Friday, August 26, 2005

Keyboard impressions on my forehead 

I haven't posted today because I read this editorial in the StarTribune and fainted.

Contrary to the old chant about "sticks and stones," words can hurt quite a lot. Protecting American Indians -- and the larger public -- from abusive names and images seemed the noble intent of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's proposed sanctions against 18 schools that retain Indian nicknames for their sports teams.

Trouble is, the NCAA used a bludgeon rather than a scalpel. It proposed to ban the schools from using Indian names and images in postseason play or hosting postseason tournaments unless the offending names and images were covered up. It gave the schools until February to change their ways. NCAA President Myles Brand proclaimed this "a teachable moment."

Perhaps. As he suggested, most Americans underappreciate the tragic side of European settlement and the lingering harm to native people. His intent seemed to be to push Florida State, Illinois, Utah, North Dakota and the other institutions to regret not following the lead of Stanford, Dartmouth and other universities that dropped Indian nicknames a generation ago.

But teachable moments run both ways, as the NCAA has now discovered. Its mistake was to presume that all Indian-related nicknames are "hostile" and "abusive" to native people. That's not necessarily so. It's how the names are used that's most important.

OK, so it's patronizing insofar as thinking Native Americans need "protection" from a mascot. And it isn't necessarily true that Brand's motive was to punish those schools that did not submit to his jawboning. But to think that words actually matter, and that context matters -- this is a major victory in getting someone at the STrib to actually think. And it gets better.

Some names are plainly insulting (Redmen, Savages), and should have been scrapped long ago. Others -- Seminoles, Illini, Utes and Sioux -- are best viewed in context. Florida State's war chant and tomahawk chop seem to many to be in terrible taste. And to outfit a student in war paint as "Chief Osceola" astride an Appaloosa on the football sidelines is historically incorrect. But the Seminole Tribe of Florida has insisted that the school's traditions be kept, and the NCAA has now relented.

Other appeals are pending, based largely on permission given by local tribes. Illinois' tradition of dressing a student dancer in buckskins as "Chief Illiniwek" might not pass muster. But the school's nickname -- Illini -- comes not directly from an old tribal confederation but from the name of a river and state. Surely the NCAA is not suggesting the renaming of every river and the 27 states that carry Indian names.

Including North Dakota. It seems the STrib is trying hard to keep its chastising tone with its admonition of FSU's sideline practices, but finds itself estopped by its acceptance and support from the very people it is trying to protect. And contrary to the singleminded attack on North Dakota sports benefactor Ralph Englestad by NonMonkey, the STrib takes a more balanced approach.

The university has taken many conciliatory steps over the years to keep its prized Sioux nickname. Cheerleaders no longer wear buckskin costumes. Images of tomahawks have been removed from hockey jerseys. The school has had no Indian
mascot. Its logo is a handsome Indianhead designed by a noted Native American

Still, many Indians and others resent that a wealthy benefactor successfully used a lavish new hockey arena to blackmail the university into keeping its nickname and logo. The state's two Sioux tribes disagree over the university's sensitivity on these matters.

Again, trying to split the difference. At least they are wrestling with the issue. Our own university president has said nothing more about the latest events; the university's discussion list, which had PC hustler after hustler trumpeting the decision, has been silent since the FSU decision.