After 60 years, Seattle University’s athletes may no longer be “Chieftains.”
Although the final decision belongs to the Rev. Stephen Sundborg, S.J., president of the Jesuit school, a committee formed to examine the issue plans to formally recommend that SU drop the Chieftain nickname, in use since 1938.
Athletic director Nancy Gerou says the committee was originally split between a faction that supported keeping the name, while dropping the sports program’s existing Indian-head logo, and one that backed dropping the Chieftain name altogether. But minds changed when committee members met with representatives of local tribes and found them unanimously in favor of choosing a new nickname, she says. “The local Native Americans were telling us, ‘Why are you even discussing it?'”
The SU student senate has also passed a resolution urging a name change. Student body president Jason Madrano, of Native American ancestry himself (Oklahoma’s Caddo tribe), has been a vocal public supporter of the switch. “I very strongly feel we need to change it,” he says. “When I first got here as a freshman, I was surprised that such a progressive, liberal school would have such a blatantly racist symbol as a mascot.”
Despite the school’s proud history of big-time basketball teams during the 1950s and 1960s, there hasn’t been much furor from alums over becoming ex-Chieftains. Mark Burnett, alumni relations director, says he’s received only 25 to 30 calls and e-mails since asking for comments in SU’s alumni publication. A majority of the alumni who have commented so far support the name change, he says.
The name change question was raised in conjunction with Seattle University’s planned move to NCAA Division II competition, but it’s also part of a larger national trend of schools reconsidering their Indian-derived team nicknames. Among the shifters: Stanford University (from Indians to Cardinals), Bradley University (from Braves to Bobcats), and Miami (Ohio) University, whose former Redskins became RedHawks in response to a formal request from the Miami tribe. Changes such as these and protests against Indian-derived professional sports team names in the last decade have solidified the Native American community in opposition to their use.
Harold Belmont, one of the local Native Americans consulted, says he was delighted to learn of the school’s proactive efforts. “Usually, it’s us hollering at the dominant society to make these changes,” he notes. Belmont, the son of members of two Northwest tribes (Suquamish and Songhees), says he hasn’t always been a critic of Indian-derived team names. In fact, as a graduate of SU’s alcohol studies program, and as a local boy, he grew up admiring Seattle U basketball stars like Elgin Baylor and Johnny O’Brien, rather than resenting their team’s nickname. But Belmont now agrees that the tradition of Indian-derived sports nicknames belongs to “a different time and a different era,” and needs to be ended.
Practicality also entered into the discussion. The athletic department has all but dropped its existing logo, a generic Indian chief wearing a Plains Indianstyle headdress. “It was probably the best thing clip art had to offer,” deadpans Gerou. Athletic regulators have also discouraged the use of Indian chants, Indian-themed signs (“Scalp ’em, Chiefs!”), or live war-painted “mascots” at games. “We just have not used it to the extent that you should be able to use your logo and mascot,” she adds.
With a list of 100 possible team names compiled and more arriving every day, Gerou is confident the school could have a new nickname in place by the start of athletic competition this fall.