Tuesday, August 28, 2012

American Indian Mascot Sensitivity at the University of Utah

The Sports Law Blog has tackled the issue of American Indian mascots many times over the past few years. Last week, Dr. Chris Hill, the Athletics Director at the University of Utah (nicknamed the "Utes" after the local Ute Indian tribe), posted a youtube "chat" where he asked Ute fans to become more "sensitive" to issues that might offend American Indians in Utah and across the country when they attend athletic contests (see below). Specifically, Dr. Hill asks fans to be aware that painting their faces, wearing headdresses, and bringing faux tomahawks to games likely offend sacred and religious traditions of Native Americans around the country. He impliedly asked Ute fans to leave the feathers, headdresses, face paint and tomahawk chops at home.

Dr. Hill alluded to the Ute logo, the feather and drumset, as appropriate, likely based on the approval of the use of the name and logo by the Ute tribal counsel, and the NCAA policy, that while generally forbidding the use of American Indian nicknames and mascots, allows an exception for University use of such nicknames and mascots if the local tribe approves. Because of this exception, Florida State continues as the Seminoles and Utah continues as the Utes, while the University of Illinois and the University of North Dakota are no longer able to use Native American imagery as their logos or mascots.

While laudable, Dr. Hill seems to miss the broader point that American Indian imagery and caricatures remain significantly injurious to some American Indian citizens (though some polls indicate that Native Americans are split on the issue of mascot offensiveness). If offensive to some, then why continue the use of the mascot name and imagery? Certainly, University of Utah fans can become more sensitive by educating themselves and leaving American Indian regalia at home on game day. Dr. Hill himself mentioned educating himself on the sacred and spiritual in American Indian culture, which no doubt prompted the message to fans. Still, tradition and culture should not support the continued use of names and mascots that offend.

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