Where a Tomahawk Chop Feels Like a Slur

Indian reservations sound off on the culture of sports mascots

FOR many, the protests by native Americans over nicknames and tomahawk chops by fans of the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves are little more than a World Series footnote. A politically correct sideshow.

But here in South Dakota, high school athletes from the Lakota Indian reservations face derisive caricatures and gestures at nearly every competition. Taunts of ''dog eaters,'' ''squaw,'' ''dirty old Indians,'' as well as war whoops and tomahawk chops greet the Lakota teams when they compete off the reservation.

''When one of our people was lying on the floor hurt,'' I could hear people yelling, ''shoot her, shoot her,''' recalls former Red Cloud basketball player Michelle Carlow.

Racism is nothing new for Pine Ridge Reservation athletes. ''This is South Dakota, and we've been living with it,'' says Brian Brewer, Pine Ridge athletic director.

Conflict between local tribes and whites here goes back to even before General Custer's last battle at Little Bighorn in the late 1800s and the standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973. Lakota tribes are still trying to win back the Black Hills near Rapid City, S.D.

The issue flared again here even before the World Series match-up put a spotlight on Indian mascots. Jason Brave Heart, student council president at Little Wound High School, called a joint meeting of reservation student councils to discuss the Bennett County High School (BCHS) homecoming activities, centered around the team name, Warriors.

''It's not the issue of the mascot itself,'' Brave Heart says. ''It's the mockery. They do things [dressed as Indians] that Indians don't do. A warrior is a common Indian man who protects his family and nation,'' he explains.

Members of the BCHS homecoming royalty, who are non-Indians, use the names big and little ''chief,'' wear buckskin and feathers, and this year tried to adapt a Lakota prayer ceremony into the pre-game festivities.

''[The taunts] have to stop somewhere,'' says Red Cloud High School Coach Dusty LeBeau. ''We have to stop it in our own homeland. At Bennett County, they were acting like they were praying to the four directions. Indians don't make a game of the way we pray, but it's nothing to them,'' says Mr. LeBeau, coach of the 1995 boys state basketball champions. His team will not play BCHS until their homecoming celebration changes.

The Bennett County school superintendent and principal agree some changes are needed, but the school board has to make them. Superintendent Chris Anderson says any change would likely mean a recall of the board. One member, in fact, won election campaigning on ''no change.''

Moreover, after Sara Trimble, a Lakota and BCHS cheerleader, protested the homecoming activities in 1994, her classmates ostracized her the rest of her senior year. Some students threatened to throw eggs at her if she cheered at the homecoming game.

Of the four reservation high schools, only the Crazy Horse Chiefs use an Indian logo, a feather bonnet, though no one wears them at games.

A Lakota chief earns the right to wear a headdress, one feather at a time, through bravery, fortitude, and generosity. ''Our kids know real chiefs,'' says school board president Francine Red Willow. ''They know what it takes to become one. For us we really are honoring Crazy Horse, our ancestor.''

Although he calls the Indian logos demeaning, Pine Ridge School Superintendent John Haas puts mascots well below budget cuts on his problem list. ''We are barely holding this school together,'' he says. ''If this will help us get money for Indian education, it'd be worth it.''

Still, some progress has been made in raising awareness about racial sensitivities. The South Dakota High School Activities Association adopted policies on racial taunting in 1994, when slurs directed at a black player caused a melee at a Black Hills football game. ''All these years at state tournaments, we've put up with it,'' Brewer notes.

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