Unfolding the Map
As we wander aimlessly around the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), we find ourselves embroiled in a mascot controversy. Actually, thirty years ago, the sports team mascot controversy was just getting started. Now, a number of teams have taken action to redress concerns, but the controversy is still present. I'll give my own perspective, such as it is. To find out where Hanover lies, try not to create any waves when you look at the map.
"....then over the Connecticut River and into Hanover, New Hampshire....
"I killed off most the day by wandering around the Dartmouth campus. The Reverend Eleazar Wheelock founded the college with his own library and a log hut in the woods and a goal of providing 'for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land in reading, writing, and all parts of Learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and christianizing Children of Pagans.' The Dartmouth motto reflects its origin: Vox clamantis in deserto. But now the voice crying in the (semi)wilderness was that of the tribal Americans who comprised one percent of the enrollment and who were decrying the unofficial nickname of the athletic teams - the Indians - as well as the 'Scalp 'em' cheers, the faculty dining room murals depicting Indians in various states of carousal and a popular rally song....As best I could tell, the students, faculty, and administration would gladly put the Indian rah-rah to rest by using the other nickname, 'The Green.' But alums - there was the problem. They might tolerate women graduates, but to give up their official Wah-hoo-wah!, that was too much. And so the murals got carefully boarded over but not taken down."
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 10
When I was young, I didn't think much about sports team names. I grew up north of San Francisco, and I think I was seven when I first remember having any interest in sports. It was the holidays, and we were over at my aunt and uncle's place for Christmas dinner. Before dinner, my father and uncles were watching a football game, and as I sat with them, I asked questions about the game and the teams. The game was between the Baltimore Colts and the Miami Dolphins. I asked everyone who would win, and everyone unanimously agreed that the Colts would win. So I decided to cheer on the Dolphins. Dolphins were much more exciting than colts, at least to my young mind. Despite everyone's predictions, my Dolphins won the game. I think one of my uncles bet me a dollar, which of course I wouldn't have been able to pay, so it's a good thing I won! For a brief time in my young life, the Dolphins became my favorite team.
My real passion became Los Angeles teams, which was odd for a kid who grew up nearer San Francisco, but I guess I had to be different. The San Francisco teams in the seventies were never very good, anyway. I suppose I might have been a fan of the Oakland teams, but they never appealed to me either. No, it was the Rams, Lakers and Dodgers that provided excitement. But by far, I always looked forward to football season. I idolized the Rams, and each year it seemed they were picked to win it all, and each year my hopes would be dashed by the hated Minnesota Vikings or the even
more hated Dallas Cowboys.
Here's how the scenario would play out. Always an early December playoff game, and always with the Rams in the lead in the fourth quarter. It always seemed like the Vikings or the Cowboys would be pinned back deep on third down. The Rams defensive line would swarm, and Fran Tarkenton or Roger Staubach would somehow manage to avoid the pressure - Tarkenton by scrambling or Staubach by stepping up in the pocket and ducking a sure tackle - and then Tarkenton/Staubach would throw a perfect bomb down the sideline to a streaking receiver who had managed to just slip behind the defender. The receiver would catch the ball in stride, and the game was over, just like that. Minnesota would go on to lose the Super Bowl, and even more infuriatingly, Dallas might actually win it, and I was always left with next year. I didn't see my Rams even make it to the Super Bowl until 1980, where they lost an uncharacteristically thrilling game (for a Super Bowl) to the Pittsburgh Steelers, for whom NFL championships were a matter of course, like eating or brushing teeth. Later, the Rams moved to St. Louis, and my love affair with them ended.
I later learned how the Rams and Lakers got their names. I learned that the Rams originally came from Cleveland, though I never knew until doing some background for this post that they were named in honor of Fordham University's football team. The Lakers originally came from Minneapolis, and were named after the "10,000 lakes" of Minnesota. Of course the Dodgers came originally from Brooklyn, and was named because Brooklyn residents were adept at dodging trolley cars.
