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Sports mascots

March 13, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

Earlier this week, a reader e-mailed me to ask why the paper hadn't yet taken an an editorial stand on the use of American Indians as mascots of local school sports teams.

I could offer up some blather about how we wanted to hear all the arguments before offering up our view, but the real reason is that six months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., it seemed like something less than a grave matter. Let the letter-writers have their say, I thought, then the whole thing will be forgotten in six months,

But unlike many of the issues of the day - the war on terrorism or the school board budget - this one won't die, because it's without shades of gray. You're either on one side or the other.

Except for me, of course. The man who who's paid to have opinions isn't sure which way to jump on this one. Here's why I'm confused.

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The argument of tradition has been advanced as a reason not to alter the mascots at the Conococheague and Boosnboro schools. But the Washington Redskins have a long tradition as well, and even foes of altering the school mascots would agree that "redskin" is a derogatory term. It's usually uttered by some oaf in an old-time Western movie, as in "thieven' redskins," right after everybody discovers that all the horses have been stolen.

Others have argued that the Indian mascots are no more offensive than Notre Dame University's pugnacious leprecaun. As a person of Irish descent, I purposely don't wear green on St. Patrick's Day, because a bunch of fools in the country of my ancestry have persisted in asserting that their religion is a proper basis for killing each other.

I'm ashamed that that's a part of Irish history, but in any case, the shamrocks and green beer aspect of the celebration usually lasts a week at most. If it offended me, I'd have only a week each year to be outraged.

Another argument advanced in favor of keeping the mascots is that there aren't many Native Americans in Washington County, and that if someone is offended, why, it's only a minority of the population.

That reminds me of the controversy several years ago during the construction of Hagerstown's Eastern Elementary School. A design on the front of the school, executed in colored bricks, reminded more people of a cross that the intended stalk of wheat.

Some members of the Christian community were elated, celebrating what they saw as the return of their faith to the public schools. Some members of the Jewish community - a definite minority in Washington County - were not so happy. They spoke to me about how excluded such expressions made them feel. Are we free to disregard peoples' feelings if they're in the minority?

Over the years I've held this job, I've read a number of columns by Tim Giago, a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe and former editor of Indian Country Today. He writes of the many problems faced by Native Americans today, but has come back to the mascot issue repeatedly.

Giago, now editor-in-chief of the Lakota Times, was asked why Indians would be offended by the use of their images. He replied that: "Would you paint your face black, wear an Afro wig and prance around the football field trying to imitate your perceptions of black people? Of course not! That would be insulting to blacks so why is it okay to do it to Indians?"

What seems to gall Giago and other activists as much as the use of the Indian image is the behavior of some fans and cheerleaders who apply "war paint," then dance in a circle and whoop in a parody of a traditional Indian ceremony.

If you've ever seen "Major League," a film comedy about a rag-tag Cleveland Indian team trying to win the pennant, you've seen a depiction of the sort of fan behavior Native Americans find offensive.

Is there a good argument for keeping the mascots? Only one that I can think of. As long as there's a Boonsboro Warrior or a Conococheague Chief, there will be some children who will want to know more about these people. As they explore, they may even be inspired to do something about the conditions so many Native Americans face today.

So if, as is likely, there is no change in the mascots, let's resolve as a community that there will be no Hollywood-style Indians at the pep rallies or games. Let's also make mandatory some study of the Native Americans who once lived in Washington County. When the next generation knows more than this one about that culture, then they can decide for themselves whether the mascots are an honor or an insult.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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