End of the Fighting Sioux: Why Mascot Wars Matter

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It took forever but North Dakota University  officially laid to rest the Fighting Sioux mascot in April after a thirty year battle and four year court case. The Fighting Sioux represented one of the last bastions to fall in the NCAA twenty year battle to end nicknames that it found demeaning and hostile.  This final controversy was fascinating because it pitched two wings of the Dakota Sioux against each other, one in favor of the name and one against. The cost to the University for not changing was to lose the right to compete in or host NCAA events.

In true university style the university has now appointed a committee to come up with a new mascot! Heaven knows what they will uncover but let me make delve a little deeper into why nicknames and mascots matter and actually deserve the attention they receive.

 Warrior and hunting cultures regularly identified with totems and avatars for their community. The avatar represented  an embodiment of the values and virtues that community held dear. They often manifest the values and virtues of creatures they admired, respected, feared and often hunted or depended upon. So clans proudly proclaimed their identification with totems of wolves, foxes, eagles, killer whales, falcons gooeyducks (whoa, I am getting ahead of myself) crows, bears, badgers. Well you get the picture.

Members of the community not only carry totems but may have dressed in the clothes provided by the prey. Young members of the community emulated the values and danced to their rhythms of the avatars. Other communities mixed and matched an accord with natural forces like wind, rain, thunder, lightening. These could be simple and clear like thunder, storm or sun groups or more complex by marrying gods and goddesses with forces. They could merge them all together with a god who actualized the power of storm or sea but also flew as an eagle or swam as a porpoise.

The arcane point of the game is that mascots and nicknames really present modern totems and avatars. For the teams they embody aspiration and value. Ideally they express the virtues of focus, toughness, endurance and fierceness needed to achieve success in sport.

Avatars and totems are not mascots. Mascots are a degraded American version of a good luck charm but the nickname/mascot really becomes  more in the lives of schools and players. Americans further debase the rooted and sacred nature of the avatar by creating and marketing caricatures of goofy alligators, to mention Florida's profitable abomination.

So a school or team avatar ideally represents the best aspiration for the team and the schools goals. This is one of the ironies of the whole NCAA and tribal battles over Amero-Indian based mascots. To choose "Seminole" or "Chippawa" or "Warrior" was not an act of denigration but one of admiration and hope to inculcate the virtues of the people into the team and campus. It is important to realize that all these choices involve aspiration and dreams, not realities. So the Trojans and Spartans are not about the cities that lost their wars, but the virtues that made them great even indefeat. The Amero-Indian avatars often represented the same. Teams don't choose avatars of defeated people they despise.

The cultural and legal battles arose from two concerns. First the anger and fear of American Indian tribes that their own culture had been stolen or obliterated and what had replaced it was a white mythology not only on TV and novels but in the myths appropriated by the team avatars. Second, the tribes reacted with justified virulance at the caricatures that the teams used to market and brand and sell mascots--the Cleveland Indians' heinous Chief Yahoo remains the worst degradation of this.

So the battle over American Indian names reflects a cultural battle to end the caricatures or replace and enable richer stories to be told. The seriousness of the battle reminds us that mascots are more than mascots; they  are avatars.

Some Universities like Florida State Seminoles or the Western Michigan Chippewa reached accommodations with the tribes around both telling a truer story and providing some economic return to the tribe from the appropriation of the name.

So the battle and replacement made some sense because even if not replaced it forced schools to rethink marketing and branding and actually rediscover the values and virtues inherent in an avatar.