Indigenous Mascots, Senate Bill 116, and UNC’s Satirical “Fightin’ Whites” Basketball Team: An Interview with Solomon Little Owl

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November is “Native American Heritage Month” in the United States. Learn more about this month here.

On June 3, 2021, the Colorado legislature passed Senate Bill 116, a move that ultimately bans public schools from using Native American mascots, making Colorado the fifth state in the United States to formalize this policy into law. This comes after decades-long protest over settler colonialism, land dispossession, and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) push to end problematic and stereotypical mascots at educational institutions across the country. Within the United States and Canada’s settler colonial systems, the proliferation of racist Indigenous stereotypes has served to legitimize Indigenous land dispossession and natural resource exploitation.

“Within the United States and Canada’s settler colonial systems, the proliferation of racist Indigenous stereotypes has served to legitimize Indigenous land dispossession and natural resource exploitation.”

The use of ethnic imagery in visual identities of brands, whether those used by professional sports franchises or rural schools, has long been a contentious issue in American society. But recent research has shown that even incidental exposure to Native American sports mascots not only reinforce stereotypes in people, but that many individuals are not even aware that this subtle reinforcement is taking place (Angle 2015).  According to a database maintained by the NCAI, there are 1,905 public schools in the Unites States that have Native American-themed mascots, 417 of which use the name “Warriors,” and 790 which use the name “Indians.”

Here in Colorado, there are currently twenty-four K-12 schools with Native American mascots. In 2016, a governor’s commission recommended the elimination of such Native American-derived mascots, imagery, and names, citing schools that called themselves the Savages, Indians, Warriors, Redskins, Reds, and Braves. The commission concluded that while tribal images may be steeped in local traditions and important to community identity, they may also reinforce negative stereotypes about Native Americans and portray an inaccurate and inauthentic view of Indigenous peoples today.

In the past few years, several schools across the nation have changed their names, including Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado. Colorado’s other public schools will now have until June 1, 2022 to alter their mascots or face a $25,000 per month fine that will go toward the state’s education fund. Schools that already have agreements with one of 48 federally recognized Native American tribes with ties in Colorado can keep their mascots if the agreement was made prior to June 30, 2021, but the tribes can revoke those agreements at any point, or the agreements can be ended by either party. If that happens, schools will have one year to find a new mascot. And while changing a school mascot is a challenging and costly endeavor, Governor Polis will allow schools that are using Native American mascots to apply for state financial assistance for public school capital construction grants. 

While many see the passage of the bill as another positive outcome of our increased awareness about social justice, some defenders of Native American mascots continue to argue that the mascots actually honor Native Americans and improve perceptions of Indigenous people.  This was the case for Eaton High School, located in a town of just over 5,000 in eastern Colorado, where the mascot issue had been a contentious one for over 20 years.  Eaton’s “Fightin’ Reds” mascot—a visage of a native with a misshapen nose, eagle feather, and adorned in a loin cloth—was emblazoned upon the middle of the high school’s gym floor, on the walls, and on students’ uniforms, serving as a cartoon-like caricature of an Indigenous person.

A high school mascot painted on a gym floor that portrays a sterotypical image of an Indigenous person
Eaton High School “Reds” Mascot, Colorado. CPR News.

In 2002, Dan Ninham, a member of the Oneida nation, formed a multiethnic committee to oppose the Reds mascot at Eaton High, calling it “one of the most blatantly racist mascots in the country” and in response school officials initially refused to meet with the committee to discuss concerns. Then, in March of 2002, the University of Northern Colorado intramural basketball team, just nine miles south of Greeley, created its own satirical mascot known as the Fightin’ Whites—often known as the Whities—to protest Eaton’s stance. The rebranding of UNC’s intramural team unleashed an unprecedented firestorm of media attention in the months that ensued, raising important questions about native stereotypes at both the local and national scales. Eaton has since voted on an alternative logo and has plans to construct a new 62-acre property and high school with support from a bond initiative.

“The rebranding of UNC’s intramural team unleashed an unprecedented firestorm of media attention in the months that ensued, raising important questions about native stereotypes at both the local and national scales.”

A Fightin' Whites jersey from 2002. Jersey states "Go Fightin' Whites! Fighting the use of Native American stereotypes"
Jersey from the Fightin’ Whites Basketball Team at UNC, 2002 (Courtesy: UNC Michener Archives)

On the eve of the team’s 20th anniversary, I sat down with Solomon Little Owl, co-founder of the Fightin’ Whites. Crow Nation member Little Owl was both an alumni and Director of Native American Student Services at UNC – a former Teachers College and a regional comprehensive university in the eastern part of the state –  when the team was first formed.  Solomon would later take a job as the Chief Executive Officer of the Crow Reservation in Montana where he was born and raised. Back in 2002, Little Owl (Crow), Charles Kuny (Lakota), Ryan White (Mohawk) formed the satirical and multi-racial intramural basketball team, a move that would bring both local resistance and support from many students at Eaton High. The ensuing press coverage helped the intramural team raise $100,000 in funds for UNC Native American student scholarships through basketball t-shirt sales. In October 2021, I had the opportunity to interview Solomon Little Owl in order to learn more about how the passage of Senate Bill 116 impacted him and other native communities in Colorado.  We discussed whether this change provided the policy outcome he and his teammates had lobbied for nearly twenty years ago.

