SEMO athletes, coaches say they understand push for name change

Saturday, July 26, 2003

After growing up in a Native American household, B.J. Smith says he's fully aware of the debate over schools with Indian nicknames.

And even though Smith, Southeast Missouri State University women's basketball coach, wouldn't say he's offended by his school's mascot, he said dropping the Indian and Otahkian nicknames -- the recommendation made by Southeast's National Alumni Council -- could have advantages.

"If my mother and grandmother were still alive, I know they'd be offended by it," Smith said. "My feeling is, regardless of a nickname, if there is a group of people offended by it, you should probably change it."

The debate over Southeast team names resurfaced Saturday when the alumni council voted to scrap them in favor of something more marketable. That vote came to light Thursday.

The initial step was just the first in a process expected to last several months. School officials say the decision will involve boosters, faculty senate, student government and the board of regents.

Smith, an Oklahoma native, is one-quarter Native American. His mother was almost half Native American and his grandmother was full Native American. As a result, he was raised with many Native American traditions.

Smith said he believes Southeast lags in promoting its athletic programs because the university no longer markets its men's teams as Indians and its women's teams as Otahkians. The school hasn't had a mascot since 1985. It no longer depicts Indians on its T-shirts and plans to eliminate the spear from its football helmets.

"We don't use Indians and Otahkians in our marketing, and I think it hurts us," he said. "If we're not going to use it, then it's time to look at other options. From a professional standpoint, we have to either use our nickname and come up with a mascot along those lines to help market us, or come up with something else."

But Smith said he's also aware of the tradition; Southeast's athletic teams have been called the Indians and Otahkians -- a reference to a Cherokee Indian princess -- since at least 1922.

"It's been a part of Southeast for a long time and there is so much tradition behind it," Smith said. "But I think eventually the NCAA will mandate that nobody has that nickname, so it would probably be better to be prepared for it."

The trend in recent years among American colleges has been to drop Indian nicknames out of respect to Native Americans. Southeast is one of 33 schools, including just a dozen in Division I, that haven't changed, according to the NCAA.

Southeast women's soccer coach Heather Nelson said she favors changing the nicknames for several reasons.

"As a department we're so tentative using it in marketing, and it's nice for a school to have a mascot they can use all the time. That's part of your image," Nelson said. "I also think it would be a benefit to not have confusion in the local community with the Jackson Indians program.

"I was at Florida State, which are the Seminoles, prior to coming here, and the university there did a very good job of embracing that and being very positive. If people see it as positive, it's a win-win situation, but if not, then we need to move away from it."

Southeast athletes said Friday they'd like to keep the current nicknames but would understand if changes were made.

"I can see where it may be a problem to Native Americans being called Indians because it's not their real name," said Michael Irving, a football player who is black. "You can look at it as a racial slur, like calling black people the 'N' word. I guess it would be politically correct to change."

Irving added with a smile, "As long as they don't change the name to anything silly."

Carina Souza, a member of the women's basketball team, said "it would be weird because everybody is used to Indians and Otahkians. I don't see it as being disrespectful, but if Native Americans think it is, then maybe it should be changed."

Caleb Daniel played football at Jackson High School, which also used the Indians nickname. He said he'd prefer the names be left alone.

"I've always been an Indian," he said. "But other than that, I don't really have a reason. Looking at it from their point of view, maybe I'd want it to be changed."

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