Letting the Indian Go: The Evolution of the Tam Mascot


By Mae Puckett

Though it has been over 20 years since Tam decided to phase out the Tam High Indian in favor of the Red-Tailed Hawk, the mascot change continues to stir controversy among some in the Marin community. The Tam News examines the collision between nostalgia for a bygone era and modern cultural awareness.

When Tamalpais High School was founded in 1908, Native Americans were barely considered citizens of the United States and needed special permits to vote. Perhaps, in that time of limited social acceptance, the Tam students and staff thought they were being progressive by honoring the Miwok Indian by having it as the mascot until 1989.

In 1988, Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather visited Tam High as a guest director for Dan Caldwell’s drama class. She and a colleague, Titus Frenchman, a member of the Delaware Tribe (now Head of the Delaware Elder’s Society in Oklahoma) began helping Caldwell direct a play, “Grandmother Earth,” in order to make the scenes with Native American characters as accurate as possible. Upon Littlefeather’s arrival, Caldwell informed her of the mascot.

Littlefeather had worked with other Native Americans to change the Stanford University Indian mascot in 1971. Stanford complied in 1972, becoming the Cardinal. The change was the first of its kind – no college before Stanford had changed a mascot due to cultural sensitivity. So when Littlefeather heard about the Indian mascot at Tam, she was upset, and tried to make students understand the need for change.

“[I began] to educate students at Tam High why, from the Native American viewpoint, Indian mascots are inappropriate and do not serve to honor us. It is part of the racism of the last 500 years that dehumanizes us as a race of people – part of the genocidal thinking of dominant society,” Littlefeather said.

The idea spread. Several students formed a group called The Students for Justice, which began a movement to change the mascot. At first, they tried sending out a ballot to the students on whether or not to change the mascot. However, the vote was badly organized, and many students did not take it seriously. Some students tampered with ballots, and many submitted false ballots as jokes. Many others attacked the idea as being overly “politically correct,” or outright ridiculous.

Concern with political correctness, especially pertaining to the mascot, is still alive today.

“It was changed because of political correctness, and I’ve petitioned a couple times to get it back,” George Cagwin, Class of ‘56 and current president of the Tam alumni association, said. “The school is still one of the best of the country, it’s beautiful, like a miniature university. I just like to continue old traditions.”

Though some alumni argue a loss of tradition in changing the mascot, they may not understand how it truly affects Native Americans. This concern about cultural sensitivity was what prompted the change.

In 1989, then-principal Barbara Galyen said, “Unfortunately, our process for changing the mascot has been marred by difficulties. Since no specific group took the responsibility for presenting both sides of the issue, information has been fragmented and mostly one-sided… With such an important decision, our entire staff and student body needs to be aware of all available facts and viewpoints.”

Although the student body eventually organized, creating panel discussion representing both sides of the issue and choosing the Red Tailed Hawk as the new mascot of Tam High by popular vote, there was continuous backlash against the “political” nature of the mascot change, which often targeted the Students for Justice. Many of the people angry about the mascot change were alumni, such as Cagwin. “It was changed because of political correctness – not because students wanted to change it,” he said.

Other alumni defended the change. “My perception is that in the sports world it is not the norm to change [mascots] so I thought that was a thing,” Antonina Fullerton, Class of ’78, said. “It was before “Political Correctness” existed, so I think it took independence.”

The alumni association still sells Tam Indians T-shirts, there are Tam Indians stickers on the cars of defiant alumni, and reunion posters are peppered with various images of “squaw and brave” type imagery.

“When I come down to Homecoming, they allow us to sell Indians tee shirts and people crowd around to get them,” Cagwin said. Defiant alumni are a staple of schools that change mascots – there are people who still dress up for Stanford games as Indians.

Some alumni cite tradition as one of the reasons that mascots should not be changed. “I think it’s a good thing that colleges are being sensitive to what offends people, but I see it as a little sad, that loss of ‘old times,’” senior Tassia Huq said.

