Column: Mascot Madness

What are we losing when we reach for the blandest of names?
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Mascots are supposed to inspire those who play for the team, but just as often they provide amusement for those who don’t.

On college campuses nationwide there are no fewer than 107 teams named for Lions, Tigers and Bears – oh my – but only the University of Idaho dares calls its teams the Vandals. I only wish the Vandals of Idaho could engage in macho combat with, say, the Ne’er Do Wells of Nevada.

With some teams, it’s hard to tell just whom they’re trying to scare. Take the Centenary College Ladies and Gentleman – the actual mascots. Are they intended to intimidate the ill-mannered? Or, how about the Brandeis University Judges, named after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Who’s afraid of the big bad Judges – the Parolees of Penn State?

And what are we to make of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons? What are they, Demons or Deacons? I think they should pick one, and stick to it. Their oxymoronic mascot reminds me of a chant I once heard at a Friends School in Pennsylvania, where the seemingly oblivious cheerleaders broke into the classic mantra: “Fight, Quakers, Fight!”

This otherwise silly subject takes a serious turn when we start talking about Native American nicknames. Some 600 high school and college teams have dropped such names, but over 2,400 still use them.

It seems pretty obvious to me such pejoratives as Braves, Blackhawks and Redskins need to be replaced – and hundreds have been. But that shouldn’t mean all team names should automatically be changed.

There is no better example of good intentions gone awry than the mascot mess Eastern Michigan University stirred up a few years ago. The athletes there called themselves, at various times, the Normalites, the Men from Ypsi and, from 1929 to 1991, the Hurons.

Despite the fact that the Hurons are an authentic tribe indigenous to the region, and that the school created no offensive logos or rituals, a movement arose to change the name. Many of the arguments for doing so were of the “How would you like it?” variety.

This position ignores the many teams named for groups such as the Hoosiers and Cornhuskers, the Sooners and Aggies, not to mention the Midshipmen, the Mountaineers and the Minutemen. Believe it or not, Notre Dame’s teams used to be called the Vagabonds, but school officials felt that name would only reinforce negative stereotypes, so they changed it to the Fightin’ Irish, adopting a logo depicting a leprechaun with his dukes up. Problem solved.

In the professional ranks you have the Celtics and the Knickerbockers, the Canucks and the Yankees. Atlanta’s former minor league team was called – get this – the Crackers. That’s right: the Crackers. And don’t get me started on the Minnesota Vikings – named after my people – whose sideline mascot walks around wearing that silly horned helmet, which comes not from Nordic custom but a Wagner symphony.

Well, whatever.

I realize there is a fundamental difference between a bunch of white students deciding to call their squad the Minutemen, and a group of, say, African-Americans deciding to call their team the Crackers. Something tells me that wouldn’t go over so well.

But it’s also true that when we eradicate all group names – no matter how respectful or accepted they may be, we lose something. If we are to get rid of the Hurons, should we also rename Lake Huron, Port Huron, the Huron River and Huron High School? The vast majority of states adopted their Native American names, including Michigan, Mississippi and Minnesota, for starters.

Here’s another consideration – which too often seems to be an afterthought: What do the Native Americans think? Believe it or not, according to a Sports Illustrated survey, when asked if school teams should stop using Native American nicknames, 81% of Native Americans said no.

Shouldn’t that matter? It seems to me it’s almost as arrogant to assume Native Americans shouldn’t be insulted by the Redskins as it is to assume they should be by the Hurons – even if they’re not.

The officials of the University of Utah Utes did something almost revolutionary: They actually asked the members of the Ute tribe what they should do. The Utes said, please keep the name. And then, more incredibly, the university listened.

Eastern Michigan officials could find only two actual members of the Huron tribe, one in Oklahoma and the other in Quebec. When asked, they urged the school not to change its name because they felt it reflected well on their tribal heritage.

So the school changed it anyway. Worse, in my opinion, they didn’t change it to the whimsical (and obvious) Emus, but to the utterly bland Eagles – the single most common nickname in college sports – a mascot picked mainly for its inability to file a class-action lawsuit.

