What’s in a name?

Native American nicknames in sports. I’m going to start off this post with clarifications before hitting the analysis, and I’ll even add some admissions.

I am an alumnus of Central Michigan University. Our sports teams are called the Chippewas, a Native American (or American Indian, if you prefer) name taken because of the local tribe, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Mount Pleasant.

I’m not the most politically correct, or even politically sensitive, person when it comes to this subject (or others). I do find this ongoing debate fascinating. And I believe that some, but not all, Native American mascot names and/or nicknames are offensive.

I particularly believe that Redskins is offensive. After that, we can go into varying shades of gray. And we see that just in what our sports culture has.

Now, I bring this matter up because on my pad of things to write about, a story by the Associated Press sparked my interest. It was in regards to Adidas offering local school districts resources to change their names.

I’ve seen some schools near coverage areas I had go through changes. Osseo-Fairchild ended their use of Chieftains and swapped it for Thunder. I had a school in my direct coverage area at the time use native names, Lake Holcombe still is the Chieftains and Cornell are still the Chiefs. Menomonie, another school just outside my area, swapped from Indians to Mustangs.

In the college ranks, Florida State got the OK to stay the Seminoles and continue to have tribal use during their football games. Illinois retired its mascot, an Indian chief.

North Dakota finally decided on a new mascot, and the process was very entertaining as covered by Deadspin. A lot of it had to do with one Sioux tribe agreeing with the name, but the other not.

With my own school, I know it only has approval from one Chippewa tribe and there are several Chippewa tribes in the country. And really, from what I’ve been told, there isn’t such a thing as a Chippewa. They’re actually Ojibwe, but the French who first encountered the native peoples spelled their tribal names who they viewed it. To me, it seems phonetically more than anything.

My school did have an actual native logo, but an agreement with the Saginaw Chippewas killed the imagery of CMU and kept the name. It’s a lot better than what happened at Eastern Michigan, which switched from the Hurons to the Eagles. Somewhere I had a pin with the logo, but I don’t know what happened to it. As a side, I’d love to have a pennant with that old Native American logo, just for the history of it.

Being a white guy, I allegedly have all of this power and influence as to being oppressive to other races, sexes and creeds (and maybe a little more power because of job description). I really don’t. I can understand Native Americans don’t want to be viewed as war-like peoples because of the imagery with sports. Whether that is through the use of cartoony logos (such as Cleveland Indians) or the use of spears and tomahawks (such as the Atlanta Braves).

On an issue such as this, and really many other bigger issues, is there going to be 100 percent consensus? No. There will be dissent. That’s OK.

A lesson learned way back was that to form compromises, you respect, engage and perhaps incorporate some of what the minority wants. Majority does rule, but it does not do so with an open-and-shut, iron will. (Feel free to send that to those fine folks in Washington). I’m glad my university was able to work toward a compromise with the local Saginaw Chippewas.

Really, that’s where the sports nickname and mascot should go. Florida State and Central Michigan have both found compromises, and apparently educated their student bodies and communities.

Why run from an opportunity to educate? How is political correctness in terms of eliminating terms, phrases or thoughts, any different than censoring what some may believe to be morally indecent? Censorship is censorship is censorship. I’m not saying go out and show your kid pornographic images, but it is important to teach what’s right and wrong. Without examples, how can you teach? And why can’t there be a healthy, respectful and engaging debate?

Leave it to each community to pursue its standards of what’s acceptable and unacceptable in these terms, just so long as the dialogue can continue.

For me, I have a lot of respect for the Native Americans (or American Indians, if you will). I prefer the nicknames as ranging from regal or a position of power (Chiefs or Chieftains in the same way as Senators, Captains or Commodores) to the fearless and determined to never give up (such as the Braves). Attributes of leadership and fearlessness are traits that most people admire.

If there is one thing I truly admire about our country’s Native Americans, it is their perseverance. It is remarkable and honorable. And the reason why I wear my Central Michigan Chippewas clothes with pride.


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