Alcatraz

By Betty Jo Chang

This is the 40th Anniversary of the Occupation of Alcatraz Island by the American Indian Movement (1969-1971), AND Football season so perhaps this little tale is timely.

I was at Stanford during the great controversy (1970-1972) over the Stanford Indian Symbol for the Football team, and over Chief Lightfoot (Timm Williams, a Yurok Chief) and his Indian dance in full regalia at the start of every Stanford game .

As I recall…

In November 1970, 23 Native students handed University officials a petition to remove Stanford’s Indian mascot. In 1972, 55 students, supported by the other 358 American Indians enrolled in California colleges, renewed this demand in meetings with the Stanford Administration. This time around, students made a full court press.

Some students play the ‘protection of native religious practices’ card. They said, “These are religious dances, he is not authorized by our Indian religious authorities to dance them. Therefore, he must be stopped. The Yuroc Tribal elders weighed in with a deposition that their ceremonial dances are not being performed by Chief Lightfoot, and they therefore have no objection to his activity.

Other students tried a “purity of tradition” argument. They said, “These are not authentic, they are just made up. Therefore he must be stopped”. Chief Lightfoot says, “I’m Indian.” “I dance”. “This is my dance.” “Who are you to say I am unauthentic?”

The students say, “It is demeaning for you to dance to the yells of a Football Crowd.” He says, “I don’t feel De-meaned. They aren’t yelling at me, they are cheering for me.”

They say, “You are bad for the image of the Native American”. He trots out his creds – Williams served  as elected leader of the 3000—strong Klamath River Yurok tribe, Chairman of the California Rural Indian Health Board, and director of the California Indian Assistance Project. He helped found the National Indian Health Board. He views his record as one of service and championing Indian rights.

The students, politicized by the recently ended 18 month long occupation of Alcatraz Island, and thus hyper-aware of the fairly poor record of agencies and boards intended to help Native Americans, get nasty.  With no respect, the Chief is called “a Banana”. (Yellow on the outside, white underneath).

That poor guy. He’d been fitting up his headdress and looking forward to Stanford Football games since he first danced at Stanford during the 1951 football season, when Stanford went to the Rose Bowl. Timm represented Stanford there at the first Rose Bowl game to be televised in color and to the entire country. He danced at every home game and many away games. The old guy LOVED IT. I mean, how many old guys get to get all duded up and dance their heart out to the cheers of thousands every autumn weekend. He must have looked forward to Football Saturdays all year long. Now along come some angry young bucks saying all this silliness and threatening to lose him a beloved fun and prestigious job he’d done earnestly and well for 20 years.

Of course, the Stanford Alumni weigh in big time. They trot out Tradition. Yes, that AXE was first taken as a symbol by our beloved University back near the very beginning.  And, by 1930 the Stanford Indian symbol was formally adopted though it had informally been in use for some years previous.

The Administration is duley impressed, for “Tradition” (not to mention Alumni) are important in so relatively young an institution as Stanford. Emboldened by their intial positive reception, the Alumni happily trot out their ‘evidence’. Indeed, there it is: In 1899 a large Axe became symbolic of this athletic rivalry (between CAL and Stanford) when Will Irwin produced the famous yell : “Give ’em the axe, … Right in the neck!” For some years after, theft of the Axe from whichever school had custody of it, occupied many hours of frat boy time. The Stanford team was formally named Indians in 1930 when, for a pivotal football game, a war chant was invented that went thus: “Stanford Indian Scalp the Bear…Take the Axe; To his Lair….” (CAL’s mascot is a Bear).

The Administration dithers: How to decide? On the one hand is exercise of sensitivity to Native American Culture. On the other hand is honoring as a valued and meaningful University Tradition a name derived from a couple of stupid cheers by a pair of drunken frat boys…. Hmmm. This hand or that hand…this hand or that hand…. Tough choice.

The students find a welcome ally in Ombudswoman Lois Amsterdam, who, no doubt sensitized by the increased understanding of the impact of objectification as articulated by the Women’s Movement at the time, understood the student’s angst. She is quoted as saying that “Stanford’s use of the Indian symbol in the 1970s brings up to visibility a painful lack of sensitivity and awareness on the part of the university…. it was a reflection of our society’s retarded understanding, dulled perception and clouded vision.”

The Axe still does not fall  though on poor Chief Lightfoot and the Stanford Indian symbol, until one of the students finally finds the perfect foil with which to best the Administration.  In his memoirs the University Pres. reports a student telling him: “You see something dignified and vaguely authentic. I see a Yurok Indian performing Plains dances in Navajo dress, and I find it troubling.”

YES! Nothing like it. Attack an Academic by disparaging his scholarship as superficial. Takes ’em down every time.

Chief Lightfoot was enjoined from dancing at the games. The Stanford dollies hung up their beaded deerskin headbands and outfits. The tradition had come to an end. Several student body votes followed the decision to abandon the Indian as the team Symbol for Stanford.

The last vote on the subject was characterized by a rare concurrence of interest between the Frat House crew, still smarting over loss of their beloved yells,  and  the more radical students who, ever didactic, said, “It’s about political correctness.”  The Frat crews said, “‘Political correctness’. OK, we can go with that.” The Student body then voted for “ROBBER BARONS” as the name for the team, in honor of the source of founder Leland Stanford’s fortune.

The administration, sick to death of the subject, cancelled the election and called no other.

Posted in People, Politics, Reflections Tagged with: , , ,
2 comments on “Alcatraz
  1. Betty Jo, thank you for letting me post this! I doubt that there is anyone else who has drawn together the threads of that story. I have one quibble… (speaking academically, you understand, as a collector of ethnic slurs and insults): According to the Urban Dictionary, “banana” is usually an insult applied to Asians. The same source suggests that “Uncle Tomahawk” may be more appropriate as a Native American put-down.

  2. Betty Jo says:

    The Stanford students were perhaps more earnest (or hungry) than accurate, for they called the poor chief a Banana.

    thanks for posting it for me.

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