By Tony Wittkowski | Managing Editor | Central Michigan Life
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — Joe Loomis has made it a point to attend every home football game at Central Michigan University since his freshman year.
In the fourth game of 2013 when the Chippewas faced the Toledo Rockets, CMU donned their throwback jerseys, which were mustard yellow with maroon stripes on the shoulder pads. On the center of each jersey, where the player’s number was normally located, was a giant “C.”
The Petoskey junior had gotten wind of the look of the one-time-only jerseys after seeing some of the prototypes posted on Facebook by CMU Athletics.
“I remember last year the team wore black jerseys when they played (Michigan) State,” Loomis said. “For that game Austin and I dressed in black from head to toe. A few others did the same, but we were the only ones dressed that way in front.”
In the days leading up to the Mid-American Conference showdown, Loomis and his roommates – Holland senior Nathan Miles and Petoskey junior Austin Peters – were in Meijer when they came across some body paint.
This was the beginning of a series of events that would reignite the decades-long debate about cultural symbols and meaning, eventually bringing in the students, the university and the local tribe.
The Chippewa name has been under focus for its use as a mascot by the Native American community since the 1970s. However, it has become more heated with the new discussion on whether the Washington Redskins mascot should be changed.
Frank Coultier was notified via text message of the photo that ran front page of Central Michigan Life before entering his north office the Monday after the Rockets defeated the Chippewas, 38-17.
The photo showcased Loomis, alongside his roommates, shouting from the student section while shirtless and covered in a goldish-yellow paint with a maroon “C” in the center of his chest.
However, what caught Coultier’s interest were the streaks of paint on Loomis’ cheeks. The problem with the three streaks on Loomis’ face was how they close they resembled war paint.
“To be honest, I had seen the (newspaper) earlier in the morning but had thought nothing of it,” said Coultier, director of public relations for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. “A friend of mine texted me about it and soon after I received a few calls from (tribe) members as well.”
Coultier reached out to university officials until he got a hold of Sherry Knight, the associate vice president of university communications, who had Loomis brought in for a discussion on student conduct.
“They were on that like nothing,” said Marcella Hadden, manager of Tribal Operations. “One call from the tribe was all it took. Receptive and sensitive.”
Two days later, a mass email was sent out to students on behalf of University President George Ross, which gave a friendly reminder to all students and faculty about being respectful at games and of other cultures.
There was no mention of face paint or a depiction of any specific culture.
‘Not our intention to offend’
In the fall of 2003, a student donned a homemade mock costume of Native American regalia. According to records found at the Clarke Historical Library, he wore his gear to football games on several occasions and “caused a stir.”
The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe went on to purchase ads in CM Life every week, pushing one common message on the subject. One of the ads read, “I am a mother, I am a nurse, I am not your mascot.”
“The tribe did take a lot of action after the event,” said Bryan Whitledge, a reference assistant at the Clarke Historical Library. “His Indian regalia was very cheesy and very poorly crafted. It was penne noodles strung on a string to make a breastplate to look like bones. He had feathers which were kind of cheap yellow and maroon feathers, and then fake war paint.”
Prior to the face paint incident at the Toledo football game, the latest incident took place not at a stadium, but at a campus restaurant in 2007.
Colleen Green, director of Native American programs at CMU, heard of a student whose attire was offensive to Native Americans, and sent an aide down to the cafeteria to see what was going on.
“We had an incident in one of the dining commons,” Green said. “We had a student go in there and take a photo and send it to me. It had a young man in a headdress serving food.”
While not every occurrence was documented, some instances were remembered more than others.
Charmaine Shawana is the current tribal historic preservation officer for the tribe. She also served as a tribal council member off and on for the last decade and has been at the heart of the name controversy since she first enrolled at CMU in 1973.
While on campus, Shawana and a handful of other Native American students led small protests near the library and the football stadium.
“We were the real Indians of CMU (in 1973), and we were a bit radical,” Shawana said. “Of course, we never liked the name Chippewa. There used to be a white guy dressed up like an Indian on the field at games.”
This was at a time when the basement of the Bovee University Center used to house a restaurant called “The Reservation.”
Throughout the years, Shawana and a few close-knit friends openly opposed the name Chippewa because it was not even the name of their tribe.
Like others before her, Shawana does not know where or when the name Chippewa came into play, but the members from this region are actually called the Anishinabe. This is translated to “the first man lowered down from above.”
When CMU changed their football helmets by taking away the spear and arrow and began to integrate what is known as the “Action C,” Shawana still saw them as Chippewas.
Even though the name is not correct, it’s the “act of savagery” that comes with all Native American mascots that sets Shawana off.
“There have always been students who dressed their face up in war paint and acted ridiculous,” Shawana said. “Football games are just big drunk parties. It’s insulting and it’s racist. We are not mascots, we are a people.”
