As renewed fervor swells nationally to stomp out racial injustice and racism in the United States, several pro sports teams have quarreled with potential changes to nicknames deemed offensive by minority groups
The NFL's Washington Redskins and CFL's Edmonton Eskimos have both agreed to change their nicknames. MLB's Cleveland Indians is currently reviewing their long-debated nickname after retiring its contentious Chief Wahoo logo in 2018. And Triple-A baseball's Indianapolis Indians came under fire this week as the American Indian Center of Indiana pushed for the removal of the team’s name and imagery using offensive or false characterizations of Native Americans.
But Elko High School, which uses the nickname Indians, is not considering a name change, principal Tim Wickersham told Nevada Sports Net. Elko, which is located 290 miles northeast of Reno, is the only high school in Nevada to use the nickname "Indians," which has been a controversial mascot for decades, with Stanford, for example, ditching it in 1972 after first using the nickname in 1930. Oklahoma dropped its Little Red mascot in the 1960s. At least 17 American colleges have stopped using the "Indians" nickname since Stanford did so, including two Division I athletic departments this century (Louisiana-Monroe in 2006 and Arkansas State in 2008).
However, Wickersham said Elko has used the nickname with approval from the Elko Band Council, which is part of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians.
“At this point, our community, which includes the Native American reservations and tribal councils, are quite comfortable with it," Wickersham told NSN. "Every once and a while I’ll get a nastygram from somebody back East telling me how insensitive we are and all of that. But I do have a letter from the tribal council that sanctions our mascot, and they’re comfortable with how we portray it. It’s not done disrespectfully from their perspective or ours. We do things to try and preserve that relationship we have with the Native tribes.
“If there’s something that comes up that they’re not comfortable with, we absolutely don’t do it. So far, I think the Natives that are local here are satisfied we’re representing the indigenous people with respect and we’re satisfied we’re allowed to keep our tradition, and thus far it’s been very workable.”
According to the last U.S. Census, 5.3 percent of Elko County's roughly 52,778 citizens are Native American. The area was long inhabited by Native American tribes, largely Western Shoshone Indians and Northern Paiute, before European-American settlement led to a battle for resources. Davis Gonzales, the chairman of the Elko Band Council chairman, said he has no issue with Elko using Indians as its nickname.
“We don’t have any problems with it," said Gonzales, a graduate of Elko High. "A lot of our members played for Elko in high school. It doesn’t bother us. We’re not intending to change anything. We don’t have any gripes. We went through that school, and when I go watch the ballgames and they sing, ‘On ye Indians! On ye Indians!’ it’s cool.”
The National Congress of American Indians is the nation’s oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native advocacy organization. The NCAI has long fought against Indians being used as sports mascots, claiming it is derogatory and creates harmful stereotypes of Native people.
"The intolerance and harm promoted by these 'Indian' sports mascots, logos or symbols have very real consequences for Native people," the NCAI says on its website. "Specifically, rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful, perpetuate negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples. As documented in a comprehensive review of decades of social science research, derogatory 'Indian' sports mascots have serious psychological, social and cultural consequences for Native Americans, especially Native youth."
Wickersham said his high school has worked alongside the Elko Band Council to ensure its mascots and logos are not offensive. The school does not use a physical mascot. Its logo of a chief head has been a part of the school since at least the early 1980s when Wickersham was a student at Elko.
“If there’s something that comes up that they’re not comfortable with, we absolutely don’t do it," Wickersham said. "So far, I think the Natives that are local here are satisfied we’re representing the indigenous people with respect and we’re satisfied we’re allowed to keep our tradition, and thus far it’s been very workable.
“In a national discussion, I can certainly see, ‘Oh, my, gosh, in a hick town like that, of course they’re doing that.’ But they don’t completely understand that this hick town has people of European dissent, people of Hispanic dissent, people of Native American dissent, and because we’re isolated we get along pretty well and we talk to each other.”
Wickersham said Elko used to have a more cartoonish logo that has since been retired because it was offensive.
