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  • Exploitation of American Indian Symbols:A First Amendment Analysis
  • Joseph J. Hemmer Jr. (bio)

American Indian symbols are used extensively as logos, mascots, nicknames, and trademarks. These images identify postsecondary as well as secondary academic institutions, professional sports franchises, commercial products, and geographic locations. Over the past few decades, efforts have been directed at eliminating or at least reducing the use of American Indian images and terms.

Several colleges stopped using American Indian symbols after receiving complaints. For example, Stanford University changed its name from Indians to Cardinal, the University of Massachusetts changed its mascot from the Indian to the Minuteman, the St. John's University Redmen became the Red Storm, the Miami University (Ohio) Redskins became the Red Hawks, the Springfield College (Massachusetts) Chiefs are now the Pride, Dartmouth College's Indians are the Big Green, and the Marquette University Warriors changed to the Golden Eagles.1 Yet while several institutions dropped the symbols, eighty-eight colleges and universities continued to use these labels.2 Recently, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) banned from tournament competition any team mascots deemed "hostile or abusive" to American Indians. This threatening posture convinced some schools to drop their offensive images. For example, the Southeastern Oklahoma State University Savages took the label Savage Storm, and the University of Illinois discontinued use of the Chief Illiniwek mascot.3 Yet, following pressure from powerful lobbies, the NCAA permitted Florida State University to retain Seminoles, the University of Utah to keep Utes, and Central Michigan University to be known as the Chippewas.4 And, in spite of continued NCAA opposition, the University of North Dakota retains the [End Page 121] label of the Fighting Sioux, Alcorn State University remains the Braves, and Arkansas State University continues to use the nickname Indians.5

Throughout the country, numerous high schools are known by Indian labels; the states with the largest number of symbols are Illinois (266), Ohio (228), Texas (197), California (184), and Indiana (178).6 In my home state of Wisconsin 43 high schools use such terms: Indians (15), Warriors (7), Chiefs (4), Blackhawks (4), Raiders (3), Chieftains (3), Redmen (2), Red Raiders (1), Hatchets (1), Warhawks (1), Braves (1), and Apaches (1).7 In Wisconsin eighteen schools employ a chieftain head logo, and four schools use various caricatures of American Indians as their school logo.8 Secondary academic institutions have been the focus of efforts to restrict use of Indian symbols. In 1999 the United States Justice Department launched an investigation into whether a North Carolina high school violated the civil rights of American Indians by creating a "racially hostile environment" while using the names Warriors for boy and Squaws for girl athletic teams. The school board decided that the girls' nickname was especially offensive because the term "squaw" means "prostitute" in some Indian languages and is a term for female genitalia in others. The board dropped that term but kept Warriors.9 The Wisconsin Indian Education Association (WIEA) Indian Mascots and Logos Taskforce put pressure on secondary schools to drop Indian labels. In the past few years sixteen have done so. A survey of Wisconsin high school principals revealed that school administrators felt pressure from the task force and from the Department of Public Instruction.10 Some attempts to instill political correctness have met opposition. For example, shortly after the Onteora (New York) school board voted to discontinue their tomahawk-wielding mascot, the community voted to remove most of the board. The new board restored the mascot. When the Marquette (Michigan) board discontinued their stoic Indian logo, the community, including several American Indians, protested the decision. Yanking "the Chief" from school-related functions did not sit well with the locals.11 In 2004 the California legislature passed the Racial Mascots Act, banning the use of the term "Redskins" by athletic teams in public middle and high schools. Nevertheless, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.12 Similar controversies have erupted amongst New York, Texas, New Jersey, and Vermont high schools.13

Professional sports teams also feature American Indian symbols. Some examples include the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves (base [End Page 122] ball), the Chicago Blackhawks (hockey), and the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins (football...


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