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"Indians" and Animals: A Comparative Essay

By David P. Rider, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychology
Xavier University of Louisiana

Professional and amateur sports enjoy a long tradition in the United States. From the meager beginnings of professional baseball and early amateur sports teams at high schools and colleges in the 19th century, they have flourished today into hundreds of professional franchises and tens of thousands of amateur sports teams. Virtually all of these sports teams bear nicknames intended to imbue participants and fans alike with a sense of identity and pride in characteristics associated with those nicknames. For colleges and universities in particular, pride in athletic programs and their associated team nicknames has achieved a monumental scope.

Despite immense diversity in the size, geographic location, history, and educational specialties of the various colleges in America, most share one strikingly common feature: Eight of the ten most common nicknames for college sports teams are beasts of prey (Franks, 1982). In order of popularity, the top ten college nicknames are as follows:

1. Eagles
2. Tigers
3. Cougars
4. Bulldogs
5. Warriors
6. Lions
7. Panthers
8. Indians
9. Wildcats
10. Bears

Of the eight predators on this list, it is interesting to note that seven are either individual species or generic collections of species whose numbers have declined precipitously in the past 500 years, hunted to the brink of extinction. The exception, bulldogs, is an artificial creation through selective breeding. The progenitors of bulldogs, wolves, were hunted to the brink of extinction just as the other predators on the list were.

The preponderance of nicknames used for American college teams conjures up images that evoke fear and loathing in Americans. Indeed, these species were eradicated because of the images Americans concocted for them, the contempt Americans held for them, and the fact that they occupied land that Americans wanted for themselves.

Franks' top-ten list is based on the total number of college sports teams that bear those particular nicknames. The two names that do not reflect predatory animals, Warriors and Indians, both refer to humans indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. College teams named after Indians are actually underrepresented in Franks' list. Excluded from the overall count of "Warriors" and "Indians" are all the American college teams named for individual Tribal groups, including Apaches, Chippewas, Fighting Sioux, Pequots, and Fighting Illini. In addition,numerous college teams sport nicknames of generic Indian themes, among them the Chiefs, Chieftains, Braves, Redskins, Redmen, Tomahawks, and Savages. As Franks notes, if all the college teams with nicknames associated with American Indians were combined, their number would exceed that of its nearest rival by a considerable margin.

Why are so many college sports teams named after Indians? When challenged by critics that such names are racist and offensive, a common response is that the names were intended to honor American Indians. Supporters of Chief Illiniwek, mascot of the University of Illinois' Fighting Illini, are quick to raise this flag of "honor" in defense of their moniker. When Indians insist that "honor" is in the eye of the beholder, and that such nicknames are insulting, supporters retreat behind the nebulous camouflage of "tradition." Indian nicknames and mascots for sports teams only reflect a tradition, their defenders maintain, that American colleges and universities want to preserve.

It is remarkable that this "traditional" defense is correct. A quick glance at the history of the Western Hemisphere, and in particular the settlement of North America by Europeans, reveals that Indians belong on the football jerseys and baseball hats of America's teams just as surely as tigers, bears, and wolves do. Europeans and their descendants have conferred on Indians false attributes that strikingly parallel those ascribed to bears, wolves, and other animals that festoon sports teams. From the very beginning of European colonization of the Western Hemisphere, Indians have been portrayed as "barbaric," "wild," "bestial," and "savage," (see Berkofer, 1978; Bosmajian, 1974; Churchill, 1992; Pearce, 1988; and Sale, 1990, for overviews of European and American characterizations of Indians).

Indians received not only similar descriptions to those given predatory animals, but much the same treatment as well. George Washington, revered as the father of the country, wrote that Indians "...were wolves and beasts who deserved nothing from the whites but 'total ruin'" (Stannard, p. 241). Thomas Jefferson, acclaimed proponent of freedom and democracy, argued that the United States government was obliged " pursue [Indians] to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach" (quoted in Takaki, 1979, p. 103). Andrew Jackson, founder of the modern Democratic Party and greatest Indian killer of all American Presidents, urged United States troops " root out from their 'dens' and kill Indian women and their 'whelps'" (Stannard, p. 240). Jackson was so effective at rooting women and "whelps" from their "dens," he adopted the habit of cutting off his victims' noses as trophies to commemorate his exploits. He earned the name "Sharp Knife" from Creek Indians for his penchant for skinning victims and using the cured and braided tissue as reins for his ponies (Takaki, 1994).