“When I went to college, in the time between when I was a student and came back as a teacher, we did have a cartoon logo that the Native groups around here didn’t like and we ditched it," Wickersham said. "We also had one of those mascots like in Bull Durham, the bull, that was sort of a cartoon Native called Chief Wannawina. They didn’t like it, so we scrapped it. Over the years, we’ve modified to suit their needs and their comfort level, and that’s not a problem. We can do that.”
When Elko recently started a new program on campus that required kids to be a part of an advisory group, the administration first sought to name the groups after specific tribes but decided against it after discussions with the Elko Band Council. Wickersham said the school's dialogue with Native people has made it feel comfortable with its representation of Native Americans.
“A couple of years ago, we had a student who wanted women represented in our mascot displays on campus," Wickersham said. "She was an art student and she asked if she could design a mural to be placed on our campus that would represent a female Native American. We said, ‘Yeah, absolutely, with one caveat. You’re going to have to go and talk to the Natives with your design proposal to make sure it gets represented correctly and it’s represented in a light they’re comfortable with.' We went through that process and our student submitted her design before it was tweaked a few times before it was put up on the wall.”
While a chief head logo has been a point of contention for many Native groups, Gonzales said he did not have an issue with Elko's logo.
“I think sometimes when you have a local and the local looks different than the logo, everybody gets upset about it because it’s disrespectful," Gonzales said. "But they have a good logo right now. Every time there’s a basketball game, a football game, a track tournament, a lot of us going out there and participate in the audience.”
The state of Idaho, which is about 100 miles north of Elko, has quarreled with Indian mascots and logos in the last year after the Shoshone-Bannock tribes asked the state's high schools in June 2019 to rid themselves of all American Indian school mascots.
“The continued use of these names would only honor the non-Indian ideology created by dominant mainstream society, whose ancestors directly or indirectly killed, sold, removed, or demoralized the original Indian residents," the tribes’ business council told IdahoNews.org.
Five of Idaho's high school use the nickname "Indians" while two use "Warriors," two use "Savages" and one "Braves." In 2019, Teton High in Driggs, Idaho removed its Redskins nickname after a school district vote. The Boise High Braves agreed to change its mascot and is now called the Boise High Brave. The Meridian High Warriors said it would stop using a Native American headdress logo. Last week, Nezperce High voted to drop its “Indians” mascot by a 3-2 vote, ending a six-year debate over the mascot. A new mascot hasn't been named.
“This isn't about changing history,” Nezperce Superintendent Shawn Tiegs told the Idaho Press. “The most powerful things about human beings is to be able to change and adapt to changing circumstances and new knowledge, and so the more that we can do that, the more we can all just kind of become one and get along and respect each other for being, very simply, just a human being.”
Wickersham said Elko hasn't had any issues or local requests to change its nickname, adding the Elko Band Council has always been supportive of the school being called the Indians.
“It’s not just that they approve, it’s that they support it," said Wickersham, who has spent nearly four decades in Elko. "Our marching band is the band of Indians. I know that they fully support that. They have kids in those groups. As far as I know, it’s never been a fuss. If a concern has been raised by the local Native groups, we’ve simply altered course. We want to accommodate those concerns. With it being our mascot and tradition, we don’t have any interest in offending those folks.”
No other high school in Nevada has the nickname "Indians," although Owyhee, which also is in Elko County, goes by the Braves. Owyhee has less than 100 high school students and draws largely from the Shoshone-Paiute tribe's Duck Valley Indian Reservation. Native Americans comprised 75 percent of Owyhee based on the last Census.
Three Nevada high schools use the nickname Warriors, including Excel Christian, a private school in Sparks; Whittell High, a public school in Zephyr Cove; and Western High in Las Vegas. Excel Christian and Whittell use logos of Spartan Warriors. Western's logo was a characterization of a Native American that drew criticism, including a year-long effort to ditch the logo in 2018. The logo has since been switched to a large "W."
Donnie Nelson, the assistant director and spokeperson for the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association, which oversees high school sports in Nevada, said the organization doesn't play any role in the nickname, mascot or logos of their member schools.
“We would not get involved at all," Nelson said. "We would leave that up to the school district and/or the school. Even serving as the state governing body for high school athletics, there are many, many things we leave to our districts and our schools in particular, and certainly that’s one of them.”