Finding a new mascot for a new millenium

Blacksburg High School's mascot is the Indian. The Indian has done yeoman's service at BHS for 70-some years. I know all of us hope to retire by the time we are 70! It's time to retire the Indian and move on. This doesn't have to be a defeat, or a victory, for anyone. It can simply be an acknowledgement that times change-and what better time than now to acknowledge that? It's time for a new mascot for the new millenium.

A lot of attention has focussed on abuses of the mascot-stereotyped cheers and gestures, caricatured faces, and disrespectful terminology. To the great credit of BHS, these have either never been a part of their use of the Indian mascot, or have been eliminated over the last year. I want to be sure that this is recognized and credited.

Many people have felt that this should be the basis for a compromise position-the Indian mascot would be retained, but the abuses would be avoided. At first I thought that might be a possible compromise, but now I don't think that will suffice. Perhaps this can best be explained by a story:

"There was once a certain man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attacked him, stripped him, and beat him up, leaving him half dead." You probably recognize that as the setting for the story of the Good Samaritan, in the Gospel of Luke. But I want to depart from the biblical story at this point, and follow the robbers. For, in fact, having stripped the man, who happened to be a fireman, they took his uniform and went on to a party in Jerusalem. As it was a costume party, one of the robbers decided to dress up in the fireman's uniform and pretend to be a fireman. The others liked this idea, and year after year one of the robbers, and eventually their descendants, to whom they bequeathed the uniform, would dress up in this stolen uniform and pretend to be a fireman. Some of the party-goers thought this was great fun. Eventually some of the descendants, who felt guilty about the robbery, started to wear the uniform as a way to honor the poor man who was robbed. The costume got passed around, and sold to other party-goers, but, year after year, for one reason or another, the fireman's costume kept being worn to the party. Once, after many years, some descendants of the firemen happened to show up at the party and recognized the uniform of the fireman-and they asked that it stop being worn. They really weren't interested in why it was being worn, they simply wanted it to stop.

And I think they were justified in asking this. Folks, that's where we find ourselves today.

Perhaps it wrecks a story to spell out its meaning. Jesus usually left it by saying, "Anyone who has ears for listening should listen." But here's what it means to me. The story is told from the perspective of the Indians-for they were attacked, beaten up, and left half dead, for centuries. Not by us, but by people whom many of us are descended from or have, in one way or another, benefited from. The Indians feel that most everything was taken from them-except their proud identity. The fireman's costume represents the Indians' identity. And now they find that someone else is even trying to assume that identity. It doesn't really matter why we are trying to assume the identity-for honor or for fun. It is, in a sense, the only real part of their original inheritance that they still own-and they feel that even that is being appropriated. I think we need to stop wearing the fireman's uniform to a costume party, and we need to stop pretending to be Indians. Whether it be for fun or out of respect, it's just not appropriate.

Now, I know that these points has been made on other occasions with a lot of judgemental moralizing. But I don't think that's necessary for us to see the point. In fact, maybe that has sometimes prevented us from seeing the point, because we were too busy defending ourselves. All good stories are open to interpretation. I hope this story is rich enough to provoke dialogue about this issue-rational dialogue, which has been in short supply.

Why am I raising this issue in a publication aimed at Virginia Tech Faculty and Staff? After all, no one is complaining about the Hokie mascot! Because most of us are members of the Blacksburg community, and as members of that community we help set the tone in which this issue gets considered. The Montgomery County School Board has tried to steer a path according to which this issue would be handled at the school level-as a dialogue within the Blacksburg community. Rather than forcing a change, we have tried to encourage an open discussion that engages all parties and all points of view.

I think it is time to retire the Indian mascot, and begin looking for a new mascot for a new millenium. But I also think it is time to engage in a dialogue that will help us all struggle through this difficult issue. I hope this article will be a helpful step in that direction.

James C. Klagge

Chair, Montgomery County School Board

Multi-Cultural Fellow, Virginia Tech

November 13, 2000.