11/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In Whose Honor?

I first talked about using Indians as mascots 34 years ago (1975) on my weekly television show, "The First Americans," which aired weekly on KEVN-TV in Rapid City. I discovered right off of the bat that it was a topic that brought out the best and the worst in people.

Those fans loyal to a mascot, like the hideous, grinning caricature on the hats of the Cleveland Indians, screamed that the team was named after an Indian named Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Maine. This is a fact. When Sockalexis started for the Cleveland Spiders he became the first minority of any race to play in the National League. Since the team was from Cleveland, sports writers and fans, whenever they saw the athletics of Sockalexis, would say, "Look at that Cleveland Indian." The name stuck because most fans and players did not like the name "Spiders."

The Cleveland fans say the team is named to "honor" Sockalexis, but it is what the fans have done with that name that has created the widening gap between believers and non-believers. They show up at games with painted faces, dressed in outfits with leather fringes, feathers stuck in their hair, and then they start those "whoo, whoo," chants that clearly "dishonor" Indians.

They say the name "fan" is short for fanatic. And that is how most die-hard "fans" reacted to those of us who challenged their mascots - like fanatics. Suzanne Harjo, Muskogee, now the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Washington "Redskins" was there at the beginning along with Michael Haney, Seminole, Vernon Bellecourt, Ojibwe, Dean Chavers, Lumbee, Gwen Shunatona, Otoe, Charlene Teters, Spokane, and me. Haney, Harjo and I were on the Oprah Winfrey Show 17 years ago and this was the first time a national television show addressed the issue of Indians as mascots.

The process of educating our own people has been the hardest and most disheartening part of the process. For a tribe such as the Seminole Nation of Florida to allow their name to be used by Florida State University is the worst. The white fans of the Seminoles have taken the name of that tribe, cut it in half for their war chants and for their T-shirts and sweatshirts, to "Noles." The proud Seminole people have been reduced to "Noles." But even with this insult heaped upon them, many still think they are being "honored."

Up in North Dakota the University of North Dakota has chosen the mascot called "Fighting Sioux." Most Native Americans that have attended that school have come away with bad feelings. Erich Longie, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, attended UND. He said, "I love this place. I have nothing against the institution, nothing against the people who are here. My opposition is strictly against the name. I know what that nickname does."

On the other side of the fence is a guy named Archie Fool Bear. After the North Dakota Board of Higher Education voted to abolish the name and the Native head logo unless it gets a 30-year agreement from the state's two Sioux Tribes by October 1, he asked the board to allow more time to vote on the nickname and logo. I respect Fool Bear's perspective as I am sure he respects mine, but he should really do more research on why so many of us have been opposed to the use of Indians as mascots for so many years.

Suppose UND really wanted an Indian mascot, say 50 years ago, and chose the mascot "Fool Bear." Now that may be alright in and of itself, but what would the white fans of UND do to that name? How many ways and how many cartoons would these fans use to run that good name into the ground? In the past, when UND played the Bison of North Dakota State, it was not uncommon for posters to appear showing an Indian having sex with a "Bison" along with the hideous text to support this asinine display.

Louis Sockalexis played only two years for the Cleveland Spiders. It was not until his death in 1913 that the team was officially named the "Indians" to honor him and yet a newspaper near his reservation in Maine wrote about him as a "fat, drunken, lazy Indian living off of the state." The newly named Cleveland Indians never came to his defense. They honored him by naming the team "Indians" but dishonored him as a man and as a human being time after time. Just look at the ugly Indian head on their baseball caps.

I recall attending a protest in Minneapolis when the Washington Redskins played the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. Fans had hung in effigy stuffed mannequins of Indians from trees around the city. This was not too far from where the United States government hanged 38 Sioux warriors in the largest mass hanging in the history of America. Indian protesters were beaten with nightsticks and knocked to the ground by the police although their protest was of a peaceful nature. I wish Archie Fool Bear and members of the Seminole Nation had been there. Which side would they have chosen?

It is not an honor to be mimicked, aped, ridiculed and insulted every Saturday and Sunday in the name of sports. A sign held by Vern Bellecourt at that protest in Minneapolis in 1992 said it all. It read, "We are human beings and not mascots for America's fun and games."

(Editorial in Native Sun News, by Editor Tim Giago)