FSU's Seminole symbols: heritage or heresy?

Some members of the tribe are proud of its connection with Florida State. But other American Indians say the mascot is an insult.

Published August 16, 2005

Everybody seemed to know what was best for them. The NCAA. Florida State University. Even the governor.

But what about the Seminoles, the ones by birth and school affiliation? When they see spear-toting Chief Osceola barreling through Doak Campbell Stadium, do they see themselves? Or do they see racist buffoonery?

The NCAA executive committee recently banned American Indian mascots, nicknames and imagery used by 18 colleges, including FSU, from NCAA postseason tournaments. Hostile. Abusive. That was the committee's rationale. FSU has appealed the NCAA's decision.

For Bryan Arledge, 18, the FSU symbol represents the fulfillment of a boyhood dream.

"Since middle school," he said, "I've always talked about it."

Where Arledge grew up, on the Brighton Reservation in south-central Florida, that kind of talk - college talk - was rare.

"No one from the reservation goes," he said. At least not anyone in his immediate family. One brother finished high school, but another brother and his sister have GEDs. He's not sure whether his parents graduated. College, he said, "is not encouraged as much as like a typical family, like a white family. They just really wanted me to finish high school."

But he saw his cousin, one of four tribal members then enrolled at FSU, achieve more, and Arledge wanted more for himself.

He visited the Tallahassee college a couple of times and liked what he saw. The sprawling campus. The way the fans whoop and holler at football and basketball games. Not to mention that, as a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, 80 percent of his tuition - $2,500 - would be covered through a new Seminole Scholars program college president T.K. Wetherell established.

"I thought, "I want to be a part of this,' " he said. "It seemed better than what I'd be doing here."

And what would that have been?

"Really nothing," he said.

In two weeks, he and three other Seminoles will be doing something: starting their freshman year of college. Arledge said he plans to major in civil or mechanical engineering. And on Sept. 5, when FSU plays the University of Miami, he says he will be in the stands, cheering his Seminoles to victory.

That FSU would choose his people as its symbol "is a privilege," Arledge said.

"Every time I see it," he said of the warhead emblazoned on license plates, stickers and other FSU paraphernalia, "I just think of Florida State."

* * *

"Oh, you're Seminole! Is that how Seminoles really were?"

Douglas Zepeda used to get that question all the time as an FSU undergraduate. Once peers found out about his origin, they'd pepper him with queries about the language, food and culture.

"They were really interested in the Seminole Tribe," said Zepeda, a 26-year-old technology coordinator and one of only three Seminoles to have graduated from FSU in the school's 154-year-old history.

He used it as a teaching moment.

Seminoles did not ride an appaloosa named Renegade, although they did use horses to herd cattle. But that wasn't their only conveyance. They also paddled canoes to fish and farm.

Zepeda grew up in Naples in a blended family. His dad is Mexican; his mother, Seminole. She made sure her son knew where he came from.

"I'd go to the ceremonies and the rituals," Zepeda said. "Excessively. I tried to learn the language, Mikisuki, and I'd ask my grandmother and some of the elders of the tribe a few words here and there.

"I love being in touch with my Seminole culture."

But as proud as he was of his heritage, he wanted to fit in and show pride in his school.

"I do the tomahawk chop," said Zepeda, a football season ticket holder since 2002. "I do the war chants. It's what all the Florida State fans do."

Even his nearly 80-year-old grandmother has assimilated somewhat.

At the start of every school year, Tahama Osceola wants to know, "When's the first Florida State game?" If she goes, she wears a traditional Seminole skirt - with an FSU T-shirt and cap.

"It's tradition," Zepeda said of his alma mater's moniker.

* * *

What's tradition to Zepeda is insulting to Vernon Bellecourt, a member of the Ojibwa tribe.

It's not the term, Seminole, that bothers him.

"What it conjures up is the problem," said Bellecourt, national representative of the American Indian Movement and president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. "These tomahawk-chopping sports fanatics with the beer in one hand, a tomahawk in the other. Slapping themselves in the mouth and singing cheap Hollywood chants.

"It's very demeaning and degrading to a living people's culture."

And it gives people freedom to insult American Indians when they don't intend to, said coalition board member Don Messec, who is not Indian.

Nearly 15 years ago, before a game between the University of Iowa and the University of Illinois, Iowa fraternity members hung Chief Illiniwek, the Illinois mascot, in effigy.

"Would we find this okay in Europe if the symbols were Jewish?" Messec asked. "Would we find this okay anywhere in this country if the symbols were black? The vast majority would find that indefensible."

Moreover, race-designated mascots reinforce stereotypes the same way black Sambo did for African-Americans and Speedy Gonzales did for Mexican-Americans.

"It's the worst sort of stereotyping of not only Seminoles," Bellecourt said. