Students share opinions on Indian mascot

by Valerie Silverman | 11/14/01 6:00am

Desperately in its search of a mascot to represent sports teams and school spirit, Dartmouth struggles with the question of replacing the controversial Indian. Students gathered last night in Alpha Delta Fraternity to hear personal accounts and debate the issue of the ever-present Indian symbol on campus.

A 15-minute segment of a video showing the origins of the conflict over the widespread use of the Indian as a mascot opened the discussion. One Native American woman spoke in the video about the inception of her protest against the University of Illinois mascot, Chief Illini.

"My children learned to respect the person who wears an eagle-feather headress," and their horror at viewing such a disparaging spectacle of this icon sparked her protest.

Since then, many schools and professional sports teams have gotten rid of the mascot in response to similar demonstrations. In the mid 1970s, Dartmouth abolished the Indian as the mascot in the wave of opposition to it.

Heather McMillan '02, a member of the Lumbee tribe, told a brief history of the Native American's place at Dartmouth. Although Dartmouth claims it was founded for Native American students, this year is really only around the 30th anniversary of Native Americans at Dartmouth, according to McMillan. Early in the 1900s, Harvard referred to the Dartmouth teams as "Indians coming out of the woods," McMillan added.

"From that moment on, we were the Dartmouth Indians in popular culture, but it was never really the official mascot," said McMillan.

Three Native American students and one Caucasian student also shared their opinions and experiences dealing with what they called the offensive presence of the Indian at Dartmouth.

Guila Irwin '03, who grew up on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, said she "had never encountered an Indian mascot before I came here." At her first Homecoming bonfire two years ago, though, she witnessed blatant displays of the Indian symbol and mockeries of Indian behavior that upset her.

The continued use of the symbol by certain groups and specific students on campus is "not a matter of ignorance anymore; now it's about trying to hurt people," she said.

The second speaker, Arvina Martin '02, a native Indian from Madison, WI, said she has been confronted by the image her whole life. Like Irwin, though, her first realization of the invasive symbol came during Homecoming.

"There was a T-shirt that said 'Yale sucks' and it had a picture of a bulldog giving a blow-job to an Indian," she recalled. "It just blew my mind, my stomach sank -- I was just shocked."

Adam Carvell '02, who is part Mohawk, spoke about his first "run-in with the issue" when he was nine years-old. At a Colgate University hockey game with his father, Carvell was surrounded by fans dressed in mock Indian-garb, chanting supposed tribal cheers. One particularly rowdy "Indian bedecked" fan behind Carvell enraged his father.

"My Dad turned around and decked the guy behind us. My Dad went to jail," said Carvell.

In high school, Carvell spent six months compelling his school to remove the Indian as its mascot. Eventually, his father's position on the school board enabled the complete phasing out of the Indian symbol.

Visiting Dartmouth on a recruiting trip, Carvell encountered the Indian symbol, once again. People he asked about the mascot concealed its presence.

"Let's face it," he said. "If you want Indians here, you have to recruit us because we will not come to this type of environment on our own," he said.

After "getting in five legitimate, big fights" his freshman Homecoming weekend with students sporting the Indian shirts, he now does not "get in a bind anymore when I see people wearing these shirts." Instead, he speaks at high schools and universities about the offensiveness of the symbol being used as a mascot.

The final speaker on the panel, Brett Quimby '02, comes from southern New Hampshire, which he called "not diverse at all. I was never in contact with people very different from me."

In the Education 20 class, Quimby learned in detail about the controversial nature of the Indian mascot. "The change for me was that realizing if the Indian was so offensive to some people, it's not necessary for it to be a mascot here at all," he said.

Following the speakers, the 50 member audience asked questions and debated the issue with the panelists.

One student questioned how, as it is just a symbol and not a specific portrayal, the Indian could be so offensive.

"The symbol itself breeds the problem," said Carvell. "It's allowing flagrant, horrible things to happen, and what comes along with that is a real degradation of Indian people."

Another student in the crowd asked whether any mascot that picks out a group of people is inherently wrong.

"You have to ask that group," said Martin. "We're saying we do care, and that's why it hurts us."

The Indian will not likely return as Dartmouth's official mascot, but the debate continues to engage students.

"We still need a mascot," said McMillan. "I think we should go to the rock."

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