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Schools Debate What's in A (Native-American) Name

Public high schools and universities that use Native-American team mascots and nicknames face a possible cutoff in federal funding unless they change, a prospect that has many students and educators crying foul.

"I would be very, very disappointed," said Roy Esquivel, principal of Port Neches-Groves High School in Texas, whose team name is the Indians. "It's been part of our tradition for many, many years. The communities would probably be very much opposed to a change."

Esquivel and others believe simply wiping out all such nicknames and references would be unfair.

"A good solution would be an inspection on a case-by-case basis, plain and simple," said Phil Harneson, a senior associate to the University of North Dakota (Fighting Sioux) president and chair of the school's Nickname Commission, formed specifically to tackle this issue.

Esquivel and Harneson were reacting to an April 13 decision by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which said it believed all American-Indian names and symbols in sports teams are insulting and racist.

The use of such images and nicknames in school "is insensitive and should be avoided," the group said in a statement. "These references ... are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians."

Activist Suzan Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Muscogee, agreed with the commission. She said the overwhelming majority of Native Americans support the elimination of such references in sports team names and mascots when they're used by non-natives.

"It's racist against native peoples," according to Harjo, the executive director of the Morning Star Institute, a Native-American rights organization. "No other group is so targeted in references in American sports."

Esquivel and Harneson, however, say their portrayal of American Indians is respectful and has actually been backed by some local Native American groups. Port Neches-Groves High calls itself "the reservation" and has a seven-foot statue of a Native American guarding its entrance. And the modern, geometric drawing of an American-Indian head for the UND logo was done by a Native-American artist. Some local Sioux also support keeping the name, according to Harneson.

"We have worked hard to exemplify the dignity of Native Americans and their heritage," said Esquivel. "We have the support of the Cherokees. I think any Native American would be proud if they saw what we do."

Yet that's not how Harjo, some other Native Americans and the commission see it.

"The use of stereotypical images of Native Americans by educational institutions has the potential to create a racially hostile environment that may be intimidating to Indian students," the commission said in its decision.

There was a call at UND for the school to change its team name. But the State Board of Education stepped in and told the university it would continue to be known as the Fighting Sioux, according to Harneson.

Harjo said the president had planned to change the name, but the board intervened after the donor for funds of a new UND hockey arena, Ralph Engelstad, threatened to back out if that happened.

Native-American groups have been particularly outraged by caricaturized images and behavior of some sports mascots. Among the best known are Chief Wahoo, the red-faced, cartoonish Cleveland Indians mascot who sports a wide, silly grin and a feather on his head; and the Atlanta Braves' "tomahawk chop."

Critics also take issue with names that recall the exploitation of Native Americans, like the Washington Redskins, a reference to an era when the skins of Indians were traded as commodities.

Harjo said all such references should be banned because they evoke name-calling (even if it's only by the opposing team's fans) and are examples of "cultural thievery" - stealing traditions and names that are the property of American-Indian nations.

"It's a lousy idea to continue to have human beings as sports team names, mascots and logos," she said.

Esquivel and Harneson say they understand why it is offensive to mimic or caricaturize Native Americans at athletic contests. Neither school allows caricaturizing of natives or their rituals at games.

"Demonstrations and so on are frowned upon," Harneson said. "On the rare occasion that we do (them) it would only be by a Native American. Before every game, we say we expect individuals to respect the rich heritage and culture of Native Americans."

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