Around the same time Shawana was protesting the name, current CMU Police Chief Bill Yeagley was suiting up on the field at left defensive end from 1974-76.
However, during that time Yeagley witnessed little to no interaction between the tribe and university.
Over the years, the meaning of the word Chippewa has changed for Yeagley. In the beginning it was a sign of passion and pride. Now it has taken many forms when he looks back on his playing days under Defensive Coordinator Herb Deromdi.
“I do recall there were some people in regalia who represented Native Americans at games,” Yeagley said, “but to be honest I didn’t notice too much because I was more focused on the games.”
One of the things Yeagley thinks back to are the stickers that were awarded to individuals who made big plays.
A small hatchet was put on the individual’s helmet, similar to the buckeye stickers Ohio State players attach to their helmets in order to showcase their accomplishments on the field.
“Part of what we were striving for was to cover that helmet in hatchets – to show that the individual had a lot of outstanding plays,” Yeagley said. “It was not our intention to offend folks, I wasn’t sure why it would be offensive back then.”
Now students can see Yeagley back at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, but on patrol for damage control during games.
Since he first accepted the job as police chief at CMU, Yeagley has only seen or heard of a handful of isolated incidents involving offensive apparel being worn by students. He sees no widespread depictions of Native Americans anymore.
“Thirty-five years ago, if Native Americans were upset about the name, I was not aware of it,” he said. “There has been a big push for activism over the last two decades.”
The education process
At the beginning of every school year, every incoming freshman is ushered into a hall and seated for approximately four hours.
Topics of discussion include sexual assault, depression and alcohol abuse.
During that time they also go through several vignettes – brief, first-hand accounts of discrimination – from tribal members on appropriate behavior at games.
“It is derogatory, but not a lot of the majority understands that concept,” Green said. “We have more than 200 Native American students on campus and if they are going out to a sporting event they are not going to want to see someone dress up in a costume trying to act like them.”
There is a vignette on the Chippewa nickname on how to respect the tribe and the culture that comes with Mount Pleasant. CMU also allows a few of the tribe’s public relations representatives to give a 15-minute discussion on what it means to be native and what the tribe has to offer as well as a little bit of the history.
One of the things explained during those meetings is the deeper meaning behind a headdress.
Part of the tribe’s logo is the headdress, which is made of eagle feathers that are considered extremely sacred. Each tribe goes through a process in attaining eagle feathers because they are endangered. The feathers are of high importance because during a ceremony, if a dancer were to drop an eagle’s feather, it represents a fallen warrior.
This has been the initial step for connecting students to their local tribe for the last seven years.
“I think it’s evolving,” Hadden said. “As the university and the tribe become closer and the relationship strengthens, the more culturally sensitive they are. We have a great partnership with them.”
Athletic Director Dave Heeke said he has worked closely with the tribe in doing a number of things with the student athletes. According to Heeke, CMU doesn’t have a mascot.
“It is not our mascot. It is not a nickname,” he said. “It’s a name that we share, proudly, with the Chippewa Indian Tribe, something that’s been here for a number of years.”
Those who have defended the name have said the university helps the tribe by working with them in supporting their efforts to spread their culture, Shawana said.
However that comes at a cost.
“The bad part of it is, they represent all Indian people,” she said. “So you would have to get the approval of all Indian people to say that’s OK, and I doubt if that’s ever going to happen.”
Even though CMU has taken every step short of changing the name, Shawana believes more can be done. The spear may be gone, but the sentiment is still there.
“I hope and pray one day my kids and grandkids can be able to go to a school where there isn’t a mascot named the Chippewas,” Shawana said. “In the age of political correctness, there is no need for that name.”
As the final seconds of the fourth quarter ticked away and CMU’s offense turned the ball over for the fourth time that day, Loomis had already left the stadium.
The paint on both his face and chest had started to peel, but it would still be another 36 hours before he found out what he had mistakenly done.
“I wasn’t trying to look like a Native American,” Loomis said. “I put the marks on my face to match the stripes on the shoulder pads of the players.”
CMU’s line coach Lawrence “Doc” Sweeney, who had a major role in changing the university’s mascot to Chippewas in 1941, had wanted to see more showmanship and pageantry at games. Indirectly, this was a byproduct of a football coach who wanted more fan support.
Like other students who study at CMU, Loomis had gone to those freshman orientations where members of the tribe’s public relations spoke on the name and the negative connotation it can bring. Looking back, Loomis said he didn’t think much of it because he has always been sensitive to other races and cultures.
However, after the misunderstanding of his face paint, Loomis approaches the game of football differently.
“I haven’t been to a game since,” he said. “I don’t really have a reason, I just watch when it’s on TV or not at all.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 26, 2014)