Jul 1 2010

Cheerleading for ‘Abusive’ Mascots

Critics of Native American sports symbols are sidelined

FightingSiouxOn April 8, 2010, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education let stand its May 2009 vote to retire the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo over the 2010-11 academic year. The decision marked the end of a bitter debate on the athletic use of Native American culture at the 13,000-student university. As expected, students, alumni and citizens of the university’s eastern Dakota host city, Grand Forks, expressed shock and rage over what one resident called the board’s “duplicitous” and “cynical” decision (Grand Forks Herald, 4/12/10).

North Dakotans were not alone in their despair over the loss of such a tradition; in 2007, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees retired the “Chief Illiniwek” mascot, a Caucasian student dressed in buckskin who would perform stylized dance numbers at sporting events for the university’s Cham-paign-Urbana campus. (The campus was allowed to keep its “Fighting Illini” nickname.) As former “Chief” Scott Christensen told the Chicago Tribune (2/22/07) at the time: “This is painful. This is very, very difficult for us.”

In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) included North Dakota and Illinois, along with 16 other colleges, on a list of schools whose team names the NCAA judged to be “hostile and abusive” to indigenous peoples. Unless schools could acquire explicit support from namesake tribes for nickname or mascot use, they would have to abandon such symbols by February 2006 or become ineligible to host NCAA tournaments and championships. With this resolution, the NCAA rendered Native American opinion decisive on such issues; the views of non-Natives, like those of unregistered voters during an election, were of sociological interest but had limited relevance to the outcome.

As expected, symbol advocates at schools on the NCAA list, both Native and non-Native, began organizing to formalize tribal approval of the nickname or logo of their schools; Florida State University and University of Utah, home of the Seminoles and Utes, respectively, were successful in this regard, as were Central Michigan University’s “Chippewas,” Catawba College’s “Catawba Indians” and Mississippi College’s “Choctaws.”

At the Spirit Lake Reservation near Devils Lake, N.D., one of the state’s two “Sioux” tribes, residents voted in support of the name and logo by a 2-to-1 margin in April 2009. (The name “Sioux” is itself rejected by some members of the Lakota/Dakota confederation to which it refers.) However, the tribal council of the state’s other “Sioux” reservation, Standing Rock, has formally opposed UND’s use of the nickname and logo eight times since 1992.

The Illinois Trustees, acting in the absence of Illinois-based representatives of the Illini—who were driven from the state in the early 19th century and whose descendants survive as the Peoria tribe in Okla-homa—made the only move it felt justified in doing: retire the Chief.

Immediately following their retirements, advocates of both Chief Illiniwek and the Fighting Sioux nickname cried foul, accusing the university boards of subverting democracy and failing to hear the voices of the silent majority, including American Indians, who support such nicknames and mascots. As pro-nickname Standing Rock member Steve Fool Bear wrote in a Grand Forks Herald op-ed (4/10/10), the board and anti-nickname activists “fought tooth and nail to make sure [proponents’] voices were silenced”; in so doing, the board “trampled on” American Indians’ civil rights, ironically continuing the whites’ historical disregard for indigenous opinion. Or, as a UND student senator put it to the school’s newspaper the Dakota Student (11/20/09), support for the nickname, particularly by American Indians, has been “silenced for too long” and “needs to be said.”

But which voices are actually being heard, and at what volume, in the media on such matters? As one Grand Forks Herald reader put it (5/21/10), concerning a perceived anti-nickname bias by news editors, “Why should we not conclude that the Herald actively is involved in a propaganda campaign to manipulate the reader with one-sided quotes?”

To determine trends in reporting on indigenous symbol controversies in college sports, Extra! explored the media’s coverage of the two comparative cases. With regard to UND, Extra! collected print news stories from the national, local and college press that mention “Fighting Sioux” and “nickname” from May 2009 to April 2010; for Illinois, Extra! examined stories that reference “Illiniwek” and “mascot” for the 2007 calendar year. These periods represent the height of reporting on these issues in the last decade, allowing for an assessment of which voices are aired in the news (Native or non-Native, pro- or anti-symbol).

A search of several news databases, including Nexis and the ProQuest academic database, turned up 521 print news stories addressing the Fighting Sioux (242) and Illiniwek (279) disputes, citing 1,649 total sources. In each case, sources sought by reporters for comment were designated as “pro,” “anti,” or “neutral” with regard to their opinion of the universities’ nickname or mascot. (Neutral voices were overwhelmingly university administrators who hesitated to express an opinion publicly, or “official” voices merely commenting on retirement processes rather than the retirements themselves.)

Excluding editorials and wire service “briefs” (under 100 words), this report found that not only did symbol advocates receive double the space in the local and national press in both cases, contrary to advocates’ charges, but that American Indian voices, the demographic to which the NCAA had given ultimate say, accounted for less than one-fifth of all sources cited.

In major stories addressing the “Sioux” issue, 72 percent of sources taking a position were pro-nickname. Only 30 percent of all “Sioux” story sources were identified as American Indians; opinion among these sources was split, with 47 percent opposed to the nickname and 43 percent in favor. Of non-Native-identified sources, less than 4 percent opposed the nickname.

In “Illiniwek” coverage, 64 percent of sources taking a position were pro-mascot. Only 9 percent were identified as American Indian, less than 5 percent of whom expressed support for the Chief.

In other words, not only are symbol advocates not silenced, but print media overwhelmingly sought non-Natives for comment, despite the marginal role they played in the NCAA process.

The unfortunate consequence of this is that there’s little space made for nuanced arguments and evidence that such nicknames and mascots marginalize modern American Indians as an autonomous cultural entity. In neither sample set did any stories explore the fact that such use of Indian symbols is opposed by, among other organizations, the NAACP, the American Psychological Association and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for the emotional and civic damage it causes American Indians, particularly children.

As the USCCR put it in their 2001 statement on American Indian nicknames and mascots: “These false portrayals prevent non-Native Americans from understanding the true historical and cultural experiences of American Indians”; while they may “encourage interest in mythical ‘Indians’ created by the dominant culture…they block genuine understanding of contemporary Native people as fellow Americans.”


Opinion Pieces Feature Mainly One Opinion

Out of 124 editorials and columns identified as addressing the symbols’ retirement, 72 percent expressed either indignation or a resigned ambivalence (epitomized by the late conservative pundit and Illinois alum Robert Novak, who in one Washington Post column —2/27/07—admitted, “While I can understand dumping the Chief, I don’t like it”). The remaining 28 percent endorsed retiring the Native American symbols. Only 11 percent of columns and signed editorials were written by American Indians.

As for letters, the Champaign News-Gazette (2/25/07) wrote immediately following Illiniwek’s retirement, “We received about 35 letters and only one was anti-Chief.” One Grand Forks Herald editor (4/22/10) likewise claimed that following the nickname’s retirement “letters are running about 6-to-1…against the board’s actions and in support of the nickname.”

Brian James Schill teaches literary studies and media theory and criticism for the University of North Dakota’s Honors Program.