Now a senior lecturer at the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona and co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, Begay became involved in the controversy after 2 Native American students at the high school claimed that they were offended by the high school's nickname and the depiction of its mascot.
But the board and the community had a different belief. "They all said 'this is not racist; this is not a Native American," Begay said. "They claimed that the mascot was actually based on an Armenian dentist and school benefactor Mr. Yacubian."
Begay said the vehemence of the adamant local stand was astonishing. "I remember one older woman literally clinging to me and pleading 'Please don't take our Yakoo.' It was as if, if Yakoo was eliminated from North Quincy High School, she would cease to exist."
"You could see the entrenched feeling of tradition was very difficult to change," he added.
Begay was the moderator of the 1st of 3 panels which offered thoughts at the all-day symposium Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports held at the National Museum of the American Indian. Joining Begay on the panel charged with the topic Mascot Myth Origins were:
- Dr. E. Newton Jackson, professor of Sports Management at the University of North Florida
- Dr. C. Richard King, professor and chairperson of the Department of Critical Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University
- Dr. Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of Sports Management at Drexel University, and
- Linda Waggoner, author and lecturer at Sonoma State University.
"Words and stories begin to matter when people say that mascots are hurtful. That mascot is bad. It can dehumanize and it can desensitize," King said.
False origin stories of mascots and team names like Redskins, Indians, or Braves "let people off the hook," King contended. "People say 'if I am honoring you, then I can't be racist. White Americans need to reflect on what they have done."
Jackson, himself a Native American, said that problematic myths about Indians began with Christopher Columbus. "You don't pull up to a place and the people are waving and then you say you discovered it," Jackson contended.
"Native Americans are not a mascot. It is not honoring," he added. The professor was the 1st of many symposium participants to point to economics. "It is about revenue. It's about money. It's about marketing and promotion," he said..
Jackson acknowledged the difficulty in getting high schools, colleges, and professional franchises to change long-held team names. "For change to occur, it requires the dominant group to be supportive and participate. It requires the dominant to buy in," he explained.
Staurowsky said the danger with poorly chosen mascots is the misinformation such mascots promulgate. "If, as an entire nation, we know our American Indians by mascots, then we don't know about (real) American Indian history. It allows us to manipulate a group," she said.
Waggoner said the false story behind the naming of the local Washington football franchise, the Redskins, was typical of the process. For decades, there has been an ongoing battle over changing the team name. Current owner Daniel Snyder claims the name Redskins is not derogative and is intended to honor characteristics of Native Americans. However, the history behind the name tells a different story. The team was named for one of its coaches Will "Lone Star" Dietz. However, court trials proved that Dietz was not native American, but had claimed such ancestry to avoid being drafted in World War I.
The fierceness which makes many hold onto nicknames demeaning to Native Americans is understandable, Jackson said. "We're caught up in loyalty to a team and we don't understand that there are side effects," he said.
Begay pointed to new studies that are substantiating the deleterious effects of Indian nicknames on Native American youngsters, who have high suicide and addiction rates. "There is a psychological effect of mascots on the self-esteem of young American Indians. We now have proof and evidence that mascots can be quite harmful," he noted.
King said that there is a hesitancy to act on the renaming controversies because "we believe as a society we have made more progress than we actually have."
Often wrong stands are reinforced by authority figures in power, Staurowsky said. "Using names like Redskins allow us to engage in casual racism," she said. "We need to disrupt the dynamics that are going on. We need to rethink what is going on with our fun and games."
Tales,Tidbits, and Tips
This is one of 3 posts dealing with the topics explored at the Racial Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports symposium. The others deal with Case Studies Addressing Indian Stereotyping in American Sports and a Community Conversation about the Washington NFL team name.