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Outside the Lines

Native Americans

Notah Begay, the only full-blooded Native American on the PGA Tour, draws upon a rich heritage.

A community debates whether to abandon the Native American nickname of its high school teams.

Former NHL coach Ted Nolan wants an all-native national hockey squad separate from Canada's team.


Chat wrap: Native American rights activist Suzan Shown Harjo

Chat wrap: PGA golfer Notah Begay


 Student board meeting.
A community member defends the use of the Marquette nickname at a school board meeting.
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 Dennis Tibbetts
Dennis Tibbetts has led the fight against the Marquette nickname.
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 Billy Mills
Olympic champion runner Billy Mills says these names are an insult to Native American religions.
wav: 121 k | Listen

 Suzan Shown Harjo
Suzan Shown Harjo, who sued Washington's NFL team, explains the origin of the term "Redskins."
wav: 202 k | Listen

This three-day online series is a companion to the ESPN Outside the Lines television special on Native Americans and sports that originally appeared Nov. 16.

Tuesday, June 3
What's in a name?
By Greg Garber

MARQUETTE, Mich. -- The debate before the six-member school board, lively but strained to this point, is starting to spin out of control. There has already been the threat of a lawsuit, and now the screaming and name-calling are escalating.

"Are we sub-human?" asks Jody Potts, a Native American resident. "Are we inferior to whites? That kind of puts us in a class with all these other mascots. You know, eagles, donkeys and pigs. That's really disrespectful.

Marquette Redmen
Debates like that at Marquette have happened around the country in recent years.

"I'm just wondering, are any of you slightly understanding where we're coming from?"

The beleaguered members of the school board sigh and shuffle their papers. They avert their eyes. The truth is, they do understand the issue. The fact is, given their mandate, they are powerless to do anything.

For roughly 70 years, the Marquette High School sports teams have been known as the Redmen and the Redettes. The logo is an Indian chief in full headdress.

In recent years, Native Americans have objected to the nickname and logo as offensive and condescending. For the last year, the issue has torn this city of 65,000 apart. The logo was actually retired in 1998, but the decision was reversed earlier this year. In the school board election last summer, there were four new board members voted in -- all supported the name and logo. A school closing and budget concerns were almost an afterthought.

Marquette's experience is not unique. A growing sensitivity to diverse cultures -- cynics call it political correctness -- has led more and more communities to question the names and logos of their sports teams. Some 2,600 institutions, from grammar schools to high schools to junior colleges to universities, use Native American imagery, according to ESPN research. So far, about 600 have dropped the Native American references. Many, like Marquette, are in the discussion stage.

In Salmon, Idaho, for instance, the Salmon Savages nickname has been shelved after the threat of legal action. School officials decided to avoid a long court battle that might have cost as much as $250,000 by retiring the Salmon Savage name and mascot.

The University of Oklahoma was the first major school to dump its Native American mascot -- "Big Red," an Indian caricature -- back in 1970. Stanford, Dartmouth and Syracuse soon followed. More recently, schools such as St. John's and Miami of Ohio have dropped Native American references.

In Marquette, on the tip of Michigan's rugged Upper Peninsula and hard by Lake Superior, it hasn't been so easy. The UP represents one-third of the state's geography but only three percent of its population. There is a sense of history here, and the majority of the people in the community would like to see it preserved.

School board president Dr. William Birch calls it a "Norman Rockwell" town, and he's right.

Dennis Tibbets, the director of Native American studies at Northern Michigan University, has helped to organize the fight against the logo. His ancestors, the Anishanabees, lived in Marquette generations ago. He points out that Native Americans are the largest minority group in Marquette.

"It's the idea that they have this sign in front of the school with a warrior," Tibbetts says. "Then they tell you, 'We're honoring you by making you our mascot.' Like we're some good-luck charm. To me it's a symbol of ignorance that you don't know very much about our culture."

It was Tibbetts who brought Michael Haney, the director of the National Coalition of Racism in Sports, to Marquette in early October. The lawsuit, alleging that the logo and nickname create an atmosphere of racial harassment, quickly followed.

"I'm not going to get involved in a popularity contest," says Haney, a Seminole and Sioux Indian. "We've been losing those for 500 years. These logos have a collectively damaging effect on our youth. It reflects in their passion, performance, the grade-level achievement and, what's most disturbing to us, one in five of our youth will attempt suicide.

"We need to do everything we can as Indian leaders to lift up every obstacle so our children can reach their full potential."

The resistance is complicated by the fact that not all Native American residents are opposed to the logo. Tony Rabitaille wore the Redman logo proudly in his days as a Marquette athlete.

"It's been tough," Rabitaille says. "My mother and I are on the two different sides of the issue. I don't have a problem with it. Let's keep the heritage. If we get rid of it now, it's gone forever. We're never going to get it back."

The lawsuit Haney promised became a formal complaint at the end of October. The school board's lawyers are still reviewing the case, but preliminary signs suggest the city will not willingly retire the Redmen and Redettes nickname and logo.

"The board, at this point in time, plans to defend its position," reported Dr. Birch last week. "Ultimately, the insurance company will determine the issue. If they feel they want to draw a line in the sand, they may go ahead so they don't have to keep going to court. They feel this is a good test case.

"The bottom line is, the board has been advised not to address the issue anymore. We don't feel a law is broken. If a law has been broken, obviously, we would make the change. It's in the hands of the courts."

Greg Garber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com and Outside the Lines.

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