It hurt when the board of education of the Marion Independent School District voted 5-2 in October to stop calling its sports teams “Indians.” It was a name I had represented proudly as a four-sport athlete at Marion High School in the 1950s, and one that had, by some estimates, graced Marion players for about 100 years.
The decision felt like a repudiation of a treasured heritage. It was a privilege and an honor to be an Indian under the great coach Les Hipple. The name stood for discipline, hard work, fair play, and the pursuit of excellence. For us, and surely for many hundreds of Marion athletes over the years, the name Indians was never anything less than a tribute.
Leading up to the decision, the district asked citizens a misleading question in an online poll: Did they want to retain or drop the school’s “mascot?” This term was used even though Marion High School does not have a mascot. It has not had one for many years and may never have had one.
Let’s get this straight. A team’s mascot is that costumed figure romping on the sidelines. The team’s name is (or was) Marion Indians.
Of course a mascot in Indian garb would be objectionable. But the name, Indians, was to me inspirational. An accolade, not an insult.
Apparently many citizens agreed with me. Of the 1,815 people who voted in the poll, only 28 percent wanted a change, while 63 percent wanted no change and the rest didn’t care.
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As the board deliberated, representatives of two Indian groups weighed in by letter and Zoom to condemn sports mascots. Well-meaning but irrelevant, I thought. A treasured name is at stake. What’s wrong Indians?
To find out, I went to the website of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest organization of tribal governments. It offers a position paper that focuses on “harmful mascots” and the now defunct name Redskins. There is very little discussion of team names such as Indians, Chiefs, and Braves.
The NCAI recognizes that some tribes have relationships with sports teams, such as the agreement allowing Florida State to use the Seminole name and mascots, and that may be why the association uses the word “harmful” to describe mascots it opposes. The implication is that mascots endorsed by tribes somehow are not harmful.
This notion is contradicted on the website by an academic paper by Stephanie A. Fryberg of Stanford University. It describes several studies in which Native American youth reacted to Indian-based images (including Chief Wahoo, the grotesque logo dropped by the Cleveland Indians in 2018, and the Disney princess Pocahontas.) These studies found that the images damaged young Native Americans.
There are very few positive contemporary images of Native Americans in the media today, and negative ones shown to the young test subjects “depressed how American Indian participants felt about themselves (self-esteem), their community (community efficacy), and what they want to become or are able to become (possible selves),” Fryberg wrote.
In a world where real Indians receive little exposure, they are oppressed by an array of stereotypes, many of them negative and from the past — tepees, warriors, buffalo.
This finding was set against another study, which focused on European Americans. These non-Indians experienced “a boost in self-esteem” from Indian-based symbols. One reason could be that the study subjects compared themselves to people of lower social standing.
Another reason, and one that jolted me, was that the symbols were “associated with positive memories and images for them. Many Americans grow up ‘playing Indian’ [and] ... most media portrayals (if any at all) are likely to involve romantic portrayals of American Indians.”
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This rang absolutely true. In 2005, I wrote a newspaper column defending the name Indians. In it, I described the pride I felt playing on Marion Indian teams — pride I still feel today. While I never thought of myself or my teammates as being Indian-like, I wrote that “we poured our young guts out to be worthy of the name.”
In the column I recalled playing cowboys and Indians as a younger child in neighborhood backyards. There were always boys willing to be pretend Indians, I wrote, because we “knew from the movies that Indians moved like the wind and were fierce and honorable in their savagery.” I wrote that having been a Marion Indian conferred “a heritage of sorts, no less real for having been unearned.”
Fryberg nailed it when she wrote that non-Indians who react positively to certain Indian images may not be able to understand that these same images make real Indians feel bad.
Still, the studies and the NCAI position paper focused on mascots and images. What about the name, Indians, with no mascot attached?
Well, Marion High School does use stereotypical images (logos): an Indian chief in headdress and a feathered spear. The name Indians, the word itself, especially in a sports context, cannot help but evoke images of warriors on horses, noble perhaps, but savages still.
That clinched it for me. Indians had to go. It still hurts, but it’s not my name to keep.
Dan Kellams is a 1954 graduate of Marion High School. He has written two books set in his hometown, a biography, “A Coach’s Life: Les Hipple and the Marion Indians,” and a memoir, “Mistaken for a King.”