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Students, others want IUP Indians team names changed

Sunday, March 04, 2001

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

INDIANA, Pa. -- The university sports teams are called Indians. But for political correctness, the mascot is a bear.

Megan Joseph, vice president of the Student Congress at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, stands with an Indian statue near Memorial Fieldhouse on campus. She is helping to lead the effort to change the school's nickname from the Indians. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

To add to the confusion and controversy, the bear is named "Cherokee."

This is life at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a school warring over the words and symbols it uses to promote itself.

University President Lawrence Pettit created the odd mix of Indians and Bears two years ago. He wanted to preserve tradition and fend off critics, all at once.

The nickname Indians has existed at IUP since the 1920s, but school trustees were nervous about it. They had retired Indian and squaw mascots, whose war whoops and tomahawk chops angered certain students and offended American Indian tribes.

To maintain friendly relationships with alumni and townspeople in Indiana Borough who like the nickname, Pettit pushed through a plan to continue calling IUP teams the Indians. At the same time, he persuaded the trustees to make the school's mascot a bear. The idea was to give university marketers a symbol they could sell.

But then IUP named its bear "Cherokee."

Now Pettit and university's 13,000 students are right back where they started -- knee-deep in controversy over whether the nickname "Indians" is appropriate for a university.

American Indian groups, IUP's Student Congress and about a dozen campus organizations want the Indians nickname eliminated.

"Tradition is no excuse for racism," said Megan Joseph, vice president of the Student Congress and a leader in the campaign to retire the Indians name.

Protesting students also say all references to "Cherokee" -- which is part of the school fight song, as well as the bear's name -- should be dropped immediately.

But many other IUP students say the Indians nickname and Cherokee references are fine with them. Some want to keep the name Indians because they think it's an honorable symbol. Others are sick of political correctness infecting campus culture.

"If someone is offended by the name Indians, he should not come to school here," said Justin Aion, a freshman math major. "In the same fashion, if someone is offended by nudity in art, he should not look at it."

University President Lawrence Pettit says emotions will cool if students give his compromising a chance. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

IUP's student government says it will campaign to eliminate the Indian and Cherokee names at a series of rallies this spring. The faculty union is scheduled to begin discussions about the issue March 22, though professors in the anthropology department already have said the Indians nickname must go.

Joseph said she hoped the floodlight of public attention would pressure Pettit and the IUP trustees to make a change.

Her allies say Pettit's insistence on keeping the Indians nickname and mixing it with a bear mascot is, quite simply, a mess.

"Not only is it disrespectful to the Native Americans, it is disrespectful to the students who've had the wool pulled over their eyes. We've polled some people and many don't even know what the mascot is," said Kathryn Bransford, a freshman English and Spanish education major.

Bransford, raised in Germantown, Md., said she grew up disliking the Washington Redskins because she found the team's name a slur against American Indians. "There's no rationale for it. Same here," she said of IUP's use of Indians.

Equally bothersome to her was IUP's decision to call its bear "Cherokee." Bransford said the Cherokee tribe, which is not indigenous to Pennsylvania, is being mocked by a university that should stand for decency.

Pettit said the bear's name probably sprang from the IUP fight song, which contains references to Cherokees. He defended his plan of combining the Indian nickname and bear mascot as "a reasonable compromise that any well-intentioned person could accept."

By overwhelming numbers, Pettit said, the nickname Indians is favored by IUP students and alumni. He is asking dissatisfied student groups to let the issue settle itself "by evolution rather than revolution."

That means he wants them to wait a few years to see if the bear mascot gains acceptance and perhaps even becomes popular enough to displace the Indian nickname.

"If they use the technique of confrontation now, they're simply going to polarize the university and their constituencies. And they're going to lose," Pettit said.

Large numbers of students say Indians is a good nickname that should live on at IUP. One of them is Katie Carpenter, a freshman in the honors college.

"For years I have associated the word Indian with such adjectives as brave, stout, lionhearted, valiant, hardy, steadfast and true. What better name is there for a sports team?" she said.

Nationwide, nearly 1,000 public schools and universities have replaced Indian nicknames and mascots during the past 30 years. Stanford, Dartmouth, Marquette, St. John's and Miami of Ohio are among the prominent universities that have made the change.

The Cherokee Nation, based in Tahlequah, Okla., would like to see IUP join that group. Cherokees prefer not be used in IUP marketing promotions, either as the name of the school's mythic bear or as a part of its fight song, tribal spokesman Mike Miller said.

"Cherokees are people, and people should not be mascots to be put in the category of cartoonish figures. That applies to the name Indians in general and Cherokee in particular," he said.

Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said the public discussion students were encouraging could be good for everybody. Whether the school drops its references to Cherokees, Smith said, is not as important as the "learning exercise" that can occur on campus.

"If they see the true history of the Cherokees, and they see the falseness of this image, it's a real growth pattern. There won't be any desire to have the image anymore," he said.

One university president who's been through a rancorous fight over a team name is James Garland of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He said he believed that a university had to act decisively on whether to keep or eliminate a controversial nickname.

Garland faced heavy opposition from some alumni when he moved in 1996 to change Miami of Ohio's team name from Redskins to RedHawks.

"I had just arrived on campus when the issue was dropped into my lap," he said. "The Miami Indian tribe, after which the university is named, had requested that we change the name, and it was their request that precipitated all the commotion."

Garland received hundreds of letters and phone calls opposing the change. Angry graduates, he said, threatened to "never give another dime" to the university.

"We checked on the giving record of each of the persons making this threat and discovered, interestingly, that most had never given to the university in the past," Garland said.

A group of alumni sued the university over the change, claiming "emotional distress." The suit soon was dropped, but bumper stickers, banners and T-shirts saying "Redskins Forever" sprouted on campus.

But once the nickname was changed to RedHawks by the board of trustees, the uproar ended in a flash.

"Our alumni giving for the following year actually increased significantly, laying to rest concerns about donor support being harmed," Garland said. "It appeared that most of our alumni were able to place the issue into context and did not let it undermine their positive feelings about the university."

Garland said a university with a controversial team name has few options.

"In my experience, the rancor and bitterness will never subside and cannot be compromised away by halfway measures," he said. "Ultimately, the university has to decide whether to keep the name and endure continuing -- and probably intensifying -- conflict, or to change the name and incur the temporary wrath of a large segment of the university community."

In Indiana Borough, where for decades the high school teams have been called "the Little Indians" and IUP teams "the Big Indians," the issue is almost as personal as it was at Miami.

Pettit says emotions will cool if students give his compromise marriage of Indians and Bears a chance to develop.

But Joseph, the Student Congress vice president, said she saw no wisdom in delaying what she considers necessary and inevitable change.

Bears should simply replace Indians as the name of IUP's teams, she said. If such a change were made, she added, the new mascot would make sense to everyone, provided it no longer was called "Cherokee."

"As an institution of higher learning, we should be concerned with humanity and stopping racism before we're concerned with money," she said. "Plus, if the Indians name stays, I'm going to be one alumna who doesn't contribute to the school on that basis."

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