Native American, Continued

The previous blog entry regarding the NCAA's ban on Native American nicknames in postseason play generated enormous response - from readers, from viewers of our "Sports Talk Live" episode on the topic, and from the world at large. Of all that I have read on the subject, however, the following e-mail was, to me, the most striking.

The author holds both a Ph.D. and a J.D., and teaches law at a small college in California. We have never met, and I do not know how he came across my blog. I hope he won't mind that I published his letter to me, but just in case, I will keep his identity private. In the interest of fairness, I also included my response. This is terribly long, but I hope you will enjoy the debate as much as I did.

First, the e-mail, sent to me on August 10th:

"As someone who has studied issues of Native American culture and politics for years, I would agree with you that the FSU "Seminole" issue is a bit more complex than that of other mascots. Nevertheless, even your more nuanced summary doesn't really do justice to that complexity. The Seminole Tribe of Florida has indeed sanctioned the use of the Seminole mascot, but you don't point out:

First, about 75 percent of the Seminole live in Oklahoma, and the Seminole govts there are vigorously opposed to the use of the name. 75 percent is a lot of Seminole people, and the NCAA has to take that seriously. Apparently you disagree, but you don't explain why. Instead, you assert without explanation that one Seminole tribal government of Florida has the only opinion that matters on the issue (and not the other two - see point two below), and that the opinion of the majority of Seminoles "doesn't matter." I'm sorry; I just don't see how or why that should be true.

Second, there actually are three Seminole tribes in Florida, and only one tribal govt-the one which uses the name "Seminole Tribe of Florida" - has formally signed on to the use of the mascot. I don't know the formal position of the other two Seminole govts, but it's wrong to misrepresent the opinion of one tribal govt as representing all Florida Seminoles.

Third, prior to getting the Seminole tribal endorsement, Florida State announced the establishment of scholarships covering 80% of tuition costs for "Seminole Scholars" recruited from reservations, and also announced plans to establish ties to a Seminole charter school and a branch campus in Immokalee, Fla. Florida State also has proposed the creation of a museum of Seminole heritage and culture on the Florida State campus. The minority of Seminoles who agreed to the use of the mascot benefit from a quid pro quo that doesn't do much for the other Seminoles. And if those things are so valuable, why have they only come up when FSU is trying to save its mascot?

Finally, though a lot of FSU fans insist that their use of the Seminole mascot is not offensive, FSU fandom is full of references to "scalping," "the chop," being "on the warpath," and so forth, and these caricatures undeniably demean and trivialize Native American culture.

And when I say "undeniably," I mean that literally; there is simply no basis for denying it. These caricatures are specifically offensive because it was the caricature of Indians as savage and warlike - a carefully constructed image of Indians as barbarians incapable of living side-by-side with the settler society - that was used as the official reason from removing them from Florida (and elsewhere) and penning them up on reservations. People created these mascot images in the late 19th and early 20th century not as a way of celebrating local links to Indian cultures or local animals, but to extol the physical prowess of their team. The earliest team names were from large carnivores: tigers, lions, leopards, etc. The animal doesn't feel demeaned, of course, and the metaphor works because it doesn't intend to imply that the team is like wild animals in all aspects of their life, only that they play with vigor and intensity similar to that we associate with peak predators. The step from wild animals to Indian mascots was unfortunately small, given the prejudice and stereotypes about Indians at the time.

Now, there's nothing wrong with calling a person brave and celebrating physical prowess in combat. Similarly, there's nothing inherently wrong with a caricature of an ugly person who is stingy or a caricature of a goofy child eating a watermelon, but when the images are applied to Jews or blacks, it becomes offensive, because those Shylock and Sambo caricatures were popularized specifically as part of the dominant society's efforts trivialize and exclude certain other groups. The same is true here. The Seminole of the 19th century probably exhibited no more or less bravery and military skill than you'd find in most other cultures then or now. But whites explicitly justified their prejudices against the Seminole and other tribes by reducing their culture to only physical aggressiveness and ruthless fighting.