Since I hated the Cowboys (whose team name is self-explanatory) so much, I constantly rooted for teams that played against them, especially their hated rivals the Washington Redskins. Originally called the Boston Braves, the team became the Boston Redskins after they began playing at Fenway Park and they kept the name upon moving to Washington. I grew up in a small, working class and fairly unsophisticated town, and I didn't really think of the name or the logo as being an issue. Occasionally, if I listened to the radio and the Oakland A's (Athletics) were playing, I might catch a game where the opponent was the Cleveland Indians. I've learned that the Indians got their name partly because an early incarnation of the team, the Cleveland Spiders, had a Native American player and were often informally called the "Indians" during his playing time there, and partly because it was a play on the name of the baseball Boston Braves. The symbolism and what it might mean to others simply never crossed my mind. It wasn't until I was older and working in social justice initiatives that I learned of the intense anger that many Native Americans had for this appropriation and perceived disrespect toward their cultures and peoples. To be honest, I didn't originally think it a valid issue. After all, with the poverty, alcoholism, drug use, and other social problems plaguing Native societies, I reasoned, weren't there better things to focus on?
As I'm older, with a little more experience and education behind me, I have come to understand the importance of symbolism. I'm sure that those who named the Redskins were simply looking for a name that would inspire fans and indicate the strength and ferocity necessary for a good football team. However, I have trouble explaining the caricature of the Cleveland Indians, Chief Wahoo, which regardless of the intent is problematic. Also, regardless of the intent, such names, emblems and logos play into stereotypes that are often inaccurate and demeaning. Perhaps Irish people do not object to names like the Boston Celtics or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (which also uses an emblem of a leprechaun in a fighting pose), but should it be right to use stereotypes? I wonder if a team decided to call itself the Africans, with a "Sambo" character as a logo, if that would be seen as more offensive than Chief Wahoo. Somehow, I think it would, even though for practical purposes, the demeaning nature of the names and logos would be roughly the same.
In response to the Native American mascot controversy, an intramural team of Native Americans, Latinos and some whites at the University of Northern Colorado adopted the name of the Fightin' Whites (with the slogan "Everything is Going to be All White!). Though the name failed to achieve the recognition they wanted and instead became a sought-after t-shirt slogan, I wonder if it's the wave of the future. If whites become a minority someday, will we see team names like the Caucasians, Palefaces, or Wacicu - or stereotype-based names like Fat Couch Potatoes or Corporate CEOs?
In the meantime, while there are many schools with indigenous nicknames, some colleges and universities, to the dismay of some of their alumni, are giving up their logos and nicknames for other, less controversial ones. My wife's alma mater, Marquette University, changed its mascot from the Warriors, with a Indian logo, to the Golden Eagles. The alumni eventually got over it, because ultimately the sports team, and identification with the university, meant more than the nickname. Other schools, from the kindergarten level up through the university level, have changed their names either at the request of tribes or, in the case of universities, through pressure from the NCAA. But we still see, in some big level college sports and at the professional sports level, sights such as mascots in native dress or and fans in face paint doing a war cry and tomahawk chop, as well as logos that depict Native Americans in stereotypical fashion, even if it is meant respectfully. All this will guarantee that this controversy will remain. To some, such names, mascots and logos will remain a tremendous insult on indigenous peoples and cultures.
At Dartmouth, as referenced in LHM's quote, the official team name remains the Big Green, and the school has held firm despite continuing calls from some alumni, students and the conservative student newspaper to return the name to the Indians. And, despite the low historical enrollment of Native Americans at Dartmouth, it has graduated more Native Americans than the other Ivy League schools combined, some 700 since 1970.
Every first Saturday of the month, the programmers of the Voces Feministas show on KUNM, our local public radio show, play this song, No No Keshagesh by Buffy Ste. Marie, as their opening song. When I saw Ms. St. Marie perform, she explained that "Keshagesh" is a Cree term for a puppy that wants more than its own share. I think that describes how Native Americans have felt that their lands, their symbols and even their identities have been appropriated for centuries by multiple waves of invaders.
And here's only my second repeated song of the Blue Highways series, but it fits really well. Jim Thorpe's Blues, by Terri Hendrix, references Jim Thorpe, an amazing Native American Olympian and athlete in multiple sports.
If you want to know more about Hanover
Next up: West Canaan, New Hampshire