SEMO plans public forums on nickname

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The public will have a chance to comment on five suggested nicknames for Southeast Missouri State University at a series of four public forums beginning next week.

The forums -- scheduled for noon on April 21, 28 and May 5 in the University Center Missouriana Room and at 7 p.m. May 12 in Academic Hall Auditorium -- will give an opportunity to all who want to comment on a university committee's nickname suggestions. The five are Red Hawks, Red Birds, Red Wolves, Explorers and Sentinels.

Students, faculty, staff and the public can rank the suggested names and comment on them through a university Web page that will be set up at www.semo. edu/urelations/mascot. The Web page should be set up this week.

Faced with public criticism from those who want to keep the Indian nicknames, committee chairman and Southeast health and recreation professor Ed Leoni said his group also wants to use the forums and the Web page to educate people on the issue and why the committee feels a new nickname and mascot are needed.

To that end, the Web page will include answers to frequently asked questions as well as the nine criteria used to narrow the list of suggested nicknames to five, Leoni said.

The committee also plans to show two documentaries on Indian issues. One focuses on the controversy surrounding the use of the Fighting Illini nickname at the University of Illinois, and the other deals with robbing and desecration of Indian burial grounds.

Both documentaries will be shown back to back on April 20 in the University Center Riverboat Room, starting at noon, and on April 21 at 7 p.m. in the University Center Indian Room.

Leoni said there's nothing demeaning about having an Indian Room in the University Center, which regularly displays exhibits on Indian culture and history. He said it's the use of the word as a nickname and school mascot that poses a problem.

"We do not believe that a costumed mascot representing an Indian chief or princess is the way to honor the history, culture and heritage of the Native American people," said Leoni, who also plans to update the board of regents at a scheduled board meeting on April 23.

But committee members don't want the university to ignore the Indian history and culture in the region. The committee has established a subcommittee headed by Patricia Ryan, director of institutional research at Southeast, to look at ways to honor the Indian heritage. The committee's work has developed an opinion among its members that Southeast could do a better job with education about Native Americans.

Leoni said one possibility is for the school to establish a Native American museum or cultural center.

Ryan and Leoni said other possibilities include creating academic programs to study American Indian history and culture. Ryan said the university should consider establishing a program to help today's American Indians.

"Native Americans are neglected by our country," said Ryan, who is part Shawnee.

There is a public insensitivity to Indian history and culture, Ryan said. She cited use of the nearby Trail of Tears State Park, which commemorates the forced march of Indians to the Oklahoma territory.

"Let's go picnic at Trail of Tears State Park is like saying let's go picnic at Auschwitz," Ryan said. Auschwitz was a notorious Nazi concentration camp in World War II.

Joe Watkins, a professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque and a Choctaw Indian, doesn't think schools should use Indian nicknames.

"I find the utilization of an American Indian as a mascot sort of dehumanizing," said Watkins, who was in Cape Girardeau Tuesday in advance of delivering a lecture Thursday night. The Thomas Beckwith Memorial Lecture is an annual event sponsored by the University Museum and Southeast's sociology and anthropology department.

"I don't think there is any ethnic group that would like to be equated to bearcats, lions or other animals," Watkins said.

Leoni's committee initially planned to make a recommendation on the nickname issue to university president Dr. Ken Dobbins and the board of regents by June.

But Leoni said Tuesday that it could be this fall before a final recommendation is made.

Diane Sides, director of university relations and a member of the committee, said the group wants time to create a mascot costume and develop a marketing plan to promote any new nickname.

Don Kaverman, Southeast's athletics director, said the university can't continue to limp along with Indian nicknames but no mascot.

Southeast's men's teams are nicknamed the Indians and the women are nicknamed the Otahkians after a 19th-century Indian woman who reportedly died on the Trail of Tears forced march near Cape Girardeau.

Southeast administrations dating back to Bill Stacy in the mid-1980s have steered clear of Indian mascots.

"The status quo isn't working," said Kaverman, who believes the university needs a mascot to better market its sports teams.

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The university's nickname committee set nine criteria for picking five finalists from among more than 800 suggestions:

The name should articulate Southeast's many purposes.

The name should capture the region's essence and Southeast's identity.

The name should be distinctive.

The name should be unique in the conference, region and nation.

The name should permit unlimited fan expression.

The name should be able to stand the test of time.

The name should unite the majority of Southeast supporters.

The name should provide marketing opportunities.

The name should be gender neutral.

Source: Southeast Missouri State University

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