Two years ago, Southeastern Oklahoma State University was having an identity crisis. Or rather, an imagery crisis.
The university had adopted a new nickname in 2006, the Savage Storm, in place of the Savages, after the National Collegiate Athletic Association enacted a policy banning “hostile and abusive” mascots, nicknames or imagery at NCAA championships -- a prohibition that largely forced changes at institutions that used Native American names or imagery. But there was no new mascot and the university competed for several years without one.
When the university decided to develop a mascot in 2011 after an outside agency told the university it needed to improve its identity, it was “very controversial,” said Luke Willman, assistant athletic director and director of external athletic operations. Many supporters of the university didn’t understand the decision to drop the Savages name, he said.
But after two years of market research, three rounds of focus groups and the input from more than 1,000 university stakeholders, the university this fall became the Bison and introduced a new mascot, Bolt. Southeastern fans were hungry for some sort of identity, and Willman said the athletic department is pleased that students and alumni accepted Bolt and the nickname.
Southeastern Oklahoma State University is one of several universities that have retired Native American nicknames or mascots since the NCAA’s policy was announced in 2005. At the time, 18 colleges and universities were listed as violating the new policy. The NCAA highlighted 14 additional colleges that voluntarily removed references to Native American culture prior to the policy announcement.
Some colleges and universities — including Carthage College and Midwestern State University – announced new nicknames and logos in the months following the NCAA’s decision. Carthage College became the Red Men (formerly the Redmen) and redesigned its logo. Midwestern State University changed its nickname from the Indians to the Mustangs.
Since then, more colleges and universities have followed suit. For some, the transition to a new mascot has been seamless. The community at University of West Georgia has embraced its new nickname, the Wolves, and "Wolfie," as its mascot. Athletic Director Daryl Dickey said the university recognizes that its former nickname, the Braves, is a part of its heritage, but the university has “moved on.”
“There are some people who still hold the Braves close at heart and we recognize that and certainly know the nickname Braves has been in our heritage and tradition, but the university made the decision some time ago to change because of the ethnicity concerns and we've moved on," he said.
Other universities have become embroiled in controversy as they work to meet the NCAA’s requirement and appease those who feel strongly about a specific identity.
The 2007 retirement of Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has not gone smoothly. After the NCAA's announcement, the university appealed the decision, arguing that the mascot was an honor for Native Americans. The appeal was denied. The NCAA, however, agreed the nickname "Fighting Illini" was acceptable, because it could refer to the state and not a tribe.
Six years after the chief's retirement, apparel emblazoned with "chief" continues to be ubiquitous on campus, said Carol Spindel, an adjunct in English at the university and author of Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy Over American Indian Mascots.
Many faculty, Spindel included, were critical of the university administration and Board of Trustees for not moving on the mascot issue years ago so that the institution could focus on academic issues. In her research on the topic, Spindel said she found the transition to a new mascot was most successful when a college’s leadership united in the message that “this is the best thing for our school and we’re doing this for a better future.”
“Illinois is a textbook case of how not to handle an issue like this,” she said.
Vernon Burton, an emeritus professor of history, African-American studies and sociology at the University of Illinois, said he worked to appeal to trustees’ academic sense and “convince them that no matter what they may feel about this, we can all agree that one thing we want to do is have a great university.” Though the mascot was a beloved figure in Illinois, the controversy was hurting the university’s academic reputation, he said, adding that when he went to conferences, other academics wanted to talk about the mascot issue and not the university’s scholarship. Before retiring from the university in 2008, Burton, now a professor of history at the Clemson University, served as president of the Faculty Senate, which passed resolutions urging the trustees to drop the chief as mascot.
In October, the university worked out a deal with a group that allowed groups who favor the old imagery to use the phrase "Honor the Chief" on merchandise and sponsor events that promote the mascot's history, but barring them from suggesting that the mascot will return in official capacity or that its activities are sponsored or endorsed by the university.
The University of North Dakota is another large public university that has spent years fighting to retain its "Fighting Sioux" nickname. The NCAA rejected an appeal from the university in 2005 because the university did not have the support of the three federally recognized Sioux tribes of North Dakota. After a statewide vote allowed the university to stop using the nickname, the university moved to drop it. This May, a federal appeals court rejected a Sioux tribe's effort to stop the NCAA from prohibiting the university's former nickname. The Native American nickname and logo have been a point of controversy for the university since the 1970s.
Recently, many — including the Oneida Indian Nation and President Obama — have pushed for the National Football League's Washington Redskins to change its name. Team owner Dan Snyder has vetoed calls for a new name. Unlike colleges and universities, professional sports teams “don’t have to cater to issues of social concerns or social justice because they are a corporate entity rather than an educational institution,” said Michael Taylor, an assistant professor of anthropology and Native American studies at Colgate University and author of the book Contesting Constructed Indian-ness: The Intersection of the Frontier, Masculinity, and Whiteness in Native American Mascot Representations.
But colleges that use Native American imagery perpetuates stereotypes of Native Americans and create a “hollow” educational mission, he said.
“It can make some Native students feel uneasy attending an institution where the goal is education, not entertainment,” Taylor said.
Caricatures and stereotypes of Native Americans in the form of mascots disregard their personhood and contribute to “the myth that Native peoples are an ethnic group ‘frozen in history,’ ” the National Congress of American Indians wrote in an October 2013 position paper against the use of Native Americans as sports mascots. According to the organization, more than 2,000 Indian references in sports have been eliminated in the past 35 years, with about 1,000 remaining today.
Colleges and universities that remove Native American imagery or nicknames may reap financial rewards. Teams and colleges that move away from Native American mascots face a one- to two-year negative financial impact that disappears in the long term, sport marketing researchers at Emory University concluded. Marketing professors Manish Tripathi and Mike Lewis studied the reports required by the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act that detailed revenue generated by NCAA basketball teams that changed mascots in the past four decades and concluded the change resulted in a long-term positive financial impact, Tripathi said, adding that he and his research partner have not released an exact figure.
Nancy Smith, executive director of donor relations at McMurry University in Texas, said the university’s identity has been solidified since becoming the War Hawks in 2011. The university dropped its Indian mascot in 2007, and went without a mascot for several years. After students and teams complained they didn’t have a universitywide identity, the university began to consider a new mascot
Most alumni who were upset about the name change have made a complete turnaround and understand why another mascot was selected, she said. A McMurry University alumna, Smith said it was initially hard to think of the McMurry community as identifying as anything other than the Indians. But Smith said, she and other alumni can maintain their roots as Indians, while allowing current students to build memories around a new university identity.
“A lot of alums have taken that stance," she said. "We can’t be Indians, so let’s move forward."