championships.”

That might not sound like much leverage, but many school officials looking down the road saw the potential for their institutions to be embarrassed on a national stage and got the message. According to the NCAA’s Web site, as of February of 2007, at least 11 colleges and universities had changed, or indicated their intent to change, their Native American nicknames. Other schools, most notably the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux, are negotiating with the tribes they are named after, seeking approval to continue the name. In 2005, the Florida State Seminoles received permission to keep their nickname from Seminole tribes in Florida and Oklahoma. As of 2007, one of the three Sioux tribes in North Dakota had refused their permission for the university to retain the nickname, and according to an agreement the school reached with the NCAA in October 2007, if the remaining tribe cannot be swayed by 2010 the mascot must be retired. No NCAA schools use the nickname “Redskins.”

Professional teams, most of which are privately owned, have resisted efforts to remove Native American names. Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves, and the National Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs have so far proven impervious to grassroots movements organized by tribes and activists over the years, as have the NFL team in the nation’s capital, the Washington Redskins.

The Sanford Redskins

It’s the Washington Redskins that provide local Redskins supporters the most political cover. Sanford High School principal Allan Young, himself a Sanford alumnus and a Redskins true believer, says, “The way I’ve always looked at it is when the capital starts jumping on the inappropriateness of (the nickname), and that starts to move things and trickle down, then I think that’s more appropriate” for Sanford to reconsider.

But Young's response didn’t consider whether the term was intrinsically racist or not. Many people believe it is, which makes his argument akin to a hypothetical student being called into his office and saying, “I’ll quit smoking dope or having unprotected sex only after the other kids do.”

Young responds: “I think it’s different, because this community feels very strongly about the mascot. Graduates of Sanford High School that live in this community, business owners, the people that support and follow our programs, have a whole different meaning to the word ‘Redskins.’ And I think that in this day and age, with the political correctness of things, sometimes we go overboard.”

Which isn’t to say that he resents the discussion. “I welcome the questioning of it, but I also believe that people have to back it up, and that it should be documented historically as to the meaning of the ‘Redskins’ and what is derogatory about the ‘Redskins,’” Young says. “I haven’t researched, I haven’t read, I haven’t had anything presented to me that was beyond Internet resource material. Nothing that’s an official document. Nothing that gets my dander to the fact that maybe we need to take a look at that.”

The NCAA states its case on its Web site, also offering a news-release archive on the topic. The US Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement condemning the use of Native American images as sports symbols in 2001 because they were “a dangerous lesson in a diverse society;” a copy of the statement is available online.

But the “entirely benign” origins of the term — including the fact that its first users were Native Americans describing themselves — are perhaps best explained in “I Am A Red-Skin,” an exhaustively researched and footnoted 2005 essay by Ives Goddard, a curator and senior linguist with the anthropology department at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of Natural History. Nevertheless, Goddard’s essay ends with the admission that in “more recent times” the term has been viewed negatively.

Young says he feels any movement to change the Sanford nickname should come from within the Sanford community, but “that type of underpinning has not come to my desk, and not anyone else’s desk at this point, because of the strong feelings here for the Redskin.”

Betsy St. Cyr, Sanford’s superintendent, summed up Sanford’s dichotomy of local opinion over the nickname succinctly: “Some alumni in town feel like the mascot has always represented pride. There’s another faction that feels like it has the same connotations as the N-word. Those are the two ends of the spectrum,” St. Cyr explained. She noted that Sanford High’s are barred by policy from saying “Redskins,” and says, “I think we struck a balance.”

According to school policy, Sanford High students are forbidden from chanting the nickname at sporting events because it might offend someone. According to sports editor Don Coulter, the Portland Press Herald’s editorial policy is to ignore the nickname in its sports reporting. So why continue a team name that can’t be worn by athletes or chanted by fans, a nickname that the state’s largest newspaper won’t acknowledge? Young replies, “Like I said, that’s a community decision.”

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , National Football Conference , National Football League , NFC East Division ,  More more >
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