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April 16, 2014

VAN HOY: Do you find it offensive?

— Anyone who regularly reads the Cheers and Jeers I write for the News and Tribune knows I am a huge baseball fan.

I love many aspects of the National Pastime — one being the tradition and history of the game.

But, there are traditions that remain which are less than desirable.

One that makes my stomach turn is the “tomahawk chop” performed by Atlanta Braves fans to spur on their team. It’s a pretty blatant example of racism toward American Indians, even though I suspect most of the people participating don’t even realize it.

The Cleveland Indians have long featured smiling Chief Wahoo as its logo, although the team for this season designated the “C” as it’s primary logo, demoting Wahoo to secondary status. Other subtle moves by Major League Baseball in not using the logo in other situations could be seen as attempts to distance itself from another image which is certainly racist toward American Indians.

The biggest push to have a major U.S. sports team change its name is aimed at the Washington Redskins. Numerous media outlets and journalists now refuse to use the team’s nickname when referring to Washington’s football team in stories, and the organization has faced pressure from legislators to change the name.

In a March Washington Post article, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., predicted the team will change its name within three years.

In a powerful message, the National Congress of American Indians released a two-minute video titled “Proud to Be,” which presents compelling reasons for the team to change its name. It can be viewed here:

 There is precedent on the college level for such a change. The St. John’s Red Storm and Miami RedHawks once carried nicknames that were offensive to American Indians.

The traditions and identification with a team can become more intense the more local the setting gets. Maybe that’s why there doesn’t seem to be as much discussion about high schools that feature Indian themes as nicknames, logos or mascots.

But consider this — there are about 180 schools in Indiana which have such names or mascots, according to the American Indian Cultural Support website. Among those, there are 58 Indians, eight Redskins and 62 Warriors, although those could also be a different type of Warrior, like the case with Christian Academy of Indiana. The Scottsburg Warriors, however, do feature an Indian logo.

There also are more than 30 Braves nicknames for Indiana schools, including a team from our newspaper’s coverage area in Borden. Brownstown teams also carry the Braves name.

With the talk of national teams possibly changing names away from those which offend American Indians, I wondered if the head of West Clark Community Schools, Superintendent Monty Schneider, had heard any conversation about Borden’s name in his time there.

“I’m finishing up my seventh year, and to the best of my knowledge, I’m not aware of any discussion about it pro or con,” he told me Tuesday.

He said the only talk about the team’s nickname he can recall comes from some of the school’s older fans, who wish the team was still called the Berries, which Borden teams were nicknamed until 1966, when the Braves name was chosen as a replacement.

I’m not saying the school should change its name today, but it’s something worth talking about, since the issue has been in the national eye over the past few years. That’s not to single out Borden; it would be a good topic to discuss for those other 180 or so Hoosier schools carrying an Indian-themed nickname.

I’ve certainly thought about it more since I listened to a presentation in Louisville a few months ago from professor John Sanchez, the only American Indian faculty member at Penn State University. Sanchez told a group of journalists, students and others about his take on the portrayal of American Indians in the media and beyond.

Listening to Sanchez humanized the issue for me and made be believe more strongly that these nicknames are harmful to a proud group of people.

Sanchez said he’s been asked before if he considered Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” nickname offensive.

“I don’t know ... I’m not Irish,” he said, adding that you’d have to ask an Irish person that question to get a true response.

What he did know, he said, was that names like Redskins and Braves are very offensive to him, and many of his people, and that spurred me to write this column.

I’d like to hear from you. Should these nicknames be changed for national sports teams? What about at Indiana schools? How about at Borden?

— Shea Van Hoy is editor of the News and Tribune. Reach him at or 812-206-2130. Follow him on Twitter at @sheavanhoy


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