Talk Story


A Banana Slug
by any other name ...

I was bemused to read the headline, "Rainbows welcome revived Anteaters," in Thursday's Star-Bulletin sports section.

Anteaters are insect-eating mammals from Mexico, Central America and South America. They have long heads, tails, mouths, tongues and claws -- claws so long, in fact, that they tuck them under and walk on their knuckles.

The acrophonology ("What's in a Name?") Web site says, if you are named Anteater, "You are adventurous with a tendency to be foolhardy."

The headline evokes the image of a bevy of the creatures awakening after a wild night of gorging on termites, salsa and Coronas to see the rising sun's rays refracting through a mauka shower into a welcoming anuenue.

Of course, the Rainbows in the headline are the University of Hawaii baseball team and the revived Anteaters are the team from UC-Irvine, newly reinstated after the school had dropped baseball.

In 1965, Irvine students opted to name their athletic teams the Anteaters, inspired by a comic strip. The school history says: "In the B.C. comics, the anteater's tongue, when striking its prey, made a resounding noise, 'ZOT!' -- now the fearsome UCI Anteaters' unique war cry!"

By turning down more traditional mascots, such as the California bear, eagle, condor or sea lion, Irvine possibly inspired UC-Santa Cruz to adopt the bright-yellow Banana Slug as mascot the same year.

IN 1972, in a fit of political correctness or perhaps reacting to this silliness, Stanford University dropped the name Indians and renamed its teams the Cardinal, a shade of red.

It's hard to cheerlead dressed as a paint chip, so the school eventually chose the redwood as its mascot, dubbed Tree, who replaced the popular Prince Lightfoot.

Former band member, Randy Devol, wrote, "Everyone (except the athletic department PR person) admitted that, although politically correct, having a color as a mascot was lame beyond belief."

Accordingly, students started looking for a new "symbol for a mascot that reflected ... university history and also why most students chose to attend Stanford: greed.

"The Stanford Robber Barons was proposed and I think a referendum made it onto a student body election ballot."

Although Robber Barons won in a landslide, the sober-sides in the athletic department held out. Another alum recalls, "The jocks were pushing the Griffin -- or Gryphon, which is a cooler spelling -- as mascot."

"We always enjoyed upsetting the cart," Devol said, "so we looked at the school seal, with the stately redwood tree for which Palo Alto was named, and saw a great opportunity for silliness and mayhem. A costume was created and the first Tree was born."

MANY still regret the switch from Indians to Cardinal. Turns out, it may have been unnecessary.

Sports Illustrated this week reported that a poll of 351 Native Americans shows, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 percent, that most don't consider Indian team names and mascots offensive.

"Asked if high school and college teams should stop using Indian nicknames, 81 percent of Native American respondents said no," SI said. Even more -- 83 percent -- supported professional teams keeping names such as Redskins, Blackhawks, Indians and Braves.

Native Americans on reservations weren't as enthusiastic as those who live off them. Still, two out of three (67 percent) who live on reservations don't object to teams using Indian names and images.

Regardless, Washington, D.C.'s Council of Governments in January adopted a resolution by an 11-2 vote condemning the name Redskins as "demeaning and dehumanizing" and demanding the football team change it by next season. Too bad the Council didn't check with Native Americans first.

"Asked if they were offended by the name Redskins, 75 percent of Native Americans in SI's poll said they were not, and even on reservations, where Native American culture and influence are perhaps felt most intensely, 62 percent said they weren't offended."

The magazine concluded: "Such indifference implies a near total disconnect between Native American activists and the general American population on this issue."

After I commended UH for replacing the Rainbow Warrior mascot of years past -- the one with the fake, foam-rubber muscles -- with a high-spirited drummer from the Polynesian Cultural Center, I received a message.

"Some of us of Hawaiian ancestry view what you term Vili Fehoko's 'showmanship and authenticity' as perpetuation of stereotypes of Polynesians," it read.

"Sure, it's meant in fun, but the guy's antics are just as silly and demeaning as his predecessor's for ... people trying to break away from the savage image and gain respect in the real 2001 world. At least the foam-rubber guy was obviously a joke."


That's true enough. But, after reading the SI story, I wonder how many Polynesians agree.

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
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