CAN’T WIN FOR LOSING: I’ll be sending a get-well card to members of the Carpinteria School Board. What else can you do for people who choose to pick fights with tornadoes? In response to a single complaint lodged by one student of Chumash descent, the Carp School Board voted 3-2 to disavow, disown, and discontinue any further use of Native American iconography in connection with the “The Warriors,” the Warriors being the name of the school’s intensely beloved sports teams. In its effort to sanitize any potential for ethnic insult, the board accomplished the truly impossible; it galvanized 600 otherwise somnolent, supine, and sublimely disinterested adolescents into political action. In well-mannered outrage, they walked out of class en masse and marched to the school superintendent’s office, demanding that the Warriors’ beloved headdress and feathers not be consigned to the trash heap of history. Some debates you lose the moment you engage; this is one of them. On one hand, you can be an ignorant bigot, clumsily misappropriating the cultural icons of a tragically annihilated native people just so the annihilators’ pale-faced descendants can use them for their own ignorant amusement. Or, on the other hand, you can spit squarely in the face of Carpinteria’s cherished sense of small-town identity and pride, which for decades has revolved squarely around the Friday-night exploits of its football Warriors. Spend five minutes at a Warriors’ game and you get the picture. When it comes to fusing sports and civic intensity, there is nothing in Santa Barbara that comes close. Naturally, the board-in King Solomon fashion-sought to placate both sides by cutting the baby in half; the Native American imagery would go, but the Warrior name could stay. As compromises go, they’d have done better to stick the baby in a Cuisinart and pushed the “frappe” button.
At the risk of being intentionally dense, I don’t see the disrespect in “Warriors.” Contrary to the Rainbow Bridge School of anthropological fantasy-which maintains the Chumash lived in peaceful harmony with nature and one another for 10,000 blissful years prior to Whitey’s unhappy arrival-the Chumash did, in fact, engage in warfare. During times of drought and famine, village would turn against village. People would get killed. Typically, those living inland would take the offensive and attack those on the coast. It is true that Carp’s Warriors’ signature feathered headdress was worn by tribes inhabiting the Great Plains and has nothing to do with Chumash headgear. If ethnographic and historical integrity is the issue, however, then UCSB should abandon any and all references to Gauchos-its team name-immediately. Gauchos were exceptionally skilled horsemen who roamed the wide-open pampas of Argentina keeping in line errant cattle, but to date, Santa Barbara has no history or tradition of any gauchos. And what about the fabled “Dons” of Santa Barbara High School? Unlike the Gauchos, the Dons are authentically rooted in Santa Barbara tradition. They were the Landed Gentry, after all. But given the pseudo-egalitarian pretenses of American culture, I fail to see the appeal of playing for the “Landed Gentry.” If that’s the choice, give me the Warriors any day.
As a card-carrying Celtic-American, I have always been troubled by the “Fighting Irish” of Notre Dame. Sure, that pugilistic Leprechaun is kind of cute, but doesn’t it also call to mind all the offensive racist stereotypes-of shiftless, belligerent drunks good only for making babies and getting thrown in jail-that psychologically oppressed the Irish until they managed to create their own political machines and take over the world? And what about the Trojans of USC? To date, they remain the only team to be named after a condom.
But my lack of sensitivity regarding team names should come as no surprise. I grew up in the ‘burbs of D.C., home of the Washington Redskins. The obvious racism of the team’s name was eclipsed only by the ebullient bigotry of the team’s first owner, George Preston Marshall, who agreed to hire black players only by force of threat from the federal government back in the early 1960s. Marshall-who ran a string of successful laundromats and dry-cleaners-had marketed the Redskins as the team of the South, and vowed to hire players of color only when the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team fielded its first white. When the Redskins’ first black player-Hall of Fame running back and flanker Bobby Mitchell-got off the bus for training camp, Marshall greeted him as he got off, demanding that Mitchell sing with him a few stanzas of “Dixie,” then the anthem of the segregationist South.
Where Native Americans and football are concerned, there’s no shortage of weird ironies. It was the Carlisle Indians football team, for example, that in 1907 first invented the forward pass, which, next to jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and blue-grass music, ranks as America’s chief contribution to world culture. Certainly, it revolutionized the game of football, making what had been a brutish muddy brawl actually pretty. Until last year, traditional football historians had given Notre Dame the credit for discovering the passing game, setting the date of its inception at 1913. But Washington Post sports writer Sally Jenkins set the record straight in her book The Real All Americans. In it, she details how the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was created specifically to obliterate the native cultures of Indian students sent there to become “Americanized.” The school embraced football as a means to that end. By developing the passing game, then unheard of, the Carlisle Indians managed to humiliate much bigger-and quintessentially American-teams like West Point and Harvard. Adding yet another weird twist, it would be George Preston Marshall, the racist owner of the Redskins, who would make the forward pass mainstream. Not only did Marshall have the rules changed to open up the passing game, but he redesigned the geometry of footballs to make them easier to throw.
In the meantime, if I was the Carpinteria School Board, I’d just punt. Or run out the clock. I remember the last football game I attended in Carpinteria. It was a championship game, pitting the Warriors of Carpinteria against the Warriors from some place else. To be honest, I don’t remember the final score. But I do know who won. The Warriors.