Apparently, tribes that run casinos are far more likely than tribes that don’t to embrace stereotypes. The question is whether they do this because they recognize that a number of the stereotypes are not meant all that negatively, or because they’re willing to endure being made light of when it is in their financial interest?
One of the big surprises when I first moved out west was how much the local tribe in Deseret embraced the stereotypes. I had been raised to believe that calling them Indians is wrong (which, technically, it is) and that the proper term is Native Americans (which is not wrong so much as inspecific). But the local reservation doesn’t say “Get your Native American Ornamentals here!” but rather “Indian Gear! Next Exit!” (often selling things that have no ties to the local tribes but are associated with tribes in general). After that, it became hard to ever use the “Native American” term. So I’ve transitioned to using “tribes” generically. I wish we could go back to the drawing board and use “Amerindians” as the CIA World Factbook and other sources do.
The question of embracing or resisting the stereotypes is one of those things that comes up when it comes to sports mascots. It’s difficult to understand why Redskins might be considered an offensive mascot. I am generally indifferent on the subject of tribal mascots, believing that appropriateness depends a great deal on context, but that one does make me squirm a little bit. On the other side of the equation is Braves, which seems pretty obviously meant to be complimentary. Everything else is somewhere in between.
The NCAA passed down a ruling several years back that forced many colleges to reconsider their mascots. The ruling essentially required any use of tribal mascots to be approved of by the applicable tribe. Some rather generic names, such as Indians, had no applicable tribe to appeal to and so Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe changed their mascot from the Indians to the Red Wolves and Warhawks. Had the Miami Redskins not already changed their name to the RedHawks, they likely would have had to change their name, too. William & Mary called themselves the Tribe and responded by removing the feather from their logo and becoming a generic tribe rather than an Indian Tribe.
Others, though, got away with it by securing the approval of their local tribe. At least that’s the official reason. The Utah Utes were cool despite a most heinously uncool name. The Illinois Illini had to get rid of the guy in the costume, but got to keep the name. The Florida State Seminoles were initially on the Bad List, but they got on the Good List by securing the approval of the local Seminole tribe. Other Seminole tribes objected.
In a similar situation, though still on the Bad List, is the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. They got the approval of one Sioux tribe, but not of others. Unlike Florida State, however, this was deemed insufficient. This ruling lead some to believe that the Big Boys were being allowed to get away with what the lesser schools were not. The NCAA can afford to irritate North Dakota, but not so much Florida State. Being a big school also would presumably make it easier to donate money to their sponsoring tribe to garner their goodwill. More on this in a minute.
North Dakota in particular has been hit hard because their boosters are vociferously opposed to changing the mascot and have threatened to withhold donations if they comply. They tried to gradually transition to the North Dakota Force, but then a minor league hockey team swooped in and took that name. UND was further hurt because their limbo prevented them from being invited into an athletic conference (The Summit League) with a number of nearby schools (North Dakota State, South Dakota State, and South Dakota). North Dakota also sports a first-class hockey team and they have to cover up their logos anytime they make the hockey playoffs. When the Board of Regents tried to change the name, they were sued (though they won in court). They’ve decided to change the name, but have not decided what to.
I have some rather mixed feelings about these rules. On the one hand, I do wish that the tribes would take it as the compliment it often is. The mascots are in the same warrior tradition as the Spartans and Trojans. Of course, you also have the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, though there is a decent argument to be made that a group using itself as a mascot is different than a group using some other group as a mascot. Ultimately, though as a WASP, it’s hard for me to tell other people how they should respond in circumstances like that. It’s always easy to tell the other guy when they should and should not be offended.
My main objection to the Indians name is that it is such a generic and boring name. The fact that there were two teams in the Sun Belt Conference (not to mention a professional Major League Baseball team) with that name is a testament to that (Utah State and New Mexico State should reconsider Aggies, too). On the other hand, the names that they chose are equally uninspiring. When an actual tribe’s name is being used, it actually makes a good deal of sense to have to obtain their approval in a backaround trademark sort of way. But that only really requires the approval of one tribe and therefore North Dakota should have gotten the same pass as Florida State. Requiring these universities to pay for the rights also does not seem unfair.
There’s also the question as to what right the NCAA should have to dictate these terms to begin with, but I think that they are within their rights there. North Dakota is always free to leave the NCAA for the NAIA. In fact, it’s the overall lack of leverage that forced them to accommodate Illinois and Florida State. The NCAA can afford to lose North Dakota, but not FSU. In some ways, the NCAA’s grasp on its member institutions is actually somewhat weak, which is why they cannot impose any sort of football playoff.