How Stanford’s Native Students Took Down a Racist Mascot

Image courtesy nativeappropriations.com

The Stanford Indian was the first racist mascot to be changed at a major university

Stanford realized in 1968 or 1969 that they had no Indians to speak of on the campus. By 1969 there were three. Russell Red Elk (Hunkpapa Lakota) was an undergraduate, as was Ella Anagik (Inuit), who later got her degree in math and went to law school. She was from Alaska and Russell was from Montana. He had been one of the first Indians to attend Choate, the famous college prep school in Connecticut where he was a star basketball player. As more Natives joined Stanford to study, they would also work to change the university’s racist mascot.

Russell went on to earn his BA and MA in Anthropology and was a professor of mathematics for the next 40 years at two tribal colleges in Montana. The third student, Richard West (Cheyenne), was in his first year of law school. His father Dick West was the most famous Indian artist in the U.S. at that time. Rick went on to be the first director of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. I later did a lot of fishing with Dick West when I lived in Oklahoma. He lived on the lake, so all we had to do is walk down the hill from his house to be at the fishing spot.

Dick had been a member of Company I during World War II, serving in Italy and Germany. Jack Montgomery (Cherokee) was also a member and raised $100,000 to honor Indian war veterans on the Bacone College campus when I was president there. This memorial preceded the Vietnam Wall and may have been the first such monument anywhere honoring Indian service people.

The only previous Indian people we knew about at Stanford was a Hopi who had gone in the 1950s and had become a judge, and N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), the famous author and professor. Scott had earned his Ph.D. in English at Stanford in 1963 and won the Pulitzer Prize for “House Made of Dawn” six years later.

The Dean, I assume, decided to bring Native Americans on board. He put two teams of recruiters together, one going north and the other south. Each team had an assistant dean and one of the students on it. They made long trips of a few weeks each. They found 22 undergraduates and two graduates. John White (Cherokee) and Dean Chavers (Lumbee) both entered graduate school in 1970, John in Anthro and Dean Chavers in Communication Research. John never finished his degree and taught college in the Illinois area for some years.

I finished my Ph.D. in 1976, studying the diffusion of innovations in four BIA boarding high schools. I finished an MA in communication in 1972, doing work for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) in Bakersfield, California. The project was studying the radio listening behavior of Spanish speakers to the one Spanish radio station in Bakersfield. The work led a threat for the two absentee owners to sell the station rather than lose their license. They were so racist that they would not let Cesar announce UFWOC meetings; they would not let him even purchase time on the radio to announce meetings. I also earned an MA in Anthropology in 1976.

The 24 new Native students formed the Stanford American Indian Organization in September 1970. The first order of business was the Stanford Indian mascot. When I got my letter of acceptance in March 1970, I proudly showed it to the Native students at UC Berkeley. Russell Walden (Creek) sarcastically said, “So you’re going to be a Stanford Indian, huh? Hah, hah.” I did not know until then what the Stanford mascot was. Bill Schaaf (Chippewa) also teased me about the Stanford Indian symbol.

I had been one of the original 78 militant Indian occupiers of Alcatraz Island on November 20, 1969. I ended up as Mainland Coordinator for the first six weeks. Richard Oakes (Mohawk), the leader of the occupation, asked me to call the press conference the next morning, write press releases, set up a bank account, organize the Alcatraz Navy, bring food and supplies to the Island, and make TV and radio appearances. The only contact with national organizations happened when Vine Deloria, the former executive director of NCAI, and Hank Adams, the famous man from the fish-ins in Washington State, brought a $20,000 check to the Island from a religious denomination based in NYC.

When Richard left Alcatraz in January after his daughter was killed in a fall, the leader of Alcatraz was LaNada Means (Shoshone Bannock) from Fort Hall. She later got her Ph.D., taught college for a while, and now is head of the tribal courts at Fort Hall.

The American Indian Movement is often falsely credited with the Indian occupation of Alcatraz. It was 78 college students, whose names I recorded, who took it over, along with some of their friends. It set the trend for Indian nationalism that continues today. The main thing it accomplished was the end of termination of Indian treaties and an end to relocation. We told people we were there to stop the “ations.” These were two of the most negative Indian policies in U.S. history, along with the suppression of Native languages, stealing of Indian children by non-Indians, and domination of Indian people by a largely uncaring Bureau of Indian Affairs. President Richard M. Nixon announced both things in his Indian speech of July 1970, the most important Indian policy statement of the past 75 years. Instead of subjugation to the federal government, the Indian tribes won the right to self-determination.

