Scrap SEMO nicknames, says alumni council vote

Friday, July 25, 2003

Southeast Missouri State University's National Alumni Council has voted to scrap the school's Indian nicknames and find more marketable names for the athletic teams.

The council's desire comes at a time when the National Collegiate Athletic Association is encouraging schools to quit using American Indian symbols, said Alan Zacharias, vice president of university advancement.

Zacharias said Thursday the recommendation wasn't made out of "political correctness." While Southeast has treated the Indian name with dignity and respect, he said, the Cape Girardeau school's opponents haven't always been kind. Students at other schools have cried out, "scalp the Indians" or "burn 'em at the stake."

The alumni council's action is just the first step in a lengthy process expected to extend into next year. School officials said it would involve the boosters club, the faculty senate, student government and ultimately -- if it gets that far -- the board of regents.

Don Kaverman, athletic director at Southeast, said there has been a trend among American colleges to drop Indian nicknames. "Thirty-plus schools over the last 10 years have changed their nicknames out of respect to Native Americans," he said.

Southeast is one of 33 schools, including a dozen in Division I, that haven't changed, according to the NCAA.

School officials, alumni council members and even some athletic boosters say the university no longer markets its men's teams as Indians and its women's teams as Otahkians, a reference to a Cherokee Indian princess.

Kaverman said the university no longer depicts Indians on its T-shirts and plans to eliminate the spear from its football helmets.

No mascot since 1985

Southeast hasn't dressed up a student in an Indian costume as a mascot since 1985.

Kaverman said such mascots won't be back, but the university needs another one. "When you think of Mizzou, you think of the Tigers. We just don't have that visible symbol."

The goal, he said, is to get a mascot "we can all be proud of."

Zacharias said the alumni council didn't discuss any alternate nicknames or mascots. The council quietly voted to "retire" the Indian and Otahkian nicknames at its meeting Saturday following six months of research by the athletics subcommittee chaired by Cape Girardeau lawyer Mike Price.

The committee included two representatives of the Boosters Club, including Rich Eichhorst of St. Louis. The Boosters Club is expected to consider the issue next month.

Eichhorst played basketball at Southeast in the 1950s when players would "bust through a teepee" when stepping onto the Houck Field House court for games, he said.

Eichhorst said the university has had an Indian nickname since at least 1922. But he said the Indian and Otahkian nicknames don't carry any meaning for the university now since it no longer has Indian mascots.

"We don't have anything to rally around any more," he said.

Eichhorst said the university should have changed the nickname when it abandoned the Indian mascots.

Matter of respect

Price said an NCAA study has made it clear that Indian nicknames are often viewed as derogatory. "Frankly, Native Americans don't consider it respectful," said Price, who played football at Southeast from 1964 to 1968.

But Steve Brazil of Cape Girardeau, a member of the alumni council who was absent from Saturday's meeting, said he opposed dropping the Indian and Otahkian nicknames.

"I think the whole thing is silly," Brazil said. "I have always been proud to be an Indian."

Michael Seabaugh, who is part Cherokee and operates an American Indian gift shop and art gallery in Cape Girardeau, said Indians are divided nationally over whether colleges should have Indian-related nicknames.

Seabaugh, who wasn't contacted by Price's committee, said he doesn't mind Southeast's Indian nicknames. "I feel Southeast Missouri has shown proper respect," he said.

Cindie Jeter, who is half Cherokee and teaches mass communications at Southeast, said she's glad the university is looking at the issue.

"They need to be sensitive to us. Native Americans have been ignored a long time in this country," she said.

Still, Jeter said, she isn't uncomfortable over the nickname. "It hasn't made me angry," she said.

Regents' decision

Don Dickerson, president of the board of regents, said the board would have the final say in changing any nicknames.

The alumni council's action surprised Dickerson. "I was not aware they were studying the whole issue."

Dickerson said there won't be any quick decision on the issue, not when the university has had such a long history of referring to its athletic teams as Indians and Otahkians.

The alumni council's action has rekindled an issue that surfaced six years ago when a university committee looked at the possibility of doing away with the Indian nicknames. The committee ended up recommending that the school retain the Indian and Otahkian nicknames.

Zacharias said the university isn't ashamed of the nicknames. "We're not running from that. But times have changed and the National Alumni Council is trying to deal with that reality," he said.

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