Go Lambkins! But no go Redskins?

The controversial territory of mascot names.

 

Mascots: Will we ever stop arguing about them? Consider Teton County in Idaho, where school Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme said he was replacing the Redskins with a mascot less offensive to the Shoshonean people who originally inhabited that part of Idaho.

His announcement outraged many locals. Alumni protested loudly that their parents were Redskins, they had been Redskins, and by golly, their children would be Redskins, too. For now, Woolstenhulme, who has deep roots in the area, has retreated, but says he plans to revisit the issue.

Others besides Teton County residents have been struggling to decide what is an acceptable mascot. Protests continue about the Washington Redskins, the professional football team in our nation’s capital. Among us we also have various Savages, and you can be assured that the images used are not of mortgage bankers.

In Colorado, the Lamar High School Savages use an Indian profile similar to that of Teton County. As is common in high schools, the female teams are called the lady this and lady that, giving us the jarring juxtaposition of the Lady Savages as well as the Savage Cheerleaders.

No doubt, most locals in Lamar mean no disrespect to Native Americans when they use the name and mascot. Most schools choose something snarly and rambunctious to represent themselves. Unique are Colorado’s Fort Collins High School Lambkins, although the original lamb’s gentle visage has been replaced with a much fiercer face.

But consider this about Lamar: In 1864, one of the most horrific days in the history of the West occurred about 40 miles to the north. There, along Sand Creek, hundreds of defenseless Cheyenne and Arapahoe, some of them waving American flags, were killed by invaders from Denver who had betrayed their own promises of safety and sanctuary. If the word “savage” has any meaning, should it not be applied to one of those blood-lusting cavalrymen?

But then, that is usually the bizarre way of conquerors. We honor our vanquished foes by using their names, though with Native Americans, we were conflicted from the start, as is evident in the once-common phrase  “the noble savages.” In Colorado, we named some of the state’s mountains after the Utes who were forced to leave the area. In Montana, this practice was followed in a different form. Despite its determined efforts to rid the landscape of Ursus horribilis, the state proudly dubbed its university the home of the Grizzlies.

In the Denver suburb of Arvada, where I live, the local high school team was originally called the Redskins. While this area was once the province of the Arapahoe and other tribes, the story is that the name derived from the red dye in football clothing, which rubbed off on the skin of players. The Redskins in the 1990s became the Reds, a name that surely would not have been accepted during the height of the Cold War, and that too has been replaced by the top-hatted, toothy but ultimately bland Bulldogs.

Most schools go for the generic, missing obvious opportunities. Colorado has the Deer Trail High School Eagles, instead of the Bucks and Does. In Casper, Wyo., the Natrona County High School Mustangs could easily be the Drillers or Roustabouts. And why should Roswell, N.M., be home to the Coyotes when it could be the Aliens, Extraterrestrials or Bug-eyed Invaders?

Occasionally, local heritage is acknowledged. Price, Utah, has the Carbon County Dinos, reflecting the area’s rich deposits of dinosaur bones. Arizona has the Yuma Criminals, because the state penitentiary is there, which is the same reasoning behind the Rawlins, Wyo., Outlaws. Elsewhere in Wyoming are the Big Piney Punchers, a nod to local ranching.

In Colorado’s mountains, we have the Aspen Skiers, the Clear Creek Golddiggers, and the Steamboat Sailors. On the plains, it’s the Rocky Ford Meloneers and the Brush Beetdiggers, the latter a nod to the sugar beets grown where I was born.

Maybe Idaho’s Teton County should take a cue from these farming communities. Teton County is now something of an exurb of Jackson Hole, but it wasn’t that long ago that students were dismissed for a week each October to help root out the seed potatoes that were, and still are, a big part of the local economy. Why not the Teton High School Spuds? Or Tubers? Or, perhaps best of all, the “Teton Taters”?

Come to think of it, Arvada High School missed a big opportunity when it chose Bulldogs as a mascot. This area once prided itself on growing Pascal celery. In my way of thinking, that would make us the Arvada Stalkers.  Sounds menacing — the very point of high school mascot names.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives from Denver and publishes the e-zine, Mountain Town News.