OGDEN -- Don Benally never saw anything especially wrong with using American Indians as sports mascots. One of the schools on the Arizona Navajo reservation where he grew up was home of the Warriors.
"We had other mascots, like the eagles and the mustangs," said Benally, now an Ogden resident and Weber State University nursing student. "Everybody was Native American there, and it was something we took pride in. It was when I left the reservation I found that people were using terms for Indians in derogatory ways."
Benally was part of a discussion panel on the use of American Indians as sports mascots Monday at Weber State University.
Betty Simons, WSU career services counselor, is proud to have Navajo and Hopi in her bloodline.
"When sports teams take names like (Golden State) Warriors, (Washington) Redskins or (Atlanta) Braves, they use a stereotypical image that doesn't exist today for American Indians," Simons said. "They take the names because they want their teams to sound ferocious, scary and uncivilized, but that's not what American Indians are about in today's world.
"People get an incorrect view of who we are as human beings. Native Americans are very caring, gentle, spiritual people, into keeping the world green. We are into conservation and peace."
Some universities have responded to the ongoing controversy by changing their mascots. Stanford changed its mascot from the Indians to the Cardinal (meaning vivid red) in 1970.
The University of Utah in 1996 changed its mascot from the Ute Indian to Swoop, the red-tailed hawk, although "the Utes" remains a nickname for teams. Most on the panel said they were not offended by the U of U's continued use of the term "Utes," because the Utes themselves reportedly are not offended.
The University of Illinois dropped its Indian mascot, Chief Illiniwek, in 2007.
But for decades before the changes, cartoon American Indians were used by the universities. The characters usually featured scowling braves, with round faces, bulbous oversized noses, and a single, large feather at the back of their head.
Linda Eaton, WSU anthropology professor, said caricatures diminish subjects.
"Anytime you reduce any group to a stereotype, no matter who they are, that is negative," she said. "Part of what you do when you stereotype is you dehumanize. Any time you make people into a cartoon, you make them seem less human. It went on for hundreds of years in Europe with the Jews. In the U.S., we have mostly exterminated the Indians, and probably about 90 percent of the New World population was lost in conquest or through disease. They are a very small group of people attempting to survive, and turning them into a stereotype so they can't engage normally with other members of the population is a sad and negative thing to do."
Benally said he has seen discrimination against American Indians.
"I was at a BYU basketball game when an Indian was one of the star players, and a BYU student was holding a sign telling her to 'Go back to the reservation.' It was totally distasteful. It makes a person feel insecure."
Benally said people seem to react badly when he says he is American Indian.
"I am frowned upon when I say I am an Indian," he said. "People avoid you, and don't want to be seen with you or talking to you. There seems to be a line between the races."
Simons said people who think American Indians are being too sensitive should imagine what it's like to be an Indian at a sporting event where fans are chanting, for example, "Kill those Redskins." And she's seen white parents scolding children, telling them to "Stop acting like a bunch of wild Indians."
Forrest Crawford, WSU assistant to the president for diversity, said this is the sixth annual symposium, and topics discussed over the years include the loss of indigenous languages, treaty violations and challenges to American Indian communities.
"When you see the tomahawk chop, my suspicion is most people don't see it as a negative image," Crawford said. "But when you view it as being offensive to a group of people, you begin to see it is a very big deal."