Mind Your Own Mascot

Life in our schools and communities would go so much more smoothly if we all followed one golden rule: never mess with another man's mascot. Particularly if that mascot is an Indian, a Chief, a Redskin, an Aztec or any other homage to Native Americans. Earlier this year in Boiceville, N.Y., home of the Onteora Indian high-school teams, school-board member Margaret Carey helped lead the charge against her district's tomahawk-wielding mascot during a loud, contentious meeting. Afterward she found a nail plunged into one of her car's tires. "I was appalled," Carey says, "but I can't say I was totally surprised." Fellow board member Joseph Doan, who voted to keep the Indian, had his truck scraped with a key. The Feds camped around town could do nothing to stop the madness. Yes, the federal Department of Justice. In tiny Boiceville. To mediate a dispute over a mascot.

Such shenanigans are nothing new. The winds of political correctness toward Native Americans have been causing local dust-ups since 1972, when Stanford University yielded to student complaints and changed the name of its athletic teams from the Indians to the Cardinal. Hundreds of high schools and colleges followed suit. What makes the recent battles unusual, however, is that the winds appear to be reversing course: the pro-Indian mascot forces are starting to win.

Shortly after Carey and the school board voted to toss out the Onteora Indian on Jan. 24, the local community voted to toss out most of the school board. Carey survived, but her decision didn't. On Sept. 11 the new board restored the mascot. The same thing happened last year to the Marquette High School Chief on Michigan's rural Upper Peninsula. After the school board yanked the stoic Indian logo, an angry, 1,200-person protest was led by--of all people--Marquette's Native American community. "They've always seen the Chief as a positive symbol," says Bill Birch, the town's school-board president at the time. "I don't think the Chief being thrown out in disgrace sat very well."

The tide is turning, in part, because the racism question--is it or isn't it?--is growing more complicated. Even their defenders believe that certain Native American names, like pro football's Washington Redskins, are offensive--akin to referring to African-Americans as "colored." But that's not the same thing as using a "strong tribal name" like San Diego State University's Aztecs, says SDSU junior Japheth Cleaver, who's heading a campaign to preserve his school's mascot. "The other side is calling us racists," says Cleaver, 21. "We're calling them misguided." The campus is siding with him. In an October vote, 95 percent of the student body backed the Aztec. The school's alumni association, meanwhile, fielded hundreds of phone calls from SDSU graduates, some of whom implied that future donations would be jeopardized by a mascot change. Perhaps they feared an outcome similar to Stanford's: after the name change, the school's mascot became, inexplicably, some kind of floppy shrub. Who wouldn't mess with a mascot like that?