OGDEN -- Should college sports teams be able to use American Indians as mascots?
That was the subject of an American Democracy Project Issues trial held at Weber State University. Attorneys argued different sides of the question, and the verdict was left to audience members to decide for themselves.
David Pacheco, a Salt Lake City technology and intellectual property lawyer and a WSU graduate, took the "yes" side, arguing that free speech should be preserved and universities should have the right to choose their own mascots. Some tribes, including the Seminoles and Utes, have approved the use of their names in return for money and tribe scholarships, he said.
Chuck Kaiser, attorney and WSU visiting professor of business administration, took the "no" side, arguing the rights and dignity of American Indians have been abused long enough, and they deserve legal protection from being used as college and university sports mascots. Having one's race or tribe used as a mascot is demeaning and hard on self-esteem, and suicide rates among American Indian youths are too high already, Kaiser said.
"It's not an issue of moral or ethical rightness," Pacheco said. "It's a legal issue." Banning such names, he said, "... would be essentially imparting our will and our thoughts on 560 tribes of Native Americans. It would be perpetuating the very harm the law would be seeking to prevent."
Kaiser urged listeners to consider American Indian stereotypes in context, and remember the history of conquest, forced relocations and boarding schools that had been forced on them.
"The Lone Ranger has a sidekick named Tonto, which in Spanish translates to 'fool,'" he said. "That is the stereotype Native Americans live with. Can you imagine going to a football game where the mascot is in 'black face'? Yet fans and mascots go to games in war paint."
Kaiser asked his audience to envision a football game at which the opposing team shouted "Beat the Indians" or "Kill the Redskins."
"That's a people we are talking about," he said.
Pacheco agreed such terms could be offensive.
"'Redskins' is an 'R' word, which should be comparable to the 'N' word," he said. "But it's up to the schools to decide." Pacheco said in his research, he could not find a college or university sports team that currently uses "Redskins" as the name of its mascot.
"Since the debate first arose, schools have done a wonderful job of self-regulating," he said. "It's an internal decision."
Kaiser said free speech is not absolute.
"You can't yell fire in a crowded theater," he said. Kaiser said many Seminole tribes opposed the use of their name by a sports team, and are offended by the "tomahawk chop" and the entertainment use of a burning spear at Florida State University football games.
Asked by an audience member if the use of "Indians" or "Braves" was less offensive, Pacheco argued that was for universities and tribal nations to decide. Kaiser said such terms for sporting teams are insulting to the entire nation of American Indians.
Professional teams with controversial names include the NFL's Washington Redskins and Major League Baseball's Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves.
Both speakers agreed that tribes cashing in, such as the Ute tribe trading the use of its name for University of Utah scholarships for tribe members, was a positive thing.
"Yes," Kaiser said. "This is a group of people that was historically oppressed. If the group can negotiate for education, and get some of their people into college, that's fine. Native Americans have one of the lowest graduation rates in the country."
"That's a great example of why schools should be able to create these opportunities," Pacheco replied.
Asked his opinions on Notre Dame's Fighting Irish mascot, Kaiser pointed out the mascot is a leprechaun, something that doesn't actually exist. The University of Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns are represented by a cayenne pepper, he said. Besides, Cajuns and the Irish were "nowhere near as oppressed" as American Indians, he added.
Pacheco joked that he always thought Brigham Young University's mascot should be the "Stormin' Mormons," he said, "But schools should be able to self regulate."
Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.