Go Hurons.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Lorie
    September 18, 2009 at 9:17 am | permalink

    Well John, this time I agree with you and I will add a bit of personal experience: When I went to orientation at EMU back in dark ages, we had a section/conversation about the Huron Indians because they were our mascot. Some history, some legend, some understanding – one bit being that Huron name for the tribe also relates to a time not just a tribe. Tribal wars and whites pushed them in various directions. The tribal name changes too . It was a subject not covered in history classes in my central Ohio high school (Hurons were a footnote under other tribal names) and not covered in the required Western Civilization class at EMU.

    Without that conversation, my guess is that fewer and fewer people know even a little bit about that tribe. I think that is too bad because what remains are the headdresses and yelling of the warrior stereotypes from the movies.

  2. By Mike Garrison
    September 18, 2009 at 9:33 am | permalink

    As an EMU student, I think the name the Eagles is so bland and boring that I’m not interested at all in it…

  3. September 18, 2009 at 10:09 am | permalink

    Interestingly, there is an official chapter of the EMU Alumni Association called the Huron Restoration Chapter, with a mission to:
    1. Restore the name “Huron” to Eastern Michigan University; and
    2. Establish a scholarship to fund financial aid to Native American students; and
    3. Found a Huron Heritage Center on campus, which preserves at Eastern Michigan University the proud traditions and history of the Huron-Wyandotte Nation.

  4. By Anthony
    September 18, 2009 at 11:45 am | permalink

    Well, the caucasian community doesn’t understand the real meaning behind the term “redskins”. I personally hadn’t been bothered by “redskins” or “redmen”, but at the same time, I don’t appreciate it. Redskins was a term adopted to identify a dead native who’s skin was stained red from his or her blood, and that is why it’s a sensative subject for some tribes because they went through that with Sand Creek and Wounded Knee. I think if someone is going to make an arguement about something that is as big as this, they need to get all sides of the story; why does it offend them, and so on. Just because the person who doesn’t uinderstand anything about it and finds no fault doesn’t make it right.

    Keetoowah Cherokee

  5. September 18, 2009 at 12:18 pm | permalink

    This brings to mind the Fighting Whites of Northern Colorado.

  6. September 18, 2009 at 1:14 pm | permalink

    Suzan Shown Harjo addressed the harm of names such as “Hurons” in this Q&A:

    link to ESPN

    Skins fan: I have a lot of sympathy for the injustices your people have faced. I have a family member who is a Native American that was adopted. But I also feel that the nicknames of teams such as the Braves, Seminoles, and even the Redskins were meant to honor your people and not to disgrace them.

    Suzan Shown Harjo: Even if that were the case (and I respectfully disagree with that view), they are not considered honorifics today by the vast majority of Native Americans. And, even if it were the case that one team meant well by it, it still would be the job of the other side to mock the image, name, traits of their opponents. The very nature of the context makes it preferable to just make the change and move on. My guess is that the Republic will still stand.

  7. September 18, 2009 at 1:14 pm | permalink

    Canard: If Indians are offended by things named after them, shouldn’t we change all the Indian place names?

    Response: Indians used to live in every state named after Indians, so the place names are geographically correct. College sports teams aren’t composed of Indian students, so the team names are biologically incorrect.

    In other words, critics are comparing apples and oranges. When a place not inhabited by Indians gets named after Indians—someplace in Europe or Asia, perhaps—then this point will be valid. Until then, no.

    As for the Sport Illustrated poll, its methodology was flawed enough to make it worthless. For more on the subject, see: link

  8. September 18, 2009 at 1:58 pm | permalink


    Let me address your two points:

    1-The question of re-naming rivers and counties has been raised by some Native Americans, including one who called into my radio show on WTKA a few years ago when we were discussing this very issue. It’s a side point, but represents an extension of the issue in question. As you point out, they’re not the same issues, but it’s worth noting that at least some Native Americans see them as linked.

