- Indian Spectacle: College Mascots and the Anxiety of Modern America by Jennifer Guiliano
After a prolonged struggle, in 2015 the University of North Dakota (UND) finally began the process of officially choosing a new school mascot, having been forced to relinquish the “Fighting Sioux” moniker by the NCAA. Among the potential replacements bandied about (and then summarily rejected) were the “Flickertails” and “Nodaks,” the two original nicknames used by the university until the 1930 adoption of the now-defunct Fighting Sioux. As Jennifer Guiliano tells us in Indian Spectacle: College Mascots and the Anxiety of Modern America, the “Flickertail” nickname was derided by students in the early twentieth century for “foist[ing] upon us the antics of an obscure and timid little animal,” while the Nodak “means nothing.” They opted instead for an image of an idealized warrior as “something big and powerful” (66). Students today are no more enamored with those original mascots than their counterparts from nearly a century ago, and the contemporary UND community continues to search for a replacement mascot to fulfill the ideals personified by the image of an archetypical Native American body.
In her timely book, Guiliano traces the history of various universities’ decisions to create Indian-themed athletic identities during the second quarter of the twentieth century, including the aforementioned University of North Dakota, the University of Illinois, Stanford, Miami, and Florida State. She situates this trend within the confluence of white masculine anxieties wrought by modernity and the desire of universities to appeal to a wider array of potential students and boosters. The romanticized faux Indian became a cornerstone of the growing spectacle surrounding football, through which institutions of higher learning sought to cultivate a sense of loyalty for their schools. Some chose to draw on the widespread interest in “Indianness” generated by organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, and that included extravagant half-time pageants complete with elaborate marching-band performances. The University of Illinois was among the earliest pioneers of this effort, invoking a fictive indigenous past to stimulate its capital campaign for the construction of a new football stadium. By drawing on this mythical connection to the tribe of Illini Indians, the university effectively reified and affirmed white middle-class manhood.
Guiliano traces similar histories and processes at the other institutions, explaining that, at each, Indian-themed athletic identities paradoxically affirmed white middle-class persistence in an era of anxiety produced by changing demographics and socioeconomic pressures. She asserts that these mascots at once appealed to the democratic masses and simultaneously highlighted the hegemony of Protestant, European-descended men.
By far the strongest section is Guiliano’s discussion of the University of North Dakota’s decision to adopt the “Fighting Sioux” identity in 1930 as they sought to emerge from “athletic obscurity” and begin competing against teams from outside heir immediate region. The still-recent history of Indian conquest in the Dakotas produced a latent insecurity about additional [End Page 123] conflict but also made the memory of Native warriors relatively fresh. Less than a generation after the full subjugation of local tribes, UND students and administrators appropriated Sioux imagery “to demonstrate how far the state had come in securing its future” (66).
But the fascinating exploration of UND’s history is short on analysis and is emblematic of a problem throughout: this brief (110-page) monograph cries out for a fuller development. Guiliano alludes to a number of issues influencing UND’s decision, including the effort to shape East Coasters’ perceptions about wild and uncivilized conditions in North Dakota and the nearby presence of Native American boarding schools whose students had dominated in competitions against teams from UND, but she condenses these intriguing issues into a single page. One wonders why “Carlisle and Haskell Indians [were] paraded across the pages of mainstream newspapers” (70) and how readers received those stories of actual Native Americans, not invented ones. Or what benefits were derived by the masking inherent in adopting an “Indian” persona...