Companies and organizations around the nation are taking a long look at their histories and branding in an attempt to be more sensitive to all cultures.
That’s nothing new to sports teams, where the debate over team names has raged for decades. It appears that two longtime holdouts, the NFL’s Washington Redskins and MLB’s Cleveland Indians, are taking steps toward finding new nicknames for their teams, while baseball’s Atlanta Braves are digging in.
While pro teams are still sorting out what names are appropriate and which need to be rebranded, it’s a fight that has been long since resolved at the college level.
The NCAA passed a rule in 2005 banning “displaying hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery at any of the NCAA championships.” Schools were given a year to comply, and in North Carolina, there were three colleges impacted by the ruling.
One went the route of Washington and Cleveland and made a change, while the other two took the path Atlanta is trying to tread and have the same nicknames they always did.
Here’s a look back at the history of the cultural sensitivity battle at North Carolina colleges.
Chowan University: From Braves to Hawks
Chowan, like the county and river of the same name, was named after the Chowanoc Tribe, and the school’s initial choice of Braves as the nickname for its athletic teams paid tribute to those origins.
“Chowan College is in a real quandary because the name is derived from the Algonquin Indian tribe, meaning ‘they of the south,’” then-athletic director Jim Tribbett said. “The native term Chowan has been the name of our college for over 150 years. Chowan is located on the banks of the Chowan River and has always honored its heritage and geography.”
There’s a good chance the school could have gotten a waiver from the NCAA, as many other schools did — most notably the Florida State Seminoles and Utah Utes. Instead, Chowan decided to make a change, although not because it agreed with the decision.
“The college has agreed not to fight the NCAA ruling for several reasons: money, time, the college’s transition to Division II, and a battle that could not be won,” then-president M. Christopher White said.
“To the best of our knowledge, (the nickname) has never caused any problem,” White said. “The opposite is true. It has been viewed as a term of respect. However, times have a way of changing things — at least in the eyes of the NCAA.”
The school added that it would be “step(ping) away from its heritage and native culture”
After accepting suggestions from students, staff and the community, White unveiled the new name — the Hawks, which borrowed heavily from the old brand.
“It is a beautiful, brave — did you get that? — brave bird,” he said. The school’s new logo also borrowed heavily from the old, incorporating feathers that now signified Hawks instead of indigenous cultures.
UNC Pembroke: Sticking to its mission
UNC Pembroke was originally founded — and named the Croatan Normal School — as a way to provide higher education opportunities for Native Americans in the region. The school chose Braves as a nickname to pay tribute to the Lumbee tribe.
“The university was founded in 1887 by the Lumbee for the Lumbee,” Lawrence Locklear of the Lumbee Tribal Council said at the time. “What better way to depict our culture than with the logo that’s representing of us?”
With the clear support of the tribe — something that also benefited Florida State and Utah — Pembroke was exempted from the NCAA ruling and allowed to keep its nickname.
“The general feeling of the community is that people would be upset if we did change,” then-Chancellor Allen Meadors said.
“About half of our senior administration is Native American. The overwhelming majority of our alumni is Native American. Twenty percent of our student body is Native American,” then-athletic director Dan Kenney said.
Still, the school had already been forced to make one change. Back in 1992, the NCAA took aim at UNC Pembroke’s mascot, which at the time was a Native American “Indian.” The school agreed to change it to a red-tailed hawk, who goes by the name BraveHawk.
Catawba: Wins its appeal
Like Chowan, Catawba College was named after a tribe in the area and shared it with a county and town. The school chose Indians as a nickname to pay tribute to the Catawba Nation.
It was originally placed on the NCAA’s list of schools in violation of the 2005 rule, however, and Catawba administration was forced to appeal the decision.
“We disagree strongly with the categorization of Catawba College’s use of ‘Indians’ as ‘hostile and abusive,’” then-president Robert E. Knott argued. “Over the past several years, upon advice and counsel given us by our own alumni who are Native Americans, we have taken steps to assure the appropriate use of the College’s symbols and logos. We discontinued the College mascot and removed all renderings of Native Americans. These were not representations of Catawba Indians and culture.”
The school also had Chief Gilbert Blue of the Catawba Indian Nation meet with NCAA officials to show support for the name.
The appeal succeeded, as the NCAA agreed to exempt the school from the ruling.
“Although the NCAA executive committee continues to believe the stereotyping of Native Americans is wrong, it … respects the authority of the tribe to permit universities and colleges to use its name and imagery,” NCAA official Bernard Franklin said.
As we’re currently seeing with pro teams, there’s a fine line between paying tribute and mocking, and there doesn’t appear to be a one-size-fits-all solution.