Let's be honest about the history of this imagery as we debate the meaning of the mascot. White society and the American government actually and intentionally said the Seminole were little more than fierce wild animals because this stereotype served the conscious plan to justify "removal," what we would now call the "ethnic cleansing" of the Southeast. For the heirs of those who did the ethnic cleansing to turn around and use that image as a source of amusement really isn't that funny, and can't really be justified as a celebration of the people who were the target of that removal."

Terrific stuff. Naturally, I couldn't wait to answer it - which I did, in a private e-mail back to my reader, also dated August 10th:

"Thank you for your thoughtful and well-reasoned note. This topic, which I covered in my blog and Sun Sports covered last Monday on our weekly talk show, "Sports Talk Live," has generated a predictable blizzard of response. As you might expect in football-crazy Florida, many of the responses have been blanket indictments of the NCAA - which I will get to in a moment. First, I wanted to address your points, step by step, because I find them extremely compelling and thought-provoking.

True, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is by no means the only group of Seminoles living in the United States. However, they are the only tribe of any lineage to enter into a bilateral agreement with Florida State University over the use of Seminole symbology. Should the NCAA, and FSU, take the Oklahoma Seminoles seriously? Of course. But are the Oklahoma Seminoles the sole arbiters of that name? Do their greater numbers give them greater authority? If 75 percent of the Seminole live in Oklahoma, does that imply that the opinion of the Florida Seminoles - who have drafted numerous resolutions stressing that they not only approve of FSU's athletic identity, but in fact are directly involved in creating it, via ceremony and consultation on the symbology - is somehow less relevant? Perhaps it is incorrect for me to state that the Florida Seminoles' opinion is "the only one that matters." I will grant that point. However, it is also incorrect to imply that their opinion is in any way less weighty than that of a tribe that lives by the same name in another state. There is also an argument to be made that Florida State University, being a school in Florida, might place a greater emphasis on the views of Seminoles IN Florida, but I can't speak for the Tribe, and I also grant that the line of argument is not the strongest in this case.

Further, there are legal issues that have only been touched upon to this point - do the Seminoles of Oklahoma own the rights to that name? Do the Seminoles of Florida? And if the Seminoles of Florida have entered into an agreement with FSU to "license" the name, does the NCAA ban constitute a violation of copyright law? Is the NCAA preventing an independent body from trading on their own name? Does the NCAA - a voluntary, non-governmental congress of schools - have the legal right to make such a decision? We might consider such questions trivial in light of the greater social issues, but they remain unanswered.

That there are three tribes in Florida using the Seminole name is indeed news to me, and has not been widely reported as part of this story. Good point, well taken.

Your third point, regarding Florida State University's efforts to recruit Seminole students, create ties to charter schools and branch campuses, and create a museum dedicated to Seminole heritage and history, seems to me to fall directly in lock-step with FSU's argument that their "Seminole" identity is indeed a method of honoring the "unconquered" spirit of the tribe, and incorporate its members into the University community. In fact, that paragraph you wrote sounds like something one might find in an FSU press release. To suggest that Florida State University would devote the time, money, and resources to such plans solely in response to an NCAA resolution regarding postseason tournaments seems illogical to me, and a tad cynical, but I have no proof otherwise. Having grown up in Florida (and with an immediate family member on the faculty at Florida State), I am more likely to give the school the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the altruistic nature of their relationship with the tribe. Then again, I'm not naive, either.

The tomahawk chop, face paint on football fans, terms like "warpath" and "scalping" - indefensible. I do not deny their demeaning nature, and if you go back into the blog entry in question, you'll see that I stand firmly in the camp of removing, as the NCAA put it, "hostile and abusive" terminology from college athletics.

Your lesson on the history of mascots as symbols of aggressiveness, barbarism, and physical prowess is spot-on. However, unlike many other colleges and universities that sport Native American icons, Florida State University has made a concerted and organized effort to incorporate the Seminole way into its community, going so far as to ask the Seminole Tribe of Florida itself to design the costume of "Chief Osceola" and even select his horse. This relationship dates back to 1978, when the Seminole Tribe of Florida created and approved the icon that we still see today on the field in Tallahassee. Again, we go back to the argument regarding the Florida Seminoles versus other Seminole tribes, but my point is this: the Seminole Tribe of Florida has been complicit in perpetuating this very public display of Seminole symbology for nearly thirty years. If Chief Osceola is offensive, the Seminoles of Florida are, in part, doing the offending. Who are we, or the NCAA, to tell them otherwise? Hold that thought.