    2-Whether Sports Illustrated’s poll was flawed or not has no bearing on the central question: should Native Americans decide if they’re offended, or should we decide for them? In the case of the Utah Utes, the school wisely asked the tribe, and the tribe urged them to keep it, since it was both accurate and respectful. Should we ignore their wishes because we think we know better how they should feel? That is the attitude I find most grating, and exactly what we witnessed when the wishes of the Huron tribe members they asked were flatly ignored.

    As I wrote, however, in my formulation, if a mascot is not accurate, respectful or supported by the tribe, then the decision to change it should be easy.


  9. By Tom Harjo
    September 18, 2009 at 3:52 pm | permalink

    First, it’s culturally arrogant to assume that Eastern Michigan University had any right to the name “Huron”. If the Wikipedia version of the EMU mascot contest is correct, no Huron or Wyandotte was involved in the selection process or naming contest.

    Second, if the name was originally intended to be an “honor”, why weren’t the Huron consulted prior to the school officially declaring the Huron name the “winner” rather than 75 years after the fact?

    Mr. Bacon, being a member of the majority does not assign you any proprietary right to the holdings of an ethnic minority.

    In the beginning EMU appropriated without consideration the name “Huron” from the Huron/Wyandotte people. EMU assumed the name was theirs to use as they saw fit to use it. In other words, EMU stole the name and exploited it to their institutional advantage.

    Further evidence of EMU’s assumption of proprietary rights to the name “Huron” is evident in the actions of certain alumni that seek the return of the Huron mascot based on the concept that “Huron” is part their own cultural traditions.

    I believe that one does not honor another by stealing from them and then displaying the stolen goods in their home as their own. The university has corrected this injustice and this matter should be laid to rest.

    But your column repeats time-worn, inappropriate arguments to support the return of the Huron name to EMU and putting an end to Indian name “mascot madness” all because EMU chose a bland name. I, for one, cannot think of a more petty rationalization to continue stealing from the American Indian.

  10. September 18, 2009 at 4:43 pm | permalink

    As with my name that was given to me and the blood in my veins, there is nothing I can do about either. I look visibly American Indian, or Lakota on my mother’s side and Seneca on my father’s. When I simply introduce myself to non-Indians many have said, “Oh, I expected something more exotic or traditional than Bob.” It’s the name they gave me but I, like many other Indians, I have an Indian name. They (Indian names) are usually more personal and spiritual. So regarding this article, the name of a tribe is usually what they call their language. Language is the unique tool the Creator gave them to communicate with each other and Him. Therefore, it can be argued a college/university/high school is taking that tribe’s name in vain or disrepecting it if lacks consent or permission. The argument of honoring my tribes or any other is ridiculous after the history of the country and is so-called Manifest Destiny. The generic names of tribe, redmen, braves, Indians, redskins, etc. have no place. The specific names, if authorized by the tribes they say they represent, are ok in the context of the Utes. But what is disrespectful are the fans and cheerleaders playing Indian with the fake braids, feathers, paint, and that drum beat (dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum and repeat). All of those things have specific tribal spirituality, or they have to be earned to be worn, etc. The school’s students or academics have no right to tell a tribe or any individual Indian what is respectful or disrespectful. Carpenters don’t tell brain surgeons their craft or vice versa. The debate is respect for humans, not lions, or bears who really don’t care about teams who named themselves after them. Indians are still here and can tell you what is right, wrong, respectful, or disrespectful.

  11. September 18, 2009 at 5:22 pm | permalink

    Addressing Mr. Harjo first, you raise an important issue when you point out that the Hurons were apparently (and not surprisingly, sad to say) not consulted when the school adopted the name in 1929. I agree they should have been consulted then, which would have nipped this problem in the bud. But for that very reason — simple respect — I also believe they should be consulted NOW, instead of anyone else speaking for them. That is my simple point.

