Burying the Mascot Hatchet

When colleges switch away from Native American symbols, a few alumni and students grumble, but most get over it quickly.
August 12, 2005

The National Collegiate Athletic Association last week banned the use of Native American team names and mascots in postseason play, upsetting the 18 colleges that use the symbols, and leaving fans at many of those institutions saying that it would be terrible to change.

In fact, many colleges (see list at bottom of article) have changed their mascots and symbols away from Native American imagery, and officials at these colleges report that while a few alumni never get over it, most people are happy with the change, and alumni pride has not suffered.

Stanford University, home to one of the most successful athletic programs in the country, changed from Indians to Cardinal (the color, not the bird) in 1972. The move came after a small group of Native American students and staff members appealed to the administration. "Stanford took pride in making a change without being forced,” said Bill Stone, emeritus president of the Stanford Alumni Association, and an assistant to the president during the change.

Stone said there is still a small group of “recalcitrant senior alumni,” but that the Cardinal, which was selected over “Robber Barons” (the winner in a student election), has been embraced for the most part. Stone recalled the concerns that the students had in 1972, describing what Stone called the image on “bookstore tschocchkes” of “a bold nosed Indian who looked like he had too much of an adult beverage,” and the “show-biz adaptation” half-time dances of Prince Lightfoot. He said the Indian students were correct to argue that the mascot perpetuated a stereotype that made it hard for them to tell real stories about their community.

In support of Native American mascots, some people, including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have said that the mascots, like the Florida State University’s Seminole, honor Native Americans. But Native Americans at institutions that have changed report great pride and an increased sense of connection to their universities.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Winona Simms, director of Stanford’s Native American Cultural Center, of Governor Bush’s claim.  Simms, who is a Muscogee/Yuchi Native American, said that the music and dances portrayed in half-time shows are distorted depictions of culture. “Watching mascots dance to the tom-tom is sort of degrading,” she said. “The drum is a significant part of Native American culture, the heartbeat of the people. [The mascot’s drumming] is not a heartbeat, it’s a jangle, increasingly frantic.”

She added that the head of Osceola, currently the Florida State emblem, is not a happy symbol. Osceola was a famous Seminole chief in the 19th century, and, Simms said, the governor of Florida at the time of Osceola’s death kept the chief’s head on his bed post. “To see that in the middle of that in the middle of the field…Is that pride?” she said.

In 1991, Eastern Michigan University changed from the Hurons to the Eagles,  mid-basketball season, in a year that the team made the NCAA tournament. Some alumni -- notably the Huron Restoration Alumni Chapter -- have never gotten over the change. "There’s a group of hardcore people that have stayed away,” said Jim Streeter, director of sports information. “But, in general, I think time has kind of healed most of the wounds. There’s probably a group of several hundred that have not come back to games or anything.”

Streeter said the strongest opposition came from older, ex-athletes. “One is close to 90, and has sworn off EMU completely,” he said. According to Streeter, the problem now is that the university ended up with a generic mascot. “There was actually a committee of 30 people to come up with ‘Eagles’,” he said. “Hurons wasn’t really extendable,” he added, referring to the fact that the university had already decided not to portray the mascot as cartoonish in marketing. “But people felt like it was unique.”

Miami University of Ohio has increased clothing sales since the institution changed from the Redskins in 1996. Richard Little, a university spokesman who organized the effort to switch mascots after the decision was made, said the university worked with the Miami tribe to come up with Redhawks, a term the tribe used to describe red-tailed hawks. Before switching, Little said the dancing mascot was made to learn actual Native American dances, but that was not enough to stave off a change.

Little said Miami decided to keep the colors and number of letters in the team names to ease marketing changes. He said the hawk is much more flexible in terms of promoting sales, because it can be used in cartoons for children's clothes, or portrayed in different moods.

“Our sales have gone up,” he said, adding that some of that is due to two recent alums: Ben Rothlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, and Wally Szczerbiak, a forward on the Minnesota Timberwolves. “My advice: make sure to spend effort coming up with good graphic appeal.” He said you still hear some “Let’s go Redskins” from the stands, but that it isn’t a prominent issue at this point. “Really, you’ll get support for any name if you win.”

Stanford's Stone, who is a consultant to colleges on external relations issues, said that some alumni threatened not to donate because of the change, but said he found they usually already were not donating. He’ll still see some “once an Indian, always an Indian” pins on older alumni at reunions. But, he said, “you can’t really tell alumni what to wear. You know, ‘How many polyesters died to make those pants?”

A Sampling of Colleges That Changed Team Names or Mascots

College Old Name or Mascot New Name or Mascot
Adams State Indians Grizzlies
Chemeketa Community College Chiefs Storm
Cumberland Indians Patriots
Dartmouth Indians Big Green
Dickinson State Savages Blue Hawks
Hartwick Warriors Hawks
Illinois Valley Community College Apaches Eagles
Mass. College of Liberal Arts Mohawks Trailblazers
Morningside Maroon Chiefs Mustangs
Oklahoma City U. Chiefs Stars
Quinnipiac Braves Bobcats
Saint Bonaventure Brown Indian Bona Wolf
St. John's (N.Y.) Redmen Redstorm
Saint Mary's (Minn.) Redmen Cardinals
Seattle U. Chieftains Redhawks
Sienna Indians Saints
Simpson Redmen Storm
Southeastern CC (Iowa) Blackhawks Black Hawks
Southern Nazarene Redskins Crimson Storm
U. of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocassins Mocs (as in mockingbird)


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