Gordon Monson: Handed an easy one, state lawmakers whiff on Native American nicknames in Utah schools

Thumbs-down vote on resolution that recommends schools replace their American Indian nicknames and mascots stands in stark contrast to what’s going on nationally

There are many reasons to love and enjoy and appreciate the state of Utah and its people — among them, its beauty, its landscapes, its natural wonders, its friendliness, its neighborly warmth, its generosity, its … whoa, what’s this, stubborn, closed-minded, stuck-in-the-past Legislature?

Yeah, everything but that last one.

We get it. Those folks have work to do and they try to do it. Nobody’s going to agree on every issue, every resolution that comes to a vote before that mostly conservative governing body.

All right.

But some issues just aren’t that complicated, aren’t worth forthrightly dismissing on account of a disposition to stand firm by some vague tradition cooked up by small committees of clueless people from a less-enlightened, by-gone era — in this case, allowing Indigenous imagery and nicknames to be used for the state’s public schools’ sports teams.

Correction: The non-binding resolution shrugged off this past week by the state House of Representative was merely meant to encourage schools to seriously consider dumping Native American mascots and images in favor of something — anything — more appropriate. Something — anything — less racial and stereotypical.

Something — anything — that wouldn’t take proud American Indian names and traditions and trot them out on the field or the court — war paint on Johnny’s and Sarah’s white faces, and all — to do mighty battle with the Wolves, the Bulls, the Beavers, the Panthers, the Bulldogs, the Falcons, the Whatevers.

That little-bit-of-respect resolution was defeated by those aforementioned lawmakers by the count of 45-27, and some of the arguments used to do so were about as tired and lazy and worn-out and backward as they come.

The fact that a substantial majority of those legislators embraced them is … regrettable.

Let’s back up here for just a moment.

You might have noticed the way Native American nicknames around the country are slowly being retired, switched out for something that doesn’t offend large groups of people. That doesn’t mean everyone, but many, enough to cause proper change by those in authority. If certain nicknames are troubling to some, a good number — again, not everyone — then that’s reason enough to stop, listen and move in a better direction.

The NFL’s Washington football team has done away with its nickname. Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team is planning to drop its nickname. Stanford University changed. Siena changed. St. John’s changed. Eastern Washington changed. Dartmouth changed. Miami of Ohio changed. Arkansas State changed.

A bunch of schools and teams have changed. A report in The New York Times indicated that there are some 2,200 high schools in the country that still use Native imagery in their names and mascots. But that is 600 fewer than once were used. Many other schools now are considering changing their sports teams’ names.

Eastern Michigan dropped its nickname all the way back in 1991, when the Michigan Department of Civil Rights suggested that all state schools unload racially-insensitive logos.

The University of Illinois, which has resisted change, keeping its Illini nickname, long ago ridded itself of its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, a role played through the years by a series of white dudes — a Native American never donned what essentially was a costume — dressed out in full-feathered headdress, dancing around basketball courts and football fields barefoot, cheering on the teams. That sudden change in 2007 was prompted more by the NCAA’s threats to take tournaments/opportunities/money away from the university than it was any burst of illumination at the school from the inside out. That tradition was started in the 1920s by a group of white students who thought it was a cool idea.

Surprising it was not that many American Indian groups did not think having their culture and heritage represented in such a manner, as a dancing caricature at halftime, was appropriate, or that it, as some tried to claim, honored that culture, that heritage.

There are, indeed, stubborn people who will not back down from their adopted tradition of taking the traditions of others and using them in sports.

The questions for Utah are these: How is it honorable to be one of the last to listen? Is there pride in hanging onto something in a way that is so silly, so needless? Is it because some — the unmoved — have ties to the way it was 50, 60, 70 years ago, and if it was good enough for them back in the day, it’s good enough for students and schools now?

Is it worth answering a call for progress by those who care? Surveys show that up to two-thirds of Native Americans disapprove of their names and traditions being used for sports teams.

Is that really a cause to fight against?

But some Utah legislators do fight on. According to a Tribune story on Tuesday, one of those lawmakers — Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, suggested that softies were being too sensitive and questioned whether animal mascots would be next up to be considered too controversial.

“I’m not trying to directly compare the two,” Gibson said. “But will we have PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] arguing against that as well?”

That may be one of the dumbest comments ever from a state lawmaker — though admittedly, there is a lot of competition here.

But others agreed, in principle.

“There’s not a consensus on this in the Native American community,” said Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding.

Yes, that’s one of the weak, tired arguments. There’s not a consensus on just about anything in this day and age by any group of people. But there is this to keep in mind: If there’s a decent number of Native Americans who are offended by something as simple to change as a name or mascot or logo for a school’s sports team, why not do it?

Some fall back on the comparison that other “people” names are used, such as Miners or Buckaroos or Cowboys or Farmers or Boilermakers or Engineers, among others, and wonder disingenuously whether those names should be discontinued, too.

The difference there is that those groups were never marginalized or persecuted or rounded up and put on reservations or massacred in such a tragic chapter of this country’s history. They are not associated with real people’s proud ethnicity or race or heritage. Putting a Cowboy hat on a cheerleader or a dressed-out mascot is not the equivalent of splashing war paint on young faces and having them whoop around the sideline.

And for those who insist the nicknames and images are meant to pay tribute to Indigenous people, to represent them with strength and pride and honor … well, the collateral damage to that so-called honoring too often comes in the way of stereotypes, at best, and caricatures, at worst. And, please, nobody lean on the notion that the University of Utah uses the nickname of the Utes, with the Ute Tribe’s consent, so every high school should be able to do as it pleases.

Again, some, many, enough, Native Americans are offended, even if some are not.

Come on, Braves or Chiefs or Redmen or [fill in your name of choice], let’s skin those Leopards, let’s pluck those Eagles, let’s spear those Buffaloes, let’s push back those Bears, push ‘em back, shove ‘em back, waaaaaayyyy back

No. No. No.

This isn’t a matter of being overly PC, it’s a case of opening minds wide enough to understand what so many people inside of American Indian groups think and feel about their heritage, a heritage that belongs to them, not to a football or basketball team. It was never any school’s — or any state legislature’s — to claim as their own.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.