A quest called Tribe: W&M fighting NCAA over use of Native imagery

Story by Chris Graham

If Florida State can use an almost cartoonish Native American as its mascot, reasons the administration at the College of William and Mary, then what’s so bad about a logo with a couple of feathers?

“What bothers us is that the NCAA has a problem with the use of two simple feathers – while they seem to condone the use by Florida State University of not only an Indian, but an Indian with war paint on a pony and with a flaming spear. Somehow that seems to us to be disjointed,” said Bill Walker, the associate vice president for public affairs at William and Mary, which said last week it plans to appeal a ruling from the NCAA that would prohibit the school’s athletic teams from wearing the feathered logo on apparel in postseason tournaments and could bar the school from being able to host postseason athletics events.

That was the bad news for W&M – the good news being that the NCAA does not consider the Tribe nickname used by athletic teams at the college to be in itself offensive.

“Basically, we feel like we’ve gotten a major victory on that point,” Walker told The Augusta Free Press.

Karenne Wood, the chair of the Virginia Council on Indians and a member of the Monacan Indian Nation, said she thought the ruling of the NCAA was “a good way of handling the controversy.”

“William and Mary got what it wanted. They got to keep the name. I agree with the NCAA that the two-feather symbol is something that could cause people to act in a way that denigrates American Indians. What the NCAA did not say is that feathers are considered sacred in many Native cultures – so it’s not necessarily an appropriate symbol for a sports team,” Wood told the AFP.

Wood said tribal leaders in Virginia have not raised objection to the college using the Tribe name – “and I feel like the tribal leaders were pretty gracious from that standpoint.”

“I don’t know why they want to appeal the ruling. I think they should give up – and say, Hey, we got part of what we wanted. Let’s stop making a controversy here,” Wood said.

The ongoing controversy involving the Tribe nickname dates back to 2004 – when the NCAA asked member institutions whose athletic teams use Native American nicknames and mascots to determine if the names and imagery were hostile or abusive.

John Chaney, a psychology professor at Oklahoma State University and a Native American, feels that question as to whether or not Native mascots and nicknames are offensive is moot.

“We didn’t create these images. We didn’t, for example, create Chief Wahoo – the big buck-toothed Indian who’s the mascot for the Cleveland Indians. That’s just such a stereotypical offensive portrayal of Indians. We didn’t create Chief Wahoo or any of the other images that are used. But we know what the effects are on Natives,” Chaney told the AFP.

The fact that the Seminole Nation of Florida has said that it stands in support of the use of a Seminole mascot by Florida State – which has been cited by the NCAA in its decision to permit FSU to continue to use the mascot and associated imagery – is immaterial, Chaney said.

“So it’s OK with the Seminole Nation of Florida. But it’s not OK with the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. So we’ve let one Native American tribe speak for all 700 tribes in the country,” Chaney said.

“That, incidentally, is the same way we lost most of our land – by asking one Native American, and maybe greasing his palms with cash, and saying, will you sign this treaty? And they signed it, and they signed it for all Indians. It’s remarkable to see how little things have changed. Just because one tribe says that it’s OK with us, we don’t find this offensive, then that’s used as evidence that none of us should be offended,” Chaney said.

Wood said she wishes William and Mary and other schools facing this issue would exercise more sensitivity when it comes to deciding what to do regarding the continued use of Native mascots and nicknames.

“If I were a college administrator, I would rather err on the side of caution rather than do something that might offend any group of people,” Wood said.

“The question that comes to mind here is – how important are these feathers to you? Is it because you don’t want to change your symbolism because it’s costly – or are you invested in this in some way? And if so, why?” Wood said.

Walker said the most important point to school officials is that the “NCAA has agreed with us that our nickname is not hostile or abusive.”

The reason for the appeal, Walker said, is that to “say that what William and Mary does is not acceptable and what Florida State University does is acceptable boggles our minds.”

Chaney, significantly, concedes that point.

“As long as the NCAA allows Florida State to use the Seminole nickname and Chief Osceola and all the rest, and allows other schools to use similarly offensive nicknames and mascots, it’s hard to pinpoint anybody for doing anything wrong here,” Chaney said.

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