Next vote on nicknames

Monday, December 8, 2003

Some Southeast Missouri State University students make an extra effort at the school's basketball games -- painting their faces, stomping their feet and performing their version of an Indian dance.

But a bigger noise is sounding now throughout the campus and the community as alumni and student groups suggest dropping the Indian nicknames and coming up with another one that can be depicted on T-shirts and as a school mascot at athletic events.

The school's National Alumni Council in July voted to recommend scrapping the school's Indian and Otahkian nicknames -- council officials said the names were offensive to American Indians -- and urged the university to find more marketable names for its men's and women's athletic teams.

That suggestion is now before Student Government, which is expected to vote on the issue tonight. The meeting is scheduled for 8 p.m. in the University Center's Missouriana Room.

Low priority

The school's Boosters Club will consider the issue early next year. But club president Jim Limbaugh said it's way down on his list of priorities at a time when the university's athletics department is coping with budget cuts.

"We are more concerned about saving the golf club and trying to find revenue for the athletics department than finding a new mascot," he said.

University president Ken Dobbins said he likely will appoint a committee next year to study the name issue.

A university committee looked at the possibility of scrapping the Indian nicknames in 1997. It concluded the school should retain the names but do a better job of educating the public about the area's Indian heritage.

Dobbins said any final decision rests with the board of regents. Dobbins said he won't recommend scrapping the Indian and Otahkian nicknames without a replacement name or names.

The men's teams are referred to as the Indians. The women's teams are nicknamed the Otahkians, a reference to a Cherokee Indian who died on the Trail of Tears forced march in the 1830s.

Dobbins said the university first would have to survey students, alumni and the public on the issue before he would consider recommending any change to the regents.

Board president Don Dickerson said the regents have no desire to drop the nicknames if there is no clear alternative. "That could leave us in no man's land," he said.

Southeast hasn't dressed up a student in an Indian costume as a mascot since 1985. The university, without board action, eliminated depictions and references to the Indian nicknames in its campus merchandise and marketing publications more than a decade ago.

"The only people that use it are the sports writers," said Diane Sides, director of university relations at Southeast.

More than 30 colleges over the last 10 years have dropped their Indian nicknames, Southeast athletics officials have said.

Some student leaders say the issue for students isn't one of political correctness, but of having a nickname that can be depicted by a mascot and can boost school spirit.

"I think a lot of the push comes from the athletics department, which wants to be able to market our teams better," said Adam Hanna, a student senator who lives in the Towers North residence hall.

Hanna said coming up with a new mascot won't be easy and "won't happen overnight."

'We provide spirit'

Students in Theta Xi fraternity have proclaimed themselves as the "red men" for several years. Students in the fraternity show up at university athletic events with painted faces. Some paint their chests red. At the Show Me Center during basketball games, they stomp through the arena in a single-file line reminiscent of an Indian dance in a movie Western.

"I have been doing it for two years," said fraternity member Kevin Bray, a student from the St. Louis area. "I don't think it is offensive at all. I like to think we provide spirit."

Bray said university officials and coaches have thanked them for their support of the teams.

Fraternity member Nelson Tillman of Jackson said the Indian and Otahkian nicknames are a tradition at the Cape Girardeau school. According to the booster club, Southeast has had an Indian nickname for about 80 years.

Said Tillman, "It is not like we are trying to do a stereotype of an Indian being drunk. We are representing how fierce they were and everything like that."

But what passes as school spirit for some students is offensive to some local residents who are American Indians.

"That is not good," said Chief Paul White Eagle of Cape Girardeau and a member of the AhNiYvWiYa tribe. It's wrong for university sports fans to act "like movie star Indians do," he said.

But the chief, who graduated from Southeast in 1974, said he has no problem with an Indian mascot if that person dresses in a buckskin outfit like those that would have been worn by American Indians in Southeast Missouri.

Having a mascot that looks like a plains Indian wouldn't be appropriate, he said.

Student Glinda "Pitter" Seabaugh, a full-blooded Cherokee who lives in Cape Girardeau, dislikes the fraternity antics. "That is just really showing a lot of disrespect," she said.

Seabaugh said the university would be better served to keep the Indian nicknames but do more to show support for Indian culture.

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