Editor's Column: Why Not A Pirate?

27 April 2001

By Stentor Danielson

Earlier this semester, the Moron News got in hot water for publishing a supposed interview with "Leroy," the original Red Raider mascot of Colgate University. In the interview, Leroy acted out pretty much every stereotype of Native Americans that the Moron News editors could think of. He counted all time in "moons," drank heavily (although the argument can be made that, no matter what Colgate's mascot's race, he should be a lush) and even said "How."

I must admit that I was not offended when I first read the "interview." I took the article much the way I think its writers intended - poking fun at what stereotypes Native American mascots are, rather than ridiculing Native Americans themselves. I was, however, not amused by it, as such childish attempts at humor lost their edge long ago. I simply readjusted my opinion of the quality of product that the Moron News puts out to reflect this crude failure to amuse me.

Others, however, were not so inclined to dismiss the interview. Hearing and reading these individuals' complaints about the portrayal of "Leroy" was a good reminder that racial stereotypes, while they may have lost their power to amuse me, have not lost their power to hurt others.

The publication of this "interview" brought to the forefront desires -- developed long before the Moron News even got off the ground -- to change Colgate's mascot. Groups around the nation have been agitating for some time to end the practice of using likenesses of Native Americans as sports team mascots. This is most noticeable when objection is to professional teams' symbols, like the Washington Redskins or the grinning face of the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo. But efforts are also being made at the college and high school level. New York State is currently considering a measure that would remove Native American mascots from its high schools.

Naturally, there is resistance to these types of changes, and Colgate was no exception. In addition to denying the harmfulness of the Red Raider, these people cite the origin of the name. Colgate's teams were dubbed the "Raiders" because they were relatively unknown, but highly skilled and backed by an enthusiastic crowd of fans. Colgate would come seemingly out of nowhere (out of "the middle of nowhere," to be precise), humiliate a team such as Princeton (then a football powerhouse) and swoop off back to the obscurity of central New York. They were, essentially, raiding opposing teams.

The adjective "red" could have come from two sources. One story holds that the dye on our maroon and white jerseys ran in the rain, blending together into a red color. The other story says that the main target of Colgate's raids was our archenemy, the Cornell Big Red (who, for reasons I can't explain, have a bear as their logo). So we were simply raiding the Red.

These stories are important traditions for many alumni and current students. In none of these stories is there a connection to Native Americans. But someone saw one, doubtless taking the term "red" to be a racial description, and drew up a spear-wielding Native American on horseback as Colgate's symbol.

The obvious Native American symbol has since been removed, replaced by a C with a torch. But the connection to Native Americans has not been lost; it has only become dormant. We need to sever that connection for good, to stop offending Native Americans, to make a statement about Colgate's concern for them and to clear up the absurdity of being called the "Red Raiders" when our school color is not red and our symbol is a C and torch. I believe we can do this without jettisoning the history of our sports teams. We can have the Raider and be politically correct, too.

My suggestion is to make the Raider a pirate. To be honest, that was my initial assumption about the name anyway, likely because the most famous Raiders - the football team from Oakland - are pirates. As long as our symbol is a torch (clearly not a representation of any kind of raider, except perhaps by a strained analogy to raiding as pillaging and burning), the nature of the Raider is unclear, and it is reasonable to look back to the days when the Raider had a face -- the face of a Native American. By giving the Raider a new face, we would put that behind us.

A pirate is a profession, not a race. The image of a pirate -- even a stereotypical Long John Silver or Blackbeard, with a peg leg, hook hand and patch eye and a parrot on his shoulder -- would not be construed as disparaging anyone who does not himself engage in piracy. Indeed, if any ethnic group in history has been stereotyped as pirates, it would be my own Viking ancestors.

While we are updating Colgate's symbolism, it would be best if the term "red" be dropped. It was this term that reinforced the idea that the Raider was a "red man," a Native American. There is a historical basis for the term (though what that basis is is not necessarily so clear). But the story is not widely known enough to balance even the discongruity of dressing the Red Raiders in maroon uniforms, much less make up for the possible misinterpretation.

I realize that this suggestion may seem silly. Perhaps it does not adequately address the concerns of those with strong feelings about the Raider mascot, on either side. But I would like to throw it out to the community, to keep issues like this alive and to stress the potential for creative compromise.

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