The extirpation of Indians, of course, did not begin with America's founding fathers. United States citizens and public servants like Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson, were only following a tradition that had long been established by European colonists.. Like most American traditions, it was chartered by religious zealots. Puritan Saints who governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony, within a decade of its founding in 1630, passed what amounts to the first gun-control legislature on the continent when it legislated that settlers could not "...shoot off a gun on any unnecessary occasion, or at any game except an Indian or a wolf" (quoted in Lopez, 1978, p. 170). Lopez notes that the Puritans used similar tactics in liquidating both wolves and Indians: "He set out poisoned meat for the wolf and gave the Indian blankets infected with smallpox. He raided the wolf's den to dig out and destroy the pups, and stole the Indian's children" (1978, pp. 170-171).

White "settlers" required little prodding to kill Indians, but the Colonial governments spared no expense in ridding the New World of its old inhabitants. Just as bounties were paid for the legs, tails, or ears of animals regarded as a nuisance to "civilization," so were bounties paid for the scalps of Indians. "By 1717, all the New England colonies had bounties in place, as did New Jersey. Massachusetts rescinded its Scalp Act in 1722, on the grounds that it had become 'ineffectual,' but reinstated it by public demand in 1747" (Churchill, 1997, p. 182).

When Christopher Columbus first passed through the waters surrounding the Caribbean islands we now know as Hispaniola and Cuba, he noted that they were "...filled with people without number" (quoted in Stannard, 1992, p. 62). Modern population demographers estimate that 100 million people inhabited the New World before it was "discovered" by Columbus; 12 to 15 million resided within the present-day confines of the United States (see Dobyns, 1983; Thornton, 1987). Four centuries later, the hemispheric indigenous population had been liquidated to fewer than four million; barely a quarter million survived within the United States.

Genocide is the most salient feature of American history. European settlers took it upon themselves to exterminate the life forms that now are celebrated as nicknames and mascots of America's sports teams. And exterminate they did, with a viciousness and relentless malignancy that drove those life forms to the brink of extinction. In violent team sports where participants are expected to be "vicious or predatory" (Nuessel, 1994, p. 101), those teams could not be served better than by nicknames and mascots that reflect the very targets of American extirpation. Sports teams presumably want to win, to beat opponents, and those wishes are embodied in mascots that depict historical species so thoroughly beaten that their few remnants today are most likely encountered in a zoo or reservation.

The University of Illinois, with its Fighting Illini nickname and mascot, Chief Illiniwek, provides an exemplary model of the spirit of genocide. The five Illini Tribes were expelled from the geographical terrain that now encompasses the state of Illinois and completely destroyed as a Tribal entity. 

As impeccable as the Illinois nickname and mascot were at their point of origin, they approach a mythical perfection in today's world, where Indians object to the name and mascot as symbols of this genocide. As Americans systematically annihilated Indians, they disregarded their critics and dishonored their victims with righteous indignation. It is in perfect keeping with the Spirit of the University of Illinois to continue to disregard and dishonor those who object to Indian nicknames and mascots. And as impeccable as such ignominy is in the University's retention of those racist symbols of a genocidal past, it is raised to a mythical perfection by the offer of a bounty by the Chief Illiniwek Educational Foundation for an essay that touts the Spirit of Illinois. Such actions reflect the true spirit of the University of Illinois, one that transcends college sports. It is truly the genocidal Spirit of America.

Webmaster note:  The University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, retired its "Chief Illiniwek" sports team token in 2007.  No negative outcomes for the university resulting from that change have been noted.

Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. (1978). The white man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from  Columbus to the present, New York: Vintage Books.
Bosmajian, Haig. (1974). The language of oppression, Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press.
Churchill, Ward. (1992). Fantasies of the master race: Literature, cinema, and the colonization of American Indians, San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Churchill, Ward. (1997). A little matter of  genocide: Holocaust and denial in the Americas 1492 to the present, San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Dobyns, Henry F. (1983). Their numbers became thinned: Native American population dynamics in eastern North America, Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press.
Franks, Ray. (1982). What's in a nickname? Naming the jungle of college athletics mascots, Amarillo, TX: Ray Franks Publishing Ranch.
Nuessel, Frank. (1994). Objectionable sports team Designations, "Names," 101-119.
Pearce, Roy H. (1988). Savages and civilization: A study of the Indian and the American mind,  Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sale, Kirkpatrick (1991). The conquest of paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian legacy, New York: Plume Books.
Stannard, David E. (1992). American holocaust: The conquest of the new world, New York: Oxford University Press.
Takaki, Ronald T. (1979).  Iron cages: Race and culture in 19th-century America, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Takaki, Ronald T. (1994). The metaphysics of civilization: Indians and the age of Jackson.
In Takaki (ed.), From different shores:Perspectives on race and ethnicity in America, New York: Oxford University Press.
Thornton, Russell. (1987). American Indian holocaust and survival: A population history since 1492, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

This essay is published here with the permisson of the author.