Friday, December 29, 2006

FSU Mascot Issue

December 29, 2006
Bonding Over a Mascot

A few new statues of a Seminole family in 19th-century clothing stand outside the football stadium at Florida State University. The father holds a long gun, the son a bow and arrow, and the mother an infant in her arms as she looks warily to her right.

The statues represent the era when the Seminoles and the United States were at war. The public art is part of a complex relationship between Seminole culture and sports at Florida State. This bond has strengthened since a crackdown by the National Collegiate Athletic Association last year against American Indian mascots, nicknames and imagery among sports teams.

Not every university enjoys a harmonious relationship with Indians. But a sense of cooperation seems to permeate the Florida State campus in Tallahassee, Fla., where Toni Sanchez was among 21 students to complete a new course this month called History of the Seminoles and Southeastern Tribes.

Sanchez, a senior majoring in English, called the N.C.A.A. edict “beyond idiotic” and offensive. She described the new statues as beautiful.

“I know what a real Seminole is,” she said. “This Anglo guilt and regret don’t affect me.”

Sanchez is from a family with Seminole and Hispanic ancestry. Her father, once a farm worker, is now a casino operator. Her mother is a teacher. Sanchez also plays trumpet at football games in a marching band that wears arrowheads on the back of its uniforms.

Of the tribal flag near the new statues, another recent addition, she said, “Every time I look at it, I get really giddy inside.” Of the use of the Seminole imagery for the university’s sports, she said, “I’m so proud of it.”

Florida State was one of 18 institutions cited by the N.C.A.A. in August 2005 for “mascots, nicknames or images deemed hostile or abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin.” The institutions were forbidden to use the symbols in postseason events controlled by the N.C.A.A., like the national championship basketball tournament that begins in March.

Five programs have since received permission to continue using their imagery because they received approval from specific Indian groups, in Florida State’s case the 3,200-member Seminole Tribe of Florida. Five others have changed or are in the process of changing, said Bob Williams, an N.C.A.A. spokesman. The other eight, he said, remain on the list and are subject to the policy, including the Illinois Fighting Illini and the North Dakota Fighting Sioux.

Myles Brand, the president of the N.C.A.A., said in a telephone interview last week that his organization made the right decision but witnessed more negative reaction to the ruling than expected.

“What we’ve accomplished in part is to raise the level of awareness nationally about how we treat Native Americans,” Brand said. “If we don’t stand by our values, we lose our integrity.”

At times, Indians are reduced to casual caricature that would not be tolerated by other groups, he said, adding that the N.C.A.A. had been honored for its stance by Indian groups in Oklahoma and Indiana.

Less complimentary is T. K. Wetherell, the president of Florida State, who said the N.C.A.A. was “more interested in being politically correct” and did not consult the Seminole tribe before making its decision.

“The way they weaseled out was to say, ‘O.K., as long as the tribe continues to support it,’ ” he said.

Wetherell, a former Florida State football player who also teaches history, wore a hunting outfit when interviewed recently in his office. He pointed to a team logo of an Indian’s face that he said had elements of caricature. “That’s not really a Seminole-looking deal,” Wetherell said. “This is a marketing tool.” He said the university might “gradually let certain things fade.”

He said he told the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s council, “If you don’t want Florida State to be the Seminoles, we ain’t Seminoles anymore.” Wetherell said the tribe approved the use partly because the campus is in the capital and tribal leaders “are not only good businessmen, they are great politicians.”

He said the new history course was proposed before the N.C.A.A. edict.

But Neil Jumonville, the chairman of the history department, said the N.C.A.A. resolution accelerated the creation of the class and that his staff received advice from local Seminole leaders.

“These are people who are savvy about their place in the American myth,” Jumonville said. “And they are smart enough to manipulate the myth for their own good.”

The first class was taught by Christopher R. Versen, who recently earned his doctorate in American history.

“I wanted to challenge students to think about identity,” Versen said. “What is it inside us that makes us identify ourselves one way or another? What external factors play into identity?”

The Seminoles are an amalgam of several tribes, predominantly Creek, that included escaped slaves. They migrated south to the Everglades in retreat from the United States Army. Some were driven out during the Trail of Tears period under President Andrew Jackson.

Those descendants live as the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. The Seminoles in Florida once had a commercial hunting economy. Since 1979, their economic status has improved because of casino gambling.

Earlier this month, the Seminoles acquired Hard Rock International — the music-themed chain of restaurants, hotels and casinos — for $965 million.

Versen said he did not discuss sports identity with his students because he was afraid it would become a distraction. But a guest speaker who raised the mascot issue was Max Osceola, one of three councilmen for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

“If I had a child and named it after you, would you consider it an honor?” Osceola said he asked the students. He also reflected on a former mascot, Sammy Seminole, who was retired in 1972.

“He had a big nose and he lived in a teepee,” Osceola said. “He looked like a buffoon.”

The current mascot is named, coincidentally, Osceola, after a 19th-century warrior. A student dressed as Osceola rides a horse named Renegade onto the football field and throws a flaming spear. This mascot’s clothing was designed by the tribe.

Tina Osceola, who is the executive director of the tribe’s historical resources department and is a cousin of Max Osceola’s, said, “We’ve given them license to be theatrical.”

A statue of the warrior riding atop Renegade stands outside the stadium above the word “Unconquered,” because the Seminoles never surrendered to the United States.

When the Seminoles announced in New York the purchase of Hard Rock, Max Osceola joked that Indians once sold Manhattan for trinkets but were now “going to buy Manhattan back, one burger at a time.”

Not everyone outside the tribe approves of all of the Indian trappings at sporting events, including the tomahawk chop hand gesture and a droning cheer that sounds like background music heard in old western movies.

Joe Quetone, the executive director of the nonprofit Florida Governor’s Council on Indian Affairs Inc., said, “Things fans do are outrageous and ridiculous.”

Bobby Bowden, the head football coach, did not respond to four recent requests for comment on the issue placed with the university’s sports information department.

From a student’s perspective, Sanchez said that people who were genuinely concerned with the circumstances of Indians should concentrate less on sports iconography and more on alcoholism, suicide, teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates.

“After all those years of diseases, occupation and war, we’re still here,” she said. “I refuse to believe that a silly mascot will take us down.”

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