By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 14, 2005
When Florida State University's Chief Osceola gallops on his horse across the football field with his flaming spear at the school's next home game, Jim Shore and other members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida will welcome the controversial mascot with open arms.
"The Seminoles have no problem with the use of the name or symbols or mascot," Shore said.
But in Oklahoma, where most members of the original Seminole nation were marched to at gunpoint during the Indian wars more than a century ago, the tribe has members who accept Osceola and others who are working with activists to knock the pretend chief off his spotted horse.
"We feel like it gives the type of recognition that allows people to identify with the name 'Seminoles,' " Ken Chambers, the outgoing chief of the Great Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma, told the Palm Beach Post.
"Chambers doesn't know what he's talking about," David Narcomey, a member of the Oklahoma tribe's governing council, said Friday while attending the Native American Pow Wow at MCI Center in Washington. Oklahoma's Seminole Tribe joined the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma in condemning Indian mascots and is a member organization of the National Congress of American Indians, which repudiates native mascots, he said.
The disagreement among the Oklahoma Seminoles came to light last week after the NCAA announced that it will ban Indian images from championship games, a decision that will affect 18 schools, including two colleges with high-profile sports teams -- Florida State and the University of Illinois, where the mascot is the feathered Chief Illiniwek.
The NCAA said that opposition to Florida State's mascot by Oklahoma's Seminoles was a factor in its decision to include the school in the ban. But after the chief contradicted Narcomey, the collegiate association is reconsidering its challenge. Meanwhile, Florida State has planned a formal appeal.
But the debate over the morality of Indian mascots appears to be gaining momentum. Regardless of the NCAA's decision, Chief Osceola would not be allowed on several major college campuses that in recent years have prohibited the use of Indian images in sports.
Last month in Washington, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a Native American, Manteo Romero of New Mexico, could challenge the trademark on the Washington Redskins.
Redskins officials say the name honors Indians, and across the country, high schools and colleges that use such nicknames say the same. But large groups of Native Americans say the images are often crudely drawn stereotypes created by white people who have not taken the time to learn about Indian cultures ravaged in the 19th century by U.S. military forces.
Even polls disagree. A survey conducted in 2002 by Sports Illustrated found that 81 percent of Native Americans who live outside traditional Indian reservations and 53 percent of Indians on reservations did not find the images discriminatory.
One year later, the newspaper Indian Country Today conducted a poll that found almost the opposite. It said that 81 percent of respondents found the images disparaging to Native Americans and that 75 percent said they seemed to violate anti-discrimination laws, as they were described by poll workers.
"You can't rely on polls to guide you on issues like this," NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said in defense of the mascot ban. "If that were the case, civil rights legislation, voting rights legislation, equal rights for women and their right to vote -- many of the things that changed this country for the good -- never would have happened."
Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell blasted the mascot ban. "That the NCAA would now label our close bond with the Seminole Tribe of Florida as 'culturally hostile' and 'abusive' is outrageous and insulting," he said.
Shore, the general counsel for the Seminoles of Florida, wondered what the fuss is about. "This is just a game," he said. ". . . The tribe doesn't get caught up with these sorts of things. This is not the hottest thing on the tribe's radar screen."
But Narcomey said, "If it were just a game, it would be a simple thing for Florida State to just change the name."
That is hardly the view of every Oklahoma Seminole. "Members of the Seminole nation are students at FSU, and the Seminole nation is proud of its representation on campus," Chambers said in a statement.
The Seminoles were not always cheered, especially by southerners. They were part of five tribes that inhabited Florida dating back to the Spanish conquest. They settled there to escape slavery in the U.S. colonies, along with other bands such as the Choctaws and Chickasaws.
The Seminoles formed a bond with escaped slaves who settled near them in Florida, an act that infuriated southern slaveholders.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee pushed the Indian Removal Act through Congress, and in the ensuing wars, the Seminoles and numerous other tribes were marched to Oklahoma during the infamous Trail of Tears. An estimated 200 to 500 Seminoles escaped into the Florida Everglades, where some of their descendants remain.
"We are the same people," said the Oklahoma tribe's Narcomey. "My ancestors were captured at the point of a gun and removed. Their ancestors escaped into the Everglades. You have to respect them for . . . surviving. [But] it's always been a tenuous relationship, I would say."
Shore said, matter-of-factly: "They're like our first cousins. We do our thing here and they do whatever it is that they do in Oklahoma."
Both claim Chief Osceola, portrayed at Florida State as a brave and fierce warrior. The mascot's thunderous charge onto the field before home games is a spectacle adored by fans. The marching band plays stereotypical Indian theme music from the stands and the crowd chops, tomahawk style, in time with the music.
But Osceola is offensive to many Native Americans because he is portrayed by a white student in Indian dress and war paint, and Seminoles never used war paint, according to both tribes. Seminoles also never pranced on the spotted Appaloosa horse.
"Osceola hated American expansion into Florida," said Carol Spindel, a professor of writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who wrote "Dancing at Halftime," a book on mascots. "When he died in American custody, they chopped off his head for a trophy. Would he want to be a mascot?"
Schools with Indian mascots can control their imagery on campus, Spindel said, but they cannot control how rival schools use those images before big games. During campus rallies, Indians are often hanged and burned in effigy, painted as crude demons on shop windows and beheaded in mock scalpings.
Stephanie Fryberg, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, said the images are harmful to Native American children. In a 2003 study, she showed mascot images to Native American high school students and white college students and asked, "How do you feel right now?"
It lowered the self-esteem of the Native American students but not of the others, she said. The NCAA incorporated the study into its investigation of mascots and said it contributed to the decision to ban them.
The University of Illinois has issued no formal reaction to the ban that would affect its nickname, the Illini, which dates to 1874. Chief Illiniwek does not travel with the school's sports teams, said Thomas Hardy, director of university relations.