Alcatraz was the catalyst for the end of termination, the end of relocation, and the U.S. policy of Self-Determination, as edified in P.L. 93-638 by Nixon, who had learned about Indians from his football coach at Whittier College, Wallace Newman, Luiseno. Nixon said he loved Coach Newman more than anyone except his own father. Coach Newman, he said, could have had a brilliant career as a professional football player, but because he was Indian he never got the chance. He coached football, baseball, and basketball for 35 years at Whittier College. Coach was still with Nixon when he ran for Congress, when he ran for Senate, when he ran for Vice President, when he ran three times for President, and when he ran for Governor of California.

Courtesy Nixon Foundation / President Richard Nixon released a Self-Determination Policy on July 8, 1970. Nixon formed a bond with Coach Wallace Newman, a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, while attending Whittier College.

The Stanford Indian was a humiliating racist symbol. The mugs for sale in the bookstore had the big-nosed Indian on them. Some of the posters had the tomahawk on them. The racist mascot, portrayed by Timm Williams, put Indian hexes on the opposing teams on the field on Saturdays.

He had been “Prince Lightfoot” for over 20 years by then. The big issue with Timm Williams was his mockery of Indian religions. He would dance around in a faux Indian dance at the games. Even though he was a Yurok Indian, he wore the recognizable Plains Indian headdress and clothes to every game.

He would make the “woo woo” sound with his hand slapping his mouth. We met with him a month after we got there, and he promised not to do it anymore. Shortly afterward he became the Indian staff person to Gov. Ronald Reagan, who infamously did nothing to understand Indians, most of whom had lost their Indian status when their treaties were terminated in the 1950s.

But Timm did it again the next week. That was it for us. The Indian symbol, the caricatured Indians with the big noses, the religious denigration—all of it had to go. It took two years, but we finally got it done. The hero was the Stanford American Indian Organization President Lorenzo Starrs (Lakota). He is now a medical doctor in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The petition went to Stanford President Richard Lyman in the second month or so. His reaction was “Who are these Indian troublemakers? The Indian symbol has been here for a half century; why change it?” When Alissa Laird, one of the freshman students, asked him in our first meeting if we could have some Indian studies classes, his response was, “If an Indian student comes to Stanford, he has to come on the same terms and conditions as all other students.” It took over a decade for Indian Studies to happen at Stanford. UC Berkeley, Cal State Hayward, San Francisco State, UCLA, UC Davis, Humboldt State, and Sacramento State all had Indian Studies programs by the early 1970s.

We got called all kinds of names by students and faculty—troublemakers, militant, blanket ass, and the like were some of the mild ones. The alumni groups continue to lobby for the Indian symbol to come back. The alumni are still selling the racist cups, mugs, hats, t-shirts, and other souvenirs of the Stanford Indian. They do not see or understand racism, and don’t care what Indians think.

The ombudsman, Lois Amsterdam, made a positive statement in the second year that the Stanford Indian symbol and Prince Lightfoot were racist and should be eliminated. Doug McHenry, the student body president, and the student government supported the change. The administration did not protest, and the teams changed their name to the Stanford Cardinal, the color red, shortly afterward.

Stanford was the first college to change a racist name. Dartmouth was the second. Celebrants at the Dartmouth games called on the “Dartmouth Indians” to scalp their opponents, massacre them, and they did the Indian yell after every point, starting in the 1920s.

They finally did away with the racist mascot in 1974. The older alumni at Dartmouth, who were either former students or sons and daughters of Indians who had attended Dartmouth, often called the young Indians who wanted the name changed “troublemakers” or “redskins.” Michael Dorris, who had been hired to head the Native American Studies program, had to take slings and arrows for two decades about the name change. White students thought they had a right to play wild Indians at games and in plays, to the dismay of Dorris and the Indian students.

But there are still 2,700 teams in the U.S. with demeaning racist names, including Squaws, Bucks, Warriors, Chiefs, Indians, Red Men, Red Raiders, Braves, and others.

This story was originally published December 28, 2016.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native college students. Reach him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com.

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