Tonopah, Nev. and its "Fighting Muckers"

 

Utah "Remember," says photographer Greg Woodall, "when enviros and liberals were the ones who were 'anti-this and anti-that'?" Courtesy Greg Woodall.

UTAH

What's in a name? If the name is Dixie State College, based in St. George, Utah, it's nothing to sneeze at. Recently, as the college began moving closer to becoming a university, locals saw this as the perfect opportunity to sever any connection to the South's history of slavery and racism. Defenders countered that the name most likely derived from pioneer attempts to grow cotton in southwest Utah. Besides, they say, hundreds of local businesses pride themselves on the so-called "Dixie Spirit" of friendliness. Perhaps the name has good intentions, but as the daily Spectrum pointed out, the history of the college also includes hosting mock slave auctions, flying Confederate flags and erecting a statue honoring Confederate soldiers. Spectrum columnist Sally Musemeche talked to lots of people about the issue, and many were baffled and saddened that anyone would be offended by such things, or by a sports team named "The Dixie Rebels." "Only the over-sensitive" could possibly read racism into this, they said; Dixie really means "the spirit of independence." If that's true, Musemeche suggested, then the college ought to start celebrating the state's own civil war -- an armed confrontation between the Mormon settlers in the Utah territory and the armed forces of the U.S. government, which lasted from May 1857 until July 1858: "Go, Dixie!"

THE WEST

Speaking of names, how about the high school in Tonopah, Nev., that calls its basketball team the "Fighting Muckers"? Or Orofino, Idaho, with its team dubbed the "Maniacs"? As reader Wes Perrin discovered, unusual names for high school teams are a Western staple, with Phantoms, Blue Devils and Sun Devils standing out from all those Huskies and Eagles. But we believe the most unusual name can be found in Yuma, Ariz., where basketball players don warm-up suits in black-and-white stripes because their team is called the "Criminals." Students buy merchandise from a store called the Cell Block, reports the San Francisco Examiner, and the team mascot wears a burlap prison uniform and a plaster-of-Paris head with a scary, scrunched-up face that resembles somebody's notion of a perpetrator. The odd name was born 103 years ago, when Yuma's high school burned down, and the only available site for classes was a former territorial prison. Students used the old cells for several years, but the Criminals name was officially adopted in 1913, after a rival team from Phoenix claimed that Yuma cheated and "stole a victory." The team decided to treat the slur as a badge of honor, and in 1917, the school board officially approved the distinctive moniker. Perrin notes that for several years, the Criminals -- cheered on with a hearty, "Go, Crims!" -- faced a rival in the felon department: Bagdad, Ariz., fielded the "Thieves" until 1958, when the team's name was changed to the less interesting "Sultans."

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write betsym@hcn.org.