With all due respect, however, this entire line of argument is completely subjective. Your views as one who has "studied issues of Native American culture and politics for years" competes with my view as a sports journalist and native of Florida, which competes with the views of the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma, which competes with those of FSU and their fans, which competes with the views of the NCAA. We could go round and round on this for years and never achieve resolution, because we are speaking in bromides. To me, the crux of the entire issue regarding the NCAA ban on Native American symbols in postseason play is a very simple point, one that I have yet to see answered satisfactorily, not even from your thoughtful and articulate note:

The NCAA is a voluntary, non-governmental congress of 1300 member institutions. According to Charlotte Westerhaus, the NCAA's VP for Diversity and Inclusion (who was a guest on our show on Monday), the thirty schools in the US that carried potentially "hostile or abusive" Native American symbology were originally contacted in 2001 and asked to "self-report" (i.e., justify) their use of such symbols. Four years later, twelve of those thirty schools took steps deemed appropriate in the eyes of the NCAA to merit their removal from that original list. The remaining 18 were notified that unless they changed their athletic identities, they would not be allowed to display their team names or icons during NCAA postseason play, and would not be allowed to host NCAA postseason events.

Here's what bothers me the most: according to Ms. Westerhaus, at no time during those four years - and, as far as I know, at no time in history - has the NCAA ever directly contacted the tribes or nations in question. In other words, the NCAA's executive committee, made up of no more than 20 school presidents and administrators, has arbitrarily and capriciously handed down a ruling that affects the use of certain indigenous peoples' names - without ever consulting the people in question.

The NCAA's executive committee -- NOT the NCAA itself, a voluntary congress of schools, but a committee -- has decided that the terms Sioux, Choctaw, Seminole, Illini, and Ute, among others, are offensive when displayed on athlete's jerseys. However, nobody from the NCAA has ever bothered to ask a living Sioux, Choctaw, Seminole, Illini, or Ute, among others, for their views on the matter.

This, to me, is an egregious misuse of authority, and borderline racist in itself. Paul Kennedy, my co-host on "Sports Talk Live" on Monday night, termed it a "power grab." It's so far beyond the bounds of reason that I struggle to come up with an explanatory analogy. As Max Osceola, a Tribal Council member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, stated in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel:

"History repeats itself. Once again, non-Indians are telling Indians what's good for them."

Frankly, I agree that the use of Native American symbology in athletics has serious limitations, but as I attempted to argue in the blog, there is an even more important question to be asked: who the hell is the NCAA's executive committee to speak on behalf of any group, much less Native American tribes, without any due diligence or consultation from the groups in question? Taking the opinions of other Native American tribes is critical, obviously, but not as critical as incorporating the stances of those tribes directly affected by the ban. And as the NCAA's own vice president told us on live television, the executive committee failed to do so. On a broad scale, you're dead right on virtually every point you make. On a practical scale, the only people in America who are truly qualified to make these decisions have been completely excluded from the process. Middle-aged white men in lofty offices have rendered judgment on those they deem unable to defend themselves, and have lessened those "poor souls" in the process. It smacks of a crusade. Truly, history repeats itself. Have we learned nothing?

I lack a law degree, but this is the best I could do with my critical reading skills from the English department at Cornell. Again, I thank you for your note, and beg forgiveness for the length of this answer. I look forward to hearing your opinion again as this story plays itself out. If this topic is covered in any of your classes, I'd love to know what opinions take shape.

Very truly yours,

Whit Watson

As of Thursday night, August 11th, still no answer. I'm intrigued. Maybe he's passing this note on to his law school classes, to have them take it apart; maybe he's decided that I am beyond help. The good news is, the discussion has been advanced, rationally and thoughtfully. To me, that makes this blog worth the effort.


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