October 26 - November 1, 1995

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 


I'VE JUST SAT watching helplessly as the Indians suffered a second bitter defeat in as many nights. Ordinarily this would disappoint me much more deeply--especially in view of the fact that Ted Turner and Jane Fonda openly gloated over the Indians' misfortune--but I take a measure of comfort in knowing they lost to the Braves, another Native American-oriented group.

Some of you will know immediately the situation to which I allude, but given that this is a somewhat artsy-fartsy journal there are those who may assume I'm meandering into socio-political realms of discourse; Lord knows there are enough hot buttons and social icons to get a lively debate going.

Maybe he's talking western movies, you tell yourself.

Wrong again, though the Turner allusion was a conscious misdirection. Hell, Ted even colorizes Indians so they come out actually red-skinned.

No, I'm not discussing film, nor social upheaval, nor inter-tribal contentiousness, I'm talking Baseball, but the potential for political argument nonetheless holds. As of Sunday evening, the Atlanta Braves had taken a two-zip lead over the Cleveland Indians in major league baseball's World Series, and the only people more upset than the Cleveland fans are the most serious Indians fans. (In this last reference I allude to Indians fans in the purest, non-baseball definition of the term--fan as a shorthand version of fanatic, and Indian as in the contemporary and politically correct Native American.)

What's got the Indians fanatics and the hypersensitive PC-types so exercised is the use of Native American names, terms and symbols by sports teams. For the last several years this form of protest has hovered around the fringes of amateur and professional sport--never generating quite enough heat to erupt into real fire, but never lapsing into sufficient ennui to just go away. As witness to the veracity of the preceding statement, just last week a largish group of students from Pueblo High School marched to Tucson Unified School District headquarters to place before Superintendent George Garcia their wishes that their school's team symbol, the Warrior, will not be euthanized and replaced by a more PC mascot.

Never sit back complacently and think it can't happen here. If Pueblo's Warrior goes, eventually, inevitably some animal rights activist is going to demand that my dear old alma mater, Tucson High cease and desist in its tradition of holding the innocent badger up to public belittlement and ridicule by using its name and likeness for all its sports teams.

Indeed we here in Tucson are especially well-versed in the issues of this debate, since the morning daily regularly runs columns by Tom Giago, an essayist of Indian heritage whose thoughts for the most part I find sound and well-presented, but who has made a personal crusade of getting Native American names and symbols off the letter-jackets of America, to his discredit, I think. Giago's essential point, against which every opposing factor means naught to him, is that making things Indian a symbol--he prefers to think of it as a mascot--of a bunch of folks playing a game is to trivialize the real people behind the fanciful portrayal.

If one were to ponder such arguments in a vacuum, one might be inclined to agree.

But we don't live in a vacuum. We live in a weird world full of blurry lines between fantasy and reality, dreams and stark, wide-eyed wakefulness. Sports is where most Americans get away from the awfulness of the real, awake world, and live their Walter Mitty fantasies through their sports heroes. Few things are taken as seriously in contemporary America as these overgrown kids' games we call sports. You'd think we'd outgrow it, but au contraire, as we procede from high school to college to professional games, the seriousness gets seriouser.

And an essential underlying fact of America's fanaticism with this escapist sport hero-worship is that nothing about it is trivial. We take our sports in deadly earnest, spend outrageous sums of money for it, and we damn sure aren't going to stand for having anything that means as much to us as our national heroes and publicly supported multi-millionaires symbolized by anything unflattering.

When Cleveland decided to name its professional baseball team the Indians, it said to the world--much as I did when I was five years old and announced my career path to my parents:

If I could be anything in the world I most wanted to be, I'd be an Indian.

Or Atlanta, via Milwaukee, deciding that the most heroic image their team could project would be that of the Brave. Or Pueblo High School the Warrior. Washington Redskins, Florida State Seminoles and so forth.

Now I can understand how a self-respecting Indian might feel a little less than flattered by being associated with Cleveland--I wouldn't be thrilled to learn that, say, the Ajo Shrine Club bowling team had decided to call themselves the Jeff Smiths--but one shouldn't argue that he's being dissed. One doesn't select as symbol or mascot something one does not venerate or, at the very least, feel deep affection for.

Maybe what we're up against here is a cultural dissonance we simply have not heretofore recognized. To apply the Baseball metaphor--both timely and apt--consider how weird it first sounded when you learned one of the hottest professional baseball teams in Japan--a nation that loves the game as much as any American or Costa Rican--was nicknamed the Koi.

What? Goldfish? Are these Oriental bastards trying to poke fun at our national pastime?

No. They just happen to like goldfish almost as much as baseball. Their culture has certain values and ways of expressing approbation that differ from ours. Hell, the original Japanese name for the Datsun 240Z was the Fairlady. You can look it up.

From my earliest recollection I have sided with, sympathized with and wished I could empathize with my Indian brothers and sisters. Alas, I learned, it was genetically impossible. I could not grow up to be one. And I can understand and appreciate they've wanted to escape the old Hollywood and pulp fiction stereotypes. But the heroic status associated with sports teams--which are deemed virtuous to the extent they are strong and swift and skilled and courageous--should be taken as flattery by the subject people.

Perhaps instead of taking offense at being singled out and symbolized by sports franchises, Mr. Giago and his supporters ought to consider who hasn't been similarly treated, and what the implications of that might be.

Wouldn't it be evidence that our nation had come a long way toward compassion, harmony and equality if the present World Series were being contested between the Atlanta African Americans and the Cleveland Cross-dressers?

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October 26 - November 1, 1995

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