Franklin Countys First News

The Countryman: Indians and Black Bears

Bob Neal

Bob Neal

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.

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12 Responses »

  1. Not that it matters but, Daniel Snyder is the owner of the Redskins. Dan Reeves is a former NFL head coach.

  2. Having some native America ancestry in my background, I would like to say that I am proud to have been part of the 1969 western maine champion 'STRONG INDIANS.

  3. Dave,
    Thanks for the catch. Yes, it does matter. I even verified the name online, then failed to correct it in the copy. Accuracy above all. Apologies for the error.
    Thanks again,
    Bob Neal

  4. This nation of PC police and more righteous than thou, has become ridiculous, and bordering in the absurd..., it has gone beyond just calling out team names as offensive. My university's mascot has also been transformed from a badass bandaged corn pipe smoking ibis (the other UM, University of Miami) to a metrosexual looking bird! Let’s use the hash tag #BringBackOldSchoolSebastian and spread some hype, CanesFam!

    It's also tiresome to have to put up with the big-mouthed idiots trying to rule over all of us. These so-called goodies are destroying life for everyone. People are afraid to speak now because they might be called a name. I've had enough!! Just what will it take to shut them all up and let us get back to life without fear of the speech police? George Orwell's 1984 version of these clowns is looking pretty tame compared to the reality we are living.

    Nuf Said...

  5. Yes Bob.. Political Correctness "IS" always stupid.

  6. I thought North Dakota should change it's name to the "Fighting Sue!" Of course, I'm a Vikings fan, a team named after the most notorious gang of rapists pillagers in relatively recent history. But the Norwegians in Minnesota are fine with that. Back in the early 80s I worked for a Senator in Washington on "Indian Affairs" among other issues. I got to talk with Tim Giago, a Lakota journalist who worked hard to try to fight the problems on the reservations in South Dakota. I asked him once if he preferred "native American." He scoffed, saying that everyone born here is a native. He said that Indian was fine, though he preferred the name of their nation - Lakota Sioux, Oglala Sioux, etc. I personally would love it if we'd focus on the real issues of poverty and alcoholism that plague many reservations rather than get too caught up in names. Some names are clearly pejorative - Squaw, for instance - and good manners suggest we avoid those. But really - it's an issue for white people to feel good about, it doesn't really help the people who once owned this land and lived sustainable life styles.

  7. Political correctness gone rampant!! The Washington REDSkINS is Not a denigrating term. Just because some liberal wonks say it is doesn't mean it is so. One only has to read a little about our history to know that some tribes painted their skin in red ochre.

  8. The NFL schedules a game every year to be played in England, usually Wembley Stadium. In 2015 (I think) it was Washington and Cincinnati. I recall listening to some US commentator talking with a British counterpart who was babbling in high dudgeon about how the team name of Washington was incredibly racist and should be banned worldwide, The US guy said something like: How about the Cincinnati Bengals? That name should remind you of your country's terrible treatment of minorities in India. You could have heard the Brit's head explode all the way across the pond.

  9. Here's a good history of the term redskin: It does show that most Native Americans think the term is fine, and would not change the name.

  10. Brilliantly said,scott! We as a nation have bigger fish to fry.

  11. Also brilliant, david. Why don't you send in a letter-to-the-editor to open a discussion on one of those big fish? Meanwhile, the rest of us are having some good-natured fun with a small fry.

    When this controversy began a few years ago, I heard another pertinent interview of a tribal elder out West somewhere. The breathless big-city reporter asked him: "Doesn't it just sicken you, these slurs on Native American names and traditions?" The old man answered:

    "What sickens me, young fella, is when white liberals tell me what's supposed to sicken me."

  12. I used to wonder about the UMF team name the Beavers, referring to the animals that gnaw trees and make dams. What would that represent---patience?