I was proud to be an Indian

As a former student, athlete and Booster Club president at Saint Joseph High School in South Bend, I have only known our athletic teams as the “Indians.” And now, after years of behind-the scenes discussions, it appears steps are being taken to change the nickname. 

Now I understand that some people perceive the moniker to be disrespectful to Native Americans, but after a lot of soul searching, I can’t say I agree with that feeling. When we thought of ourselves as “Indians,” we thought of the fighting spirit the indigenous people displayed while battling to hold onto the land they occupied before the colonists arrived and spread westward.

I also realize that I and the vast majority of Saint Joe alumni are white — as were the vast majority of those colonists, so I believe that our opinions should only carry so much weight. Most of us didn’t experience the incredible brutality faced by Native Americans. We didn’t have our land stripped from us. We weren’t relocated to reservations. We weren’t regarded as savages.

 If Native Americans are offended by the nickname, their feelings matter a lot more than mine. Maybe I am simply not privy to a behind-the-scenes uproar, but I have neither seen nor heard a great deal of angst over the nickname except from certain school officials in recent years.

I am not opposed to many efforts that people derisively (and unfairly) label as “woke.” All being “woke” means is that we realize we should avoid using words, phrases and descriptions that could offend groups of people who choose different paths to live their lives. It would be one thing if we used certain offensive stereotypes to label Saint Joe’s teams, but this privileged old white guy simply does not see the generic term of “Indians” as a denigration of Native Americans. I see it as a tribute to a great tradition and spirit exhibited by indigenous people. Add a qualifier with racist undertones, and the discussion changes completely. 

It made sense to me when Washington of the NFL and Goshen High School abandoned “Redskins” because it was blatantly pejorative and racist. The same was true when Pekin High School in Illinois changed its name from the “Chinks” many years ago. These moves were not made in an effort to be “politically correct” (another phrase that drives me crazy); they were made because the names were downright offensive. It would be like a school with a predominantly Caucasian enrollment being labeled the “Palefaces.” It’s just wrong.  (Being of Irish descent, I must admit I’m not offended by “Fightin’ Irish” for some reason. The “Boozin’ Irish,” on the other hand…)

 If you want an example of political correctness, look no further than Valparaiso University, another institution from which I proudly graduated and where I played varsity baseball. It’s my belief that VU’s change from “Crusaders” to “Beacons” was an overreach. Many terrible things happened during the Crusades, of course, but to quote a good friend, “How many Crusader Americans were offended?” 

The discussion about changing the nickname at Saint Joe has been bubbling beneath the surface for a number of years, but gained momentum recently with news reports about a ramped-up debate. Of course, the discussion was prevalent a few years ago when the Cleveland “Indians” became the “Guardians.” I would have no problem if the school altered its logo and mascot’s garb to be more respectful. I also would encourage the school to offer a class about Indian heritage or invite representatives of local tribes to help us better understand their culture. 

The bottom line, though, is that I don’t regard the word “Indians” to be offensive. Isn’t our state named Indiana? Will there be a movement in Dowagiac to change the name of Indian Lake? Should Clay High School’s team cease being the “Colonials” because some other group was uprooted by the new settlers of our nation? Should Concord High School not be the “Minutemen” because the ragtag bunch of colonists killed a lot of British soldiers?

This is a sticky issue, to be sure. Would it be offensive if Saint Joe’s teams were called the ”Europeans?” Or the “Spanish?” I don’t think so because those terms aren’t derogatory. In my opinion, neither is “Indians.” 

 I also understand that these discussions really don’t matter in the big picture. People are dying daily in Ukraine and elsewhere. The cost of living is through the roof. Gunfire has become much too prevalent in our neighborhoods and schools. Our immigration system needs to be overhauled. There are kids with cancer.

A change in the nickname will have zero impact on my memories and zero impact on my regard for Saint Joe. But I wanted to weigh in on this topic because the school played such a big part in my life and because the debate promises to rage in the weeks and months ahead. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out.