COLUMN: When two sides agree, leave it alone

Published 1:00 am Friday, August 11, 2023

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I have been reading with great interest the letters to the editor in the Dowagiac Daily News about the nickname Chieftains.

It is interesting because, as I start my 41st year of covering high school sports for Leader Publications, I have been around long enough to see this ongoing battle between those who want to protect the name and those who want it changed.

I was here when the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and Dowagiac Schools came to an agreement to keep the name, but to change the logo so it was more reflective of what the Potawatomi Indians wore. Dowagiac even had a tribal member as its mascot for several years, including the run to the 1990 state champion.

More recently, the two groups got together and once again agreed that Dowagiac could keep the name Chieftains for its athletic teams. Many of the members of the tribe are proud of being associated through their name with the school and its athletics. Dowagiac had tried to honor the Pokagon Band as best it could for all these years.

I understand that one thing that changed in the most recent agreement is that Dowagiac would not use Chiefs on any of its uniforms as they replace them, but rather, Chieftains be used. It is only fair that the district honors that request just as it did when it changed its logo.

Outside groups that have nothing to do with the Pokagon Band or the Dowagiac Schools, from time to time, try to stick their nose where it does not belong. They have no idea how proud this community is to be associated with the Pokagon Band and where the name Chieftains on apparel even if they are not a member of the tribe.

These groups are more interested in stirring up trouble, just as has happened in other communities, not only in Michigan, but around the country. I cannot say whether or not they have a valid point in those other communities, but here in Dowagiac, it is better that they stay out of the way.

Being a sports writer for as long as I have, I can still remember when Florida State University and the Seminole Tribe of Florida came together and allowed the university to keep not only its nickname, but approved the regalia used by Osceola, the student who rides to midfield and plants the flaming spear. In 2014, the Seminole Tribe even assisted Florida State with the redesign of its uniforms.

That brings me to the Washington Commanders, who changed their name from Redskins after years of outcry from numerous groups. The former owner of the Commanders stood firm for decades while the battle raged on around his club. Daniel Snyder finally conceded, and two years after the name change was forced into selling the team by the National Football League.

Some of that had to do with the battle over the name, while some if it was for far worse issues inside the organization.

In an ironic twist, the “Reclaim the Name” campaign has sprung up in Washington as fans are seeking to force the NFL to allow Washington to bring back the Redskins. They have collected more than 60,000 signatures on a petition as of Monday. That happens to be the same seating capacity of FedEx Field, where Washington plays its home game.

But even more interesting is the fact that the Native American Guardians Association is trying to get a meeting with the new owners of the Commanders to discuss bringing the name back. So far, that has gotten NAGA nowhere, but they continue to push the topic. In fact, NAGA claims that a majority of Native Americans feel disrespected by the name change.

Who would have thought that a name that was labeled as offensive by so many is now at the center of another battle to bring it back? One of the things that NAGA points out is that Native Americans were never asked how they felt about the name of the football team. Lawsuits and polls claimed they were offended, but no one consulted them before making the change.

Dowagiac and Washington may have a little something in common. Both communities are proud of their Native American heritages, and both were fine with how their local sports teams honored that heritage throughout the decades.

It may be time for people to get out of the way regarding topics like this and let the parties involved handle it between themselves. After all, they know what is best for their communities and what it will take to satisfy both sides.


Scott Novak is sports editor for Leader Publications. He can be reached at