The Countryman: Indians and Black Bears
Some sports guys on the air refuse to say the name of Washington D.C.'s professional football team. Good on them.
Team names are important, and not only to those who name them. They reflect a lot of what and how society is thinking.
People naming teams may take one of two paths. One is to choose a name that suggests our team is fierce and will overpower your team. That's how LSU got "Tigers." Not many big cats roam Cajun country, but as Tigers, LSU may scare off others, say, South Dakota State's Jackrabbits. North Carolina State's Wolf Pack may scare Delaware's mighty Blue Hens right back into the henhouse.
The second path is to pick a name that honors something or someone in local culture. I take it that the name Maine Black Bears honors our bulky yet appealing hibernators.
But, "Redskins" is clearly pejorative. Dan Snyder, Washington's owner, should be ashamed of himself. Do namers just not get it? You don't turn a slur into an honor by tagging a team with it. Did John Wayne ever say "Redskins" to celebrate the folks already here when white guys rode in on their stallions? Nah, I didn't think so.
Clearly, the "Savages" of Cheney State and other schools had to go, as do "Redskins." Washington's team began life as the Boston Braves, so it went from an honor -- who wouldn't be honored to be called brave? -- to an insult.
But the picture isn't so clear on other names for schools and teams. On the left, any reference to ethnic affiliation is bad, unless you're targeting voters, and then it is "identity politics." On the right, reference to ethnicity is how to identify minority folks. You don't say, "Hey, that guy's hair is on fire." You say, "Hey, that Chinese guy's hair is on fire." Its name 200 years ago is its name today. It is what is was.
As the University of Maine honors its teams and its state with "Black Bears," Florida State thought it was honoring a tribe of Indians with "Seminoles." Then the NCAA, which rules college sports with about as much skill as Roger Goodell rules the NFL, got into the act and ordered schools to drop all Indian references. FSU asked the Seminoles what they thought -- now there's a novel idea, ask the folks involved -- and the Indians said, "Seminoles" works fine.
North Dakota teams were the Fighting Sioux, suggesting a war party on ice or gridiron. The NCAA commanded the Sioux to stop fighting. Never mind that a tribe of Lakota (Sioux) asked North Dakota's government to keep the name. In the end, UND changed to the "Fighting Hawks," but you'll seldom hear that name in Grand Forks.
Husson University was the "Braves," just as Atlanta's baseball team is the Braves. Does the word "brave" honor courageous men of a culture past? Or does it denigrate them? Might it be OK if it weren't accompanied by the "tomahawk chop," used in Atlanta, or other cliches? Husson yielded to the NCAA and became the Eagles.
Around here, the issue arises most often in the name of Skowhegan High School's teams. "Indians." Some tribal leaders in Maine say the word is pejorative. Others say it honors the original Americans. It's not clear to me that "Indians" is pejorative.
It appears I'm not alone in that. Twice, men whom I didn't know before they brought up the subject have told me they prefer to be called Indians. "I'm Penobscot. I'm an Indian. Don't call me any of those other names," a man from Skowhegan told me. The other, whom I met months later, used almost identical words. If Skowhegan changed the name, what would we then call "Big Indian," the giant wooden sculpture that is the downtown landmark? The "Big Native American?"
Political correctors sometimes make things better. Often they make things worse. Or just plain wrong. It is common now to call Indians "native Americans." Native means born in. I am a native of Madison, Wis. Marilyn is a native of Wichita, Kas., our sons are natives of Kansas City and of Montreal. Those are the places our families lived when we were born.
Three of our family's four are native Americans. We were born in America. To say Indians are the "native Americans" is to say that the rest of us are not. That's just plain wrong. Canada has grappled with this name game and has officially chosen "First Nations people." More cumbersome than "Indians," but it answers the objectors. Or, try "original Americans."
Sometimes, the political correctors don't even know what they're talking about. They certainly don't know history. Springfield College had to ditch the "Chiefs." Its teams were named after a motorcycle, for crying out loud. The Indian Motorcycle Co. (of Springfield, Mass.) introduced its famous Chief bike in 1915. The University of Seattle also ditched the "Chiefs" name. But, wait. Chief Seattle was a real guy. Someone named a whole city after him. But to name a basketball team after him disrespects him?
Give me a break.
Some new names are just plain ridiculous. The University of Tennessee - Chattanooga used to be the Moccasins. After the NCAA made it drop "Moccasins," someone -- maybe a paid naming consultant -- came up with "the Mocs." Yeah, that removes the taint of being named after footwear. Thing is, the team wasn't named after footwear. It was named after the Moccasin Bend of the Tennessee River, which shapes a peninsula inside the city. And, guess what. It is shaped like a Moccasin. Or a shoe. "Go, Shoes!"
Some correctors want to change the name of the Kansas City Chiefs football team. It wasn't named after an Indian top guy. It was named after H. Roe Bartle, the mayor who was instrumental in luring the team from Dallas. Bartle was known in KC as "the Chief." To be sure, since the Chiefs moved in, the owners have emphasized an Indian theme, with a feather logo and a stadium named Arrowhead.
Some names just wear out. Hofstra University was founded by Dutch New Yorkers. Its teams were the "Flying Dutchmen." As women's sports rose, Hofstra adjusted to reality, calling its women's teams the Flying Dutchwomen. UMass did the same, adding "Minutewomen" to its rosters. Never mind that there was never a ghost ship or an opera named The Flying Dutchwoman. Hofstra has changed all teams to "The Pride." Sounds like a pack of lions. UMass so far has stayed up to the Minute.
Miami University (Ohio), where I taught for two years, changed to "RedHawks" from "Redskins." Hard to see the new name and not think "Redskins." St. John's University changed to "RedStorm" from "Redskins." Hard to see that and not imagine a wave of Indians coming over the ridge. Or a wave or original Americans.
Bob Neal believes names are important. He also believes political correctness isn't always stupid. Not always.