Solomon Little Owl holding a Fightin' Whites jersey.
Fightin’ Whites Co-Captain Solomon Little Owl in Greeley, Colorado, 2002. (Courtesy: UNC Michener Archives)

Karen Barton: Solomon, can you tell me why you, Charles Kuny, and Ryan White started the Fightin’ Whites, also known as the Fightin’ Whities, in 2002?

Solomon Little Owl: We started the team in order to get to know students outside the classroom, and to engage in a sport that Natives across the United States love to play. In addition, we wanted to support Dan N., a doctoral student at the University of Northern Colorado, and his group’s protest against the mascot at Eaton High School. Together we could see traditional protests were not gaining any traction in bringing awareness to the seriousness of the issue.  We had also watched some community and school members contradict their argument that the Eaton mascot served as an honor to Native Americans. They would say, “go back where you came from.” We studied the psychology of Native mascots and chose the Fightin’ Whites as a name in the hope that the visual and silent message would bring a different kind of awareness.

Did you receive any pushback from local or national groups who did not understand the satire of the Fightin’ Whites?

(Solomon laughs). The only harassment I got was from interviewers like CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and the BBC who consistently wanted to do interviews after the word got out about our team. I did not expect that kind of response. We had no idea where this was going to go because we were protesting silently and just playing basketball, but we began to get some traction on the issue. What remains now are the memories of our team and the endowment or scholarship funds that were generated as a result.

For many years you brought UNC students on the buffalo hunt in Montana as an annual tradition. Can you speak about how this ties into our understandings and misunderstandings about Native American people and the way they are represented in the mainstream media?

I think the buffalo hunt we did provided an opportunity for higher education to promote native culture on campus. It was a way to go and visit a reservation and through it we had students participate as part of what we now call an alternative spring break. Not only did students get a chance to help Crow children read but they could see and experience the history of the Crow Tribe as an active, living culture. It is hard to explain one’s culture unless you do so firsthand, because there are 573 other federally recognized tribes in this country, not to mention First Nations in Canada. Our buffalo hunt brought teachers and learners and those that are simply curious together in one place.  The buffalo hunt was also an opportunity to educate people on my terms, to directly show people our culture, which is different from what they learn with mascots that reduce our culture to a stereotype. I believe that to educate people you must invite them in your home, as a visitor, which is what we did for many years.

“The buffalo hunt was also an opportunity to educate people on my terms, to directly show people our culture, which is different from what they learn with mascots that reduce our culture to a stereotype.”

Solomon Little Owl

What was it like to attend the Senate Bill 116 signing ceremony for you and your family?

I thought it was wonderful. I am not sure how to explain it. It was awesome to be there with my family and to see the Native voices and concerns make a difference in Colorado. It was great to see the diversity of all the lawmakers there and the unity in room. I love what the Chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute said that the beneficiaries of this bill are today’s young Native American generation and the unborn. This bill makes our state a better place to live. We still have a lot of battles ahead of us. In relation to Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream, I still have hope that someday Native American children can join hands with black and white children as brothers and sisters.

Little Owl family at signing of Senate Bill 116 in Colorado
Left to Right: Mya Little Owl, Uriah Little Owl, Kacy Little Owl, and Solomon Little Owl at Senate Bill 116 Signing (Source: Little Owl family)

Solomon Little Owl has had a rich career spanning work in the United States Marines (1991-1995), University of Northern Colorado, Crow Reservation, and currently, in his capacity as a high school educator. The photo above features Solomon with his family at the 2021 signing of Senate Bill 116 in Colorado.

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Karen "Sam" Barton is a Professor of Geography, GIS, and Sustainability at the University of Northern Colorado, USA. Her recent book, "Africa's Joola Shipwreck: Causes and Consequences of a Humanitarian Disaster," explores the second worst maritime disaster in peacetime history as well as the community resistance and resilience that followed in the wake of this avoidable tragedy. This fieldwork was supported by both Fulbright and the National Endowment for the Humanities-Council for American Overseas Research Senior Fellowships. Barton is also a Fellow of the Explorers Club, Society for Women Geographers, and the Royal Geographical Society and an advocate on behalf of study abroad, experiential learning, and field science for emerging scholars. She is a proud, first generation scholar.

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