I got my notice of admission to graduate school at Stanford University in March 1970. I was so happy about it that I took the letter to the Native American Studies Department at Berkeley to show it around. Two of the funny guys there, Russell Walden and Bill Schaaf, started teasing me. They said, “So you’re going to be a Stanford Indian, ha ha.”
That irked me. Just the year before, 78 of us college students had taken over Alcatraz Island. We were militants and were determined to improve conditions for Indians. The racist Indian symbol stuck in our craw.
A couple of weeks later my wife Toni and I got into our little VW and took a drive down the Bayshore Freeway to see what Stanford was like. I told her about the comments from Russell and Bill, and she said, “That’s not right. We have to make them stop calling the Stanford teams the Stanford Indians. It’s too demeaning.”
When we got to the campus, someone pointed out the office of the assistant dean who was in charge of the Indian program. He told us there were three Indian students on campus, but more would be coming in the fall when we got there. The three there were Russell Red Elk, Ella Anagick, and Rick West. Russ and Ella were undergraduates and Rick was in law school.
Stanford had sent two teams of people out, one to the south and one to the north, earlier that year. The northern team had been he and Russell Red Elk. They had covered the states east from Washington and Oregon to recruit students. The other team had covered the southern states east from California to Oklahoma.
They had found a total of 23 undergraduate Indian students who were admitted for the upcoming fall. In addition, there were a couple of graduate students coming in. John White was coming into the doctoral program in education. I was coming into the doctoral program in communication.
We quickly formed the Stanford American Indian Organization the first week we were there. Lorenzo Stars from Pine Ridge was the president. Our big goal the first year was to get rid of the Indian symbol. We learned that the Stanford Indian was Timm Williams, a Yurok Indian who worked for Gov. Ronald Reagan. His Indian nickname was Prince Lightfoot. He had first appeared at the Rose Bowl Game in 1952 dressed as a Plains Indian. He continued until the symbol was finally dropped in 1972.
The university had adopted the Indian symbol way back in the 1920s, and the older alumni did not want to get rid of it. They would have Timm dress up as a Plains Indian with a full headdress and prance around the field during the football games. He would put a curse or a hex on the other team, which we strongly disapproved of; it was a perversion of Indian religion. He would dance in a field of the Stanford Dollies, girls dressed in faux Indian costumes that were degrading to Indians.
We held a meeting with Timm about two months into the season. He promised to stop putting the hex on the other team, but the very next week he did it again. That was the last straw. We told him he had to quit doing the fake Indian dancing, which he refused to do.
Lorenzo carried the ball on the issue. Despite having a full course load, he went to numerous meetings of the Student Senate presenting them with the racism in the Indian symbol. Finally, near the end of the year, the Senate voted to remove the Indian symbol for Stanford sports. The administration never took action on the issue or voted on it. But the rest of the campus followed the lead of the Student Senate and renamed the teams the Stanford Cardinal. This means the color red, not the cardinal, a bird.
The next thing we know, the movement to eliminate racist Indian symbols took off on other campuses. The Dartmouth Indians got dropped. One of my friends designed a poster with the New York Wops, the Cincinnati Guineas, the Los Angeles Spics, the Chicago Polacks, and various other fictitious team names to illustrate what Indians felt about the demeaning Stanford Indian symbol. It read “Now you know how we feel.”
But the Stanford Indian symbol hung around. Every year alumni would protest its elimination. Finally a petition in 1972 from the Indian students to Lois Amsterdam, the Stanford Ombudsman, sealed the deal. She threw her support behind the elimination of the Indian symbol and it stuck. But restoring it is still around. Only a few years ago some alumni had T-shirts printed up with a caricature Indian symbol, big nose and all, with a scowl on his face, and wore them to some of the Stanford games.
Sentiment among alumni is still strong. In the only referendum on the issue, some 58 percent of Stanford students voted to keep the Indian mascot. The Student Senate and the president, however, have stood steadfast against reinstating it.
Members of the American Indian Movement joined the fight in the 1980s. They got called names and spit on when they protested the Cleveland Indians symbol and its racist representation of the caricature Chief Wahoo. Later people filed lawsuits against the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, and other racist Indian team names.
Research later revealed that the number of teams with racist Indian names was in the thousands. The Warriors, the Braves, the Red Men, the Redskins, the Chieftains, the Blackhawks, the Eskimos, the Navajo, the Apache, the Fighting Sioux, and the most hated name of all, the Squaws, hold sway from Washington to Maine. Stanford alumni organizations are still selling Stanford Indian items, including wall clocks, wrist watches, T-shirts, baseball caps, drinking glasses, cocktail glasses, wine boxes, and other memorabilia—all with the racist symbol.
Some teams have refused to this day to change their racist names. Among the notable foot draggers are the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, and the Florida Seminoles. The Redskins are undergoing their perennial raking over the Indian coals as I write this. The Atlanta Braves are still doing their stupid and racist tomahawk chop; they don’t understand the racism of it, and don’t care. I have admired team owner Ted Turner for 40 years, but wish he could understand that he hurts Indian people with his racist symbols.
The National Congress of American Indians has condemned the use of Indian mascots. The NAACP has also condemned it. The NCAA has condemned it. The U. S. Commission on Civil Rights has condemned it. The National Education Association called for its elimination. The American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, and the American Counseling Association have all passed similar resolutions.
The states of Wisconsin, Colorado, Oregon, and Minnesota have all banned the use of racist Indian names for sports figures. Syracuse University has dropped the Indian symbol. Marquette changed from Warriors to Golden Eagles. St. Johns changed from the Red Men to the Red Storm. Even Squaw Peak in Phoenix got changed to Piestewa Peak in honor of a Hopi woman who was killed while serving in the Army in Iraq.
Lorenzo did really well in his studies. He is now a doctor in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he has been practicing medicine for over 30 years. But a study five years into the Stanford Indian program found that the Indian dropout rate was 42 percent, which Stanford considered outrageously high. They had proudly maintained a graduation rate of 93 percent to 95 percent for decades. It was about a decade later that they hired an outstanding Indian administrator to turn things around.
Jim Larimore was there for a decade, and established the best Indian program in the nation by the early 1990s. When our daughter Monica started in 1992, the completion rate for Indians was 92 percent. It was all in what the Indian staff did. They just would not let a highly talented Indian student drop out. The Indian symbol was history.
Dr. Dean Chavers has been writing this column for 32 years. His next book is “The American Indian Dropout.” Contact him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com.