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D.G. Martin: Hail to the Redskins, or what?

By D.G. Martin

What would Joe Oxendine say to the Washington NFL football team about its nickname?

Oxendine, a proud Lumbee Indian and a personal hero of mine, died in April at 90. He was chancellor of UNC-Pembroke from 1989 to 1999 and served as interim president of Catawba College, his alma mater, in 2011. Both schools use Indian nicknames for their athletic teams.

Oxendine was an outstanding athlete at Catawba and after graduation played three seasons of Minor League Baseball.

As a professor for three decades at Temple University, he was recognized as an expert on Indian sports history. In the 1995 edition of his widely praised book, “American Indian Sports Heritage,” he wrote, “Neither the highly commercialized nature of professional sports today nor the more casual attitude prevailing in amateur activities captures the essence of Indian sport.”

Through sport, he wrote, Indians sought blessings from a higher spirit. Sport that evolved from religious rites retained a spiritual dimension, as seen in the attitude and manner of preparing and participating.

In the book Oxendine described the games that were a part of everyday life in Indian culture, including lacrosse-type games, running, archery, swimming, snow snake, hoop-and-pole, and games of chance. He followed the career of famous athletes such as Jim Thorpe in what he calls the apex of Indian sports during the first three decades of the last century.

As an expert on American Indian sports, he worried about the negative effect of Indian nicknames and mascots on the self-image of their people.

Oxendine grew up in Pembroke but had been away for many years when he returned to lead the university. UNC-Pembroke’s nickname is “the Braves.” At Oxendine’s first basketball game as chancellor, a “Brave” mascot ran out on to the court to excite the crowd. Actually, the mascot was a costumed caricature of an Indian who ran around the court acting like a clown. Oxendine was upset and offended.

But as he told me later, the local Lumbee Indian sports fans loved the nickname and the clownish mascot. He had to proceed carefully and respectfully. Eventually, the “Brave” mascot was banished and replaced with a red-tailed hawk, a bird revered by Indian people, but acknowledged to be a bit mischievous. Before Oxendine retired, he arranged for a prominent statue of a red-tailed hawk to be erected in the center of the campus to seal the mascot’s transition from demeaning caricature to a mischievous but admirable hawk.

The university’s athletic teams still use “Braves” as their nickname. Their logo features a brave with a hawk on his shoulder. Because all these representations are dignified and supported by the Lumbee Tribe and surrounding Indian community, the university has avoided controversies and had good answers for NCAA inquiries about Indian-themed nicknames and mascots.

Meanwhile, the owners of the Washington Redskins have resisted years of heavy pressure to change the team’s name. In 2013, the current owner, Dan Snyder said, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. Never — you can use caps.”

But times are changing and Snyder may be bending. FedEx, one of the team’s financial backers with its name on the stadium where the team plays, is applying pressure. Others such as Pepsi and Bank of America have expressed concern. Nike has removed Redskins items from its online store.

If Oxendine were still alive, could he help Snyder work his way out of the emerging trap? What action would accommodate the pressures for change?

I can dream of Oxendine saying gently, as was always his manner, “Maybe you all could use the red-tailed hawk that won the day for me at Pembroke. Or you could shorten it to just red hawks.”

Maybe. Just think.

Hail to the Red Hawks!

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday 3:30 pm and Tuesday at 5:00 pm on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8:00 pm and other times.

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