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Farewell To the Chief

American Indian groups and others have largely won their battle over the use of Native images by college sports teams, but the economic backstory is seldom reported.

By Mary Annette Pember

The battle over the use of American Indian names and mascots among college and professional athletic teams has a seldom-told economic backstory. It’s more than simple alumni sentimentality. Money, influence and power often play a significant role in decisions regarding the use of these symbols. Paraphernalia bearing the images bring in millions of dollars each year to the institutions. But the names and images have been decried as disrespectful and insensitive to American Indians.

And it is the tribes, along with philanthropic, education, professional and civil rights organizations, that are leading the movement to retire the symbols.

The National Congress of American Indians, the National Education Association, the NCAA and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights have all voiced their opposition to the mascots. Last year, the NCAA ruled that teams featuring offensive mascots would no longer be able to host postseason tournaments and would be subject to other penalties and restrictions. That rule, combined with the waves of negative publicity the mascots have generated, has led many colleges and universities to shelve the mascots permanently. According to Suzan Shown Harjo, the executive director of the Morning Star Institute and a columnist for Indian Country Today, more than 3,000 high schools and colleges featured American Indian imagery in 1970. Today, that number has dropped to less than 1,000.

The most recent and possibly most visible mascot retirement came in February when University of Illinois trustees chose to discontinue the use of the school’s mascot, Chief Illiniwek. The circumstances of the Chief’s demise shed a glimmer of light on the powerful economic forces at play behind these struggles. Buried in the fanfare of Chief Illiniwek’s last dance was the fact that the university’s board of trustees met last month to decide what the school will do with the mascot’s trademark. A group of alumni and students who formerly portrayed the Chief have asked to have it transferred to their nonprofit organization, Council of Chiefs. University chancellor Richard Hermann will determine the fate of the Chief’s copyright, a process which he reported could take up to a year. The university earned $1.8 million last year from the sale of licensed merchandise.

According to the News-Gazette of Champaign, Ill., merchandise featuring the Chief brought in six figures on its own. During the meeting, the board also ratified the February decision to drop the use of Chief Illiniwek and voted down a resolution brought by trustee David Dorris directing the school to join a lawsuit by the Council of Chiefs against the NCAA. The suit alleges that the NCAA’s sanction is a violation of free speech and academic freedom.

In 2006, Dennis Hastert, then Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, sponsored the Protection of University Governance Act, which would have allowed colleges to sue the NCAA retroactively back to 2005 and collect attorney fees and damages. The bill was co-sponsored by nine mostly Republican representatives from Illinois, as well as U.S. Rep. F. Allen Boyd. Jr., who represents Tallahassee, Fla., home of the Florida State University Seminoles. The bill went largely unnoticed by the media, with the exception of the American Indian press.

“It is virtually unheard of for Congress to provide retroactive causes of action because courts usually toss them out as unconstitutional,” says Harjo.  In the end, the bill did not become law, expiring in December 2006. It was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Last month, U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill., reintroduced the bill in the new House.

Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, was also among a group of prominent Native leaders who filed a landmark 1992 petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office arguing that the agency should cancel trademarks owned by the  National Football League’s Washington Redskins because the images are disparaging to American Indians. The group was victorious in court in 1999, but the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia overturned the decision on appeal in 2003, ruling that too much time had elapsed between the inception of the trademark in 1967 and the lawsuit in 1999. The court also agreed with the defense’s argument that rescinding the trademark would exert undo economic hardship on team owner Daniel Snyder. Merchandise bearing the Redskins’ logo brings in more than $5 million each year. A new case, brought by six young American Indians, is currently pending. Because none of the new plaintiffs was alive in 1967, lawyers for the Redskins won’t be able to rely on the delay defense.

Money Talks
Soon after taking office at the University of North Dakota in 1999, president Charles E. Kupchella appeared sympathetic to student and community members seeking to eliminate the team’s “Fighting Sioux” nickname. He publicly expressed his desire for a “third solution” to the mascot issue. However, by late 2000, Kupchella was publicly supporting the use of the mascot. Not coincidentally, many observers say, his change in opinion coincided closely with the publication of a letter sent to him and the state board of public education by alumni and donor Ralph Englestad. In the letter, Englestad indicated he would renege on his promise to build a $100 million hockey arena if the university changed the Fighting Sioux nickname. The day after receiving Englestad’s letter, the state board of education voted to keep the logo. Recently, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office filed a lawsuit on behalf of UND and the board against the NCAA. The trial, which is also seeking cash damages in addition to lifting sanctions for keeping the name, will begin later this year.

“The Ralph,” as the 10-story brick arena is known, is currently owned privately by the Englestad family trust, which stipulates that Fighting Sioux logo be kept indefinitely. The trust rents the arena to the university. Englestad, the multi-millionaire owner of The Imperial Palace Casinos in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Miss., was an eccentric figure. He publicly revered the Nazi party and kept a collection of Nazi memorabilia displayed at his casino, including a painting of himself in a Nazi uniform. Englestad also hosted birthday parties for Adolf Hitler in his casino. He was fined $1.5 million by the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1989 for actions reflecting poorly on the industry. He died in 2002 from cancer.

To date, four schools have negotiated agreements with local tribal leadership eliciting support for their American Indian-nicknamed teams and mascots: The Catawba College Indians, the Central Michigan University Chippewas, the University of Utah Utes and the Florida State Seminoles. Of the four, FSU is the only one that still maintains a mascot.

The 3,300-member Florida Seminole tribe has publicly supported FSU’s use of the Seminole name and the Osceola mascot, who traditionally opens each home football game by riding in on a horse and throwing a flaming spear into the ground. Both the university and tribal leadership insist that no money has changed hands in the arrangement, although some scholarships have been awarded to tribal members. The leadership of the 6,000-member Seminole tribe of Oklahoma also supports FSU’s use of the name and mascot.

The other three schools have arrangements with their areas’ respective tribal groups. In a public statement, NCAA senior vice president Bernard W. Franklin, said, “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.” 

–Mary Annette Pember

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