Stanford University in California was the first institution in the U.S. that changed a demeaning Indian symbol to a positive one. As in many other instances, Stanford led the nation, and for that I am eternally grateful.
When I got my admission letter to graduate school at Stanford I was elated. It was 1970, the height of the protests against the Vietnam War. I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. I felt particularly conflicted, since I had just served 17 months in combat, ending in 1968. Berkeley was set up with protesters. I felt just as conflicted by the issue of changing the Stanford Indian.
I showed the letter to my friends and one of them, a Creek Indian named Russell Walden, laughed and said, “So you’re going to be a Stanford Indian. Ha, ha.”
I had not thought about the Indian symbol, but I immediately took a lot of ribbing from my Indian friends about it. A couple of weeks later my wife Toni, a Chicana, and I drove to the Stanford campus to look for housing. On the way there I told her about the comment from Russell. “We have to get them to change the symbol,” she said. “It’s not right to have a racist symbol.” She remembers that we were on the on-ramp to the Bayshore Freeway when she said it.
I knew nothing about the symbol or “Prince Lightfoot,” the mascot who did fake Indian dances during the football games. When we got there in September, two of us graduate students, myself and John White, Cherokee, met 22 new Indian freshmen who came in at the same time. We added 24 people to the three Indian students on the campus, two undergraduates and one graduate student in law school. The two undergraduates were Russell Red Elk, Blackfeet, and Ella Anagick, Inuit. The graduate student was Rick West, Cheyenne.
Within the first week we had formed the Stanford American Indian Organization (SAIO), which is still functioning. The first and practically only item on the agenda was eliminating the Stanford Indian symbol. We met every Sunday in the Indian house, which was an old two-story frame house south of the law school. We elected Lorenzo Starrs, Lakota, from Pine Ridge, as the president. We presented a petition to change the name to president Richard Lyman in November, and got no response.
But after a few weeks we asked Timm Williams, who had been Prince Lightfoot for about 20 years at that point, to meet with us. He came, and promised that he would stop doing the fake Indian dances after every touchdown and stop putting the fake Indian religious hexes on the other team. The very next week he did it again.
Timm was just one aspect of racism that surrounded the Indian symbol. There were mugs, cups, T-shirts, and pictures with cartoons of grinning or mad Indian symbols. Lots of campus groups made serious money selling these keepsakes at the football and basketball games. There were Stanford Dollies.
Timm, who had become Ronald Reagan’s Indian in the meantime, was a Yurok Indian from the north coast. But he wore a fake Lakota war bonnet and full outfit at the games, which also made us mad, especially the ones such as I who had been at the Alcatraz occupation the previous year. We had literally started the militant Indian movement with that occupation. By the time we got to Stanford there were Indian occupations at Pit River, Chicago, Plymouth Rock, and Fort Lawton in Seattle.
It took two years to get the administration to act on the petition. But in 1972 the university ombudsman, Lois Amsterdam, approved the dropping of the Indian symbol. The administration went along with her decision, since the Stanford Indian became the Stanford Cardinal that year.
In time the American Indian Movement took up the cause, and is still championing changing racist Indian symbols. They are among the leaders in the current campaign to change the racist Washington Redskins name to something more respectable.
Unwittingly and grudgingly, Stanford took the lead in eliminating a racist team symbol and name. The actual decision was not made by the administration, however. It was made by the ASSU president, Doug McHenry, and the Student Senate. Dartmouth followed with dropping its Indian symbol in 1974. After a long battle and some lawsuits the University of Illinois finally dropped its Indian symbol in 2007, almost 40 years later. Charlene Teeters, Spokane, led this battle.
But there are allegedly still some 2,700 teams at the high school and college level with racist Indian names. One of the worst is the Washington Redskins, which is an Indian scalp taken from a dead Indian and stained red with the blood.
Even worse is the name “squaws,” which refers to the pudenda, a part of the female anatomy. Other racist names still around include Chiefs, Indians (especially with a goony looking grinning Indian such as the Cleveland Indians baseball team), Redmen, Aztecs, Seminoles, Red Raiders, Braves, Warriors, Fighting Sioux, and Braves. After Lori Piestewa, Hopi, was killed in Iraq, Arizona finally changed the name of Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak to honor her.
The name “Redskins” hits home when someone suggests that the Washington Redskins team name be changed to the Washington Blackskins. That name, I believe, would not last a week. The restaurant chain Sambo’s was quick to change its name when the racism was pointed out.
Hundreds of high schools, middle schools, sports teams, and colleges have dropped their racist team names for something not insulting. But it will take a long time for some people to get it.
In North Carolina, for instance, there were 70 schools with racist Indian names. There were 13 schools with the name Warriors, seven with the name Indians, six with the name Braves, two were Redskins, two were Red Raiders, and one was Sauras (the name of a tribe). Of the 73, 40 have changed their racist names in the past four decades. Many of them changed from an Indian name to a ferocious animal name, like Bears, Wolves, and Bobcats. There are still 45 schools in Wisconsin with racist Indian names, including Indians, Warriors, and Red Raiders.
There are still 400 teams called Indians, 100 or more named Braves, 74 named Warriors, and 61 named Redskins. It is time they all changed their racist Indian mascots for something better.
Dr. Dean Chavers earned an MA degree in anthropology, an MA degree in communication, and a Ph.D. in communication research from Stanford. He is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native American students. His last book was “Racism in Indian Country.” He can be reached at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com.