Some, however, find the tradition argument feeble. “Stanford changed, and the same thing, old alumni are against it, but they’re just privileged, they think it’s their thing, and they don’t realize there are Native American people in the world,” said Mary Trimble Norris, a Navajo (Dine) who started the American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland. “It feels to me people are just entitled. It’s funny; people are comfortable with using Native American [mascots] and not other races.”

Littlefeather added, “One does not have the Tam High Jews, Tam High Spics, the Tam High Negroes or the Tam High Indians/Redskins. To name a mascot after a race of people is inappropriate and culturally insensitive – you name sports teams or mascots after an animal totem like the Bears, the Cougars, the Tigers, etc, not human beings.”

Mascots are seen as the tip of the racism iceberg for Native American communities. They are an example of the kind of dehumanization that leads to sexualization of Native American women (who experience rates of sexual assault that are more than twice the national average, according to the New York Times) and commodification and homogenization of Native American culture.

“Not all our people are plains people, not everyone was in war bonnets, and an example is the California tribes, who were mostly fishermen,” said Tom Phillips, a member of the Kiowa tribe and a well-known emcee at Native American powwows across the country. “Things like Tomahawks [which are commonly waved around in a war like manner by mascots], which were used to build homes, are a distortion of our culture. Scalping was not a Native American practice; it was brought by the British. The ‘Redskins’ means ‘red with blood,’ and that is a big concern to me regarding sports teams like the Washington Redskins. Mascots depict us as savages; it has a negative impact on our children and our culture.”

Some, however, argue that the Indian does not have a negative impact, that it was in fact a good representation of Tam. “It was more of a symbol than a mascot – we sort of revered him as a symbol of Mount Tamalpais and a symbol of the Indians who came before us,” Cagwin said. Other people agree, including freshman Brian Rivas. “I think the Indian as a mascot symbolizes where we are, like the place that we are at, since Tamalpais is really old and the mountain has history,” he said.

Thirty-three professional and college sports teams in the U.S. still have mascots that represent Native American people. There is constant controversy over these names. In the best case scenario, the school or team contacts the local Native American tribe, asking for permission. Such was the case in the decision to keep the Spokane Indians logo – when the Spokane team, a minor league baseball team in Washington, made the decision to change their mascot, the Spokane Nation suggested the team keep their mascot, provided the logo was subtle and tasteful imagery that respected the tribe. The Spokane Indians changed their logo slightly, using a feather as their image instead of an actual “Indian”, and they have a second logo, written in Salish, the language of the Spokane Nation. Most teams use generic Indian imagery, usually representing an Indian in a feather war bonnet. “I think [the racism] depends a lot on how it is portrayed, since you can make the mascot racist or not,” freshman China Hagstrom said.

Although some alumni are upset about Tam’s change of mascot, other alumni are not convinced that the mascot was ever a good thing. “I was a cheerleader as a sophomore, in 1976, and then I focused on it… I wasn’t very comfortable with it,” Fullerton said. “Some of the cheers were very stereotypical, like saying ‘HOW’ at the end of the cheers. I didn’t think about it until after.”

Whether or not one agrees with the change, there is some debate over the degree to which the mascot should be updated.“To get rid of everything with an Indian symbol was a little bit overkill,” Cagwin said.

Despite the school’s unwillingness to change the mascot back to the Indian, the alumni association still sells Tam Indian spirit wear, such as T-shirts and stickers. Although alumni may say the school has erased everything with an Indian symbol, Tam continues to honor its history with murals that show the progression of the Tam Indian, and still showcases old yearbooks featuring the Indian in the library.

Anacita Agustinez, a Navajo (Dine), reflected on the widespread use of Indian Mascots. “Stanford wasn’t required to change, but it did, other schools need to learn from that,” she said. “We’re not animals, we’re not mascots. A human culture is not a mascot, it’s degrading. We have been able to bring ourselves up, and when [others] try to implement images in a derogatory manner, it hurts us, since we have been through so much ridicule, our people have that discrimination. Promote a positive image of our people. I don’t think there’s any pride in the mascot.”