    Mr. Harjo goes on to say, “Mr. Bacon, being a member of the majority does not assign you any proprietary right to the holdings of an ethnic minority.” I couldn’t agree more, but I have no idea where you got that from my piece. I am claiming the exact opposite, namely, the tribes themselves should have the power to make this decision.

    Finally, most readers are not aware that columnists rarely write the titles or the subheads to their pieces. The subhead here was misleading. I agree that having a bland mascot is no reason to change it to a Native American one, but that was hardly my point. Instead, I stated, in trying to end on a lighter note, that if given the choice between Emus or Eagles, I would not hesitate to choose the former. That is a point far from the central issue of Native American names, however.

    For someone who is deeply concerned about people in the majority putting words in the mouths of Native Americans — which I have not done anywhere in this piece — you seem quite comfortable putting words in my mouth that I have never said and never would say, not to mention speaking for the tribes themselves. Again, my position is simple: Let’s ask them, and do as they wish.

    Addressing Mr. Bob Bennett’s response, I agree with every single word in his letter, including his comments on misused rituals and his cogent closing line: “Indians are still here and can tell you what is right, wrong, respectful, or disrespectful.”

    I agree. So let’s ask the Native Americans, and let them speak for themselves.


  12. September 18, 2009 at 5:24 pm | permalink

    “But it’s also true that when we eradicate all group names – no matter how respectful or accepted they may be, we lose something.”

    With regard to this sentence of John’s, if Bob’s point is that “we” never had it to begin with, then I’d have to agree with him and therefore disagree that “we lose something”.

    “If we are to get rid of the Hurons, should we also rename Lake Huron, Port Huron, the Huron River and Huron High School?”

    Lakes, cities, rivers, and schools are categorically different than school mascots and sports teams. I think that your reasoning wavers here, John.

    My (1/16th) Mohawk ancestry isn’t relevant–I just think the perspective Bob offered is worthy of consideration, even if he’s not a Huron.

  13. September 18, 2009 at 6:06 pm | permalink

    Huron is a name bestown upon the people of the Tobacco
    Confederacy of tribes by the French immigrants in the
    16th century in Quebec and Ontario. Huron means
    hillbilly and was seen as a slur towards the people
    who were otherwise known as the Tionantate, Tobacco,
    Petun, and Huron. After the Five Nations nearly exterminated
    this confederacy of tribes for their French alliegiances
    between 1649 and 1653, they became known as Wyandottes
    or islanders due to the fact they hid on Great Lakes
    islands to avoid the Mohawks and others chasing them.
    The Wyandottes of Oklahoma are Petun and Tionantate
    survivors of these attacks back then.

  14. By Tom Harjo
    September 18, 2009 at 7:10 pm | permalink

    Mr. Bacon,
    I appreciate your response and clarification on your intent.

    However, I do take exception to your column’s syntax.

    You write, “I stated, in trying to end on a lighter note, that if given the choice between Emus or Eagles, I would not hesitate to choose the former.”But in your attempt at a humorous ending you chose to end with and hardy “Go Hurons”.

    I failed to see the humor, as did your headline staff. I felt your end paragraph was more summation than “lighter note” given the “Go Hurons” addition. Add to this the headline and sub-headline and I feel your column takes on an entirely different character. Perhaps the piece it was better presented as a radio commentary?

    In any case I accept your explanation and wish you “happy proofreading and copy-editing” in the future.

  15. September 18, 2009 at 7:32 pm | permalink

    Mr. Harjo,

    I appreciate your graciousness, and your good point about the last line.

    You gave me some good information about the founding of the team, a good lesson about proof-reading, and a good grin in the process. You are correct: my kicker “Go Hurons” tilts the piece. For what it’s worth, I intended it — with admittedly little thought — to mean not just the team but the tribe. But typing that out at the end clearly added nothing to the piece and detracted from the point I was making.

    And to add to your wishes for “happy proofreading and copy-editing,” which is where I grinned, I should have written Wagner’s opera, not symphony.

    So there are two points when you were only asking for one.

