The Last Word

Straight from the Associated Press, in a story that crossed the wires at 3:16pm eastern time on Tuesday, August 23rd:

"The NCAA will allow Florida State to use its Seminoles nickname in postseason play, removing the school from a list of colleges with Native American nicknames that were restricted by an NCAA decision earlier this month.

The NCAA said it was recognizing the relationship Florida State has long enjoyed with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which assists the university with its pageantry and celebration of its culture and supports the school's use of its name.

'The staff review committee noted the unique relationship between the university and the Seminole Tribe of Florida as a significant factor,' the NCAA said Tuesday. 'The decision of a namesake sovereign tribe, regarding when and how its name and imagery can be used, must be respected even when others may not agree.'

The NCAA said it would handle reviews from other schools on a case-by-case basis. The Illinois Fighting Illini, Utah Utes and North Dakota Fighting Sioux are among other prominent school nicknames that remain affected by the edict."

One statement from the home office in Kansas City, and there you go. No lawsuits, no protests. Ironically, this may come as a disappointment to some Florida State fans, who spent the last few weeks filling the message boards with stunningly creative methods of protesting the NCAA's initial ruling. I saw one post that suggested clothing the football team in all-black uniforms during the Miami game (to force ABC's announce team to explain to a national audience why they were doing so). I even heard one rumor suggesting that the Florida State grounds crew paint an enormous NCAA logo on the field at Doak Campbell Stadium, just so Chief Osceola would have a target for his flaming spear during his pregame ritual. One can only imagine the response from a fully-lubricated Tallahassee crowd.

In the end, however, cooler heads prevailed. As I have attempted to explain in this blog, and in private e-mails to readers, my number one complaint about the NCAA's ban on Native American nicknames had nothing to do with the history of any tribe, or any demeaning characterization that might be perceived by a logo on a helmet. For me, there was a bigger issue, and the NCAA's own statement summed it up:

"The decision of a namesake sovereign tribe, regarding when and how its name and imagery can be used, must be respected even when others may not agree."

Or, as I put it in my blog entry, dated August 11th: "...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."

The dictionary defines "sovereign" as "self-governing; independent." The Seminole Tribe of Florida qualifies as both. I have been informed by a reader that there are, in fact, three Seminole tribes in Florida, only one of which maintains a well-publicized relationship with Florida State University. Curious, I looked up the other two.

The "Oklewaha Band of Seminole Indians," sometimes spelled "Ocklewaha" or "Ocklawaha," has attempted to receive official recognition several times, under different names - most recently as the Yamassee Seminole Tribe. According to various sources, the band has failed to successfully petition the state and federal government to date. The details are sketchy; there is even one newsgroup site that questions the band's legitimacy. I couldn't find any information regarding their numbers or location.

The "Independent Traditional Seminole Nation of Florida" is another non-federally recognized line that is frequently confused with the "Seminole Tribe of Florida" in news reports. The terms "tribe" and "nation" cannot be used interchangeably, but many writers and reporters have done just that in following the FSU story. According to a 1999 book by Winona Laduke called "All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life," there were about 300 Independent Traditional Seminoles living in Florida's Everglades, maintaining their "language, culture, housing, ceremony, and way of life against the forces of colonialism, assimilation, globalization and all that eats cultures.

Again, I believe that sovereignty is the key question in the FSU mascot debate. As has been pointed out to me many times, The Seminole Tribe of Florida - a highly organized and relatively wealthy group that operates six casinos in Florida - is clearly not the only Seminole band in America. The opinions of other bands with the name "Seminole" must be considered in resolving the FSU question, no matter how cozy the relationship between the Seminole Tribe and the University. The Seminoles of Oklahoma have weighed in on this topic; the 18-2 council vote against support of the ban has become part of the growing legend of this story. We have heard little or nothing from the other two Florida bands mentioned above. My point, then and now: this question was never the realm of the NCAA in the first place.

As I pointed out in the blog: "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."

Among the many message board posts that emerged from that entry was one that directly attacked that line of argument, claiming that the many resolutions signed by various tribes nationally asking the NCAA to reconsider Native American nicknames was the "smoking gun" that proved me wrong. As I have written in this space, the opinions of any and all Native American tribes matter. But when the NCAA announced that it would "handle reviews from other schools on a case-by-case basis," it sounded to me like an admission of a mistake: someone in Kansas City finally decided to check with the Sioux, Choctaws, Seminoles, Illini, and Utes for their thoughts on the matter. Well done, if a little late.

The NCAA's executive committee, the body directly responsible for handing down this ruling in the first place, is made up of nineteen members. Two of them are female. All of them are school presidents, chancellors, athletic directors, or faculty representatives. And to the best of my knowledge - and the best knowledge of NCAA Vice President Charlotte Westerhaus, who appeared on Sports Talk Live and said as much - not a single one of them ever bothered to speak to any member of any tribe directly affected by the ban. Hence the phrase "egregious misuse of authority."

Note that I say "directly affected by the ban." Nobody in his right mind could argue that calling a team the "Redmen" or the "Savages" is proper. But calling a team the Sioux, or the Seminoles - that's another matter. A complicated one, to be sure, one that cannot be covered by a blanket resolution from nineteen predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly middle-aged administrators.

So that's my point. The NCAA's executive committee passed a ruling affecting Native American symbols without consulting with the proper Native Americans. Instead, they asked schools to "self-report," information which they apparently disregarded. Is this story one of race, and perception, and history? Certainly. We're far from perfect in this country when it comes to cross-cultural relations, and our history regarding Native Americans is abhorrent. But as it pertains to what the NCAA actually does - regulate intercollegiate competition - this story is about sovereignty. And regardless of how you or anyone else feels about Native American mascots, the NCAA never had the right in the first place.


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