In Someone Else's Moccasins

American Indian activists have long complained about the use of their culture and history as a source of sports mascots and team names. It's a complaint other Americans have been slow – often downright resistant – to acknowledge.

After all, some say: Don't names like "Braves" and "Chiefs" symbolize the strength and courage of native Americans? Still, there's little doubt that along with the positive connotations of such names have come commercialization of Indian images and a parodying of traditions – e.g., the tomahawk chops and ersatz war dances.

Over the past few decades, many schools have done away with Indian mascots, much to alumni dismay. Stanford dropped "Indians" for "Cardinal," and Dartmouth made a similar move to the "Big Green." The impulse to avoid offending ethnic groups is still strong. University of Oregon law students want their school to refuse to play other colleges that have Indian names or mascots – for example, the Utah Utes.

And the whole state of California may make that switch if a bill now before the Assembly becomes law. It would ban the use of ethnic mascots at all public schools. Other states have gone in somewhat similar directions. Maine and Minnesota have laws prohibiting the use of "squaw" for public place names. Local Indians' contention that the word was derogatory toward Indian women prevailed.

Is this all hyper-political correctness, or a serious civil rights issue?

Interestingly, a recent poll by Sports Illustrated found that most people, including more than 300 Indians included in the survey, didn't find the mascot names offensive, or contributing to discrimination.

That ought to suggest that this is far from a matter of national consensus, and might be best left to debate within communities and on campuses, rather than the broad-brush approach being considered in California. Can the biggest state in the union take on the bureaucratic task of defining what's ethnically offensive?

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