The complaint filed last week by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights asking the U.S. Department of Education to bar the use of Indian nicknames and imagery by Michigan high schools is a classic case of government overreaction, an attempt to use legal brute force to solve a problem best addressed by dialogue. But while this isn't one of America's burning issues, it does reflect our attitudes toward race and ethnicity and it definitely merits public debate.
The use of American Indian nicknames and mascots is a complex question. Some are clearly offensive, others are neutral and some are even approved by Native American tribes. However, as a rule, white Americans who blithely adopt for their own entertainment images from a minority group, especially one as persecuted through history as Native Americans, are likely to offend that group. The portrayals are almost inevitably one-dimensional caricatures, perpetuating old stereotypes. Too many people who would never dream of wearing blackface or a serape and sombrero abandon their good judgment when it comes to Native Americans, reducing an entire culture to war paint and feathered headdresses. If you wouldn't flaunt these images on a reservation, then they're not appropriate in a Michigan high school either.
We cringe when see Atlanta Braves fans doing the "tomahawk chop," hear the name of the NFL team from Washington, D.C. (knowing "redskins" is a racial epithet to many Native Americans) or see white students dancing around the field in faux-Indian regalia as was long done at the University of Illinois. In other cases though, the Indian references are benign. At Saugatuck High School, one of the 35 Michigan high schools identified in the Department of Civil Rights complaint, no one dresses as an Indian, the block "S'' is the team symbol and the only Native American image is the one painted on the gymnasium wall. We can't see any racial discrimination there. The Native American names of some schools, such as the Central Michigan University Chippewas, are even approved by local tribes. (Notably, CMU does not use any Native American characters or images, just the Chippewa name.)
But if some people object, why persist with the names? Of course, there's the natural resistance to having other people tell you what to do, but beyond that the justifications are flimsy. Tradition is often cited, though most Indian nicknames were adopted long after Native Americans were eradicated from areas where they are supposedly "honored." Sports fans can hold on fiercely to seemingly trivial traditions, as we saw locally in another vein when alums and students grew very concerned about which school would inherit the Chix nickname when Zeeland High split. But traditions can evolve.
Some people call the nicknames "tributes," as if plastering an Indian head on the side of a football helmet makes us appreciate Native American culture. If we really want to celebrate Native American culture, we should do a better job of teaching Native American history.
Others say the Indian names are equivalent to those like the Hope College Flying Dutchmen or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. That comparison ignores the important fact that those names weren't imposed by other ethnic groups, but adopted by Dutch-Americans and Irish-Americans for their own use. That's a big difference.
The bottom line to us is that even if a school isn't perpetuating stereotypes and is trying to act responsibly, there isn't much upside to using Indian names and symbols. What positive effects does that particular name bring? When you strip away the associated images, you're left with a meaningless word, so why bother calling yourselves the Indians, Chiefs or Warriors when there are so many other options?
We should put this issue in the past, not by court order or government edict, but by schools voluntarily changing names and symbols that directly or indirectly caricature a minority group. It's not a matter of political correctness. It's a matter of showing respect to fellow Americans.