    I hope you have a good weekend. We’ve all earned it!


  16. By Ralph
    September 18, 2009 at 8:01 pm | permalink

    Seems like a meaningless argument. The Huron name and logo have been gone for almost 20 years. I was on the Huron Logo Committee. There was no easy solution for this. With hind sight and knowing the dynamics of the committee the name and logo were doomed even though a slim majority of the members voted to keep them. While I don’t like the Eagle name or logo I’m still involved with Eastern as a donor and volunteer.

  17. By Lou
    September 19, 2009 at 1:56 am | permalink

    There was no movement at EMU to change the name, just some busybody, self-righteous administrators determined to force their ill-informed values on the university. That’s the way it usually works.

    A few years back the NCAA tried to force all schools with Indian names to abandon them. The University of NC-Pembroke is a school that was established for Indians and run largely by Indians. Still heavily attended by Indians, the school told the NCAA where to go.

    Go Braves!

  18. By Mark
    September 19, 2009 at 11:54 pm | permalink

    My school was the home of the “Fighting Engineers”.

  19. September 20, 2009 at 5:47 pm | permalink

    Mr. Bacon, I have never seen a writer respond in the manner you have to your piece and I appreciate it.

    You as a journalism professor might appreciate viewing how the Amarillo Globe-News promotes a local Boy and Girls Scout Group here in Amarillo, TX who call themselves the Kwahadi Dancers, “The Ambassadors of American Indian Dance.” They are non-Indian kids who learn a purported styled of “authentic American Indian dance” and perform here at their “museum” and travel internationally as the ambassadors. The name Kwahadi comes from the Comanche who lived in the Texas Panhandle. I have expressed my outrage to the paper, yes, outrage, of the existence of this group and their promotion of them. They, in my opinion, bastardize everything they “…have made their own to honor American Indian dancing.”

    The Globe’s latest promotion of this wannabe-fantasy occurred on 6/25/2009. They chose not to publish my letter to the editor but I think it would be interesting for you after this opinion piece. The Globe published one in 2006 which I wrote after seeing the Kwahadis. It could provide some interesting topics for discussion for you students. Just search on “Kwahadi” and you will see the links.

    A Native friend of mine opined, “I don’t know what’s worse, this racist wannabe stuff or the overt ‘No Dogs or Indians Allowed’ racism.” These Kwahadis, in my opinion, exemplify the staunch stance taken by people outside a culture or right who, in spite of what one in the culture or who has a right would say, say we are going to continue because we mean no harm and respect Indian culture. It also makes them a lot of money and gets standing ovations from audiences who don’t know any different. As I told them and the Globe, it is not their right to promote something that is not theirs. To top it off, they just don’t look right hopping around the way they do.

    Thanks for promoting the discussion.

  20. September 20, 2009 at 9:24 pm | permalink

    Mr. Bennett,

    I am, once again, in complete agreement with every word in your letter.

    It boils down to such a simple point — ask the people in question how they feel, and no one else, then do as they wish — that it’s rather amazing it’s apparently so hard to follow.

    I’m reminded of an episode of “The Simpsons,” in which Seymour Skinner says, “Mother, you’re embarrassing me!”

    To which she replies, “No I’m not!” — and everyone gets the joke: it’s not for her to decide.

    This issue obviously transcends something so silly as a Simpsons episode, but the point is the same: Only the people in question can tell you how they feel, and for anyone else to claim that right is presumptuous in the extreme.

    I wish you luck in Texas, and elsewhere. And thank you for the kind words.


  21. September 30, 2009 at 6:20 am | permalink

    Sherman Alexie will be in Grand Rapids next month. It might be worth the trip.Or stop by and talk with some of the profs at U-M’s Indian program. Or ask anyone whose parents or grandparents were kidnapped and sent to an Indian School what they think about appropriation. Or ask U-M’s distinguished professor Philip J. DeLoria who has written extensively about this issue. There is a lot to learn from this lesson you have provided us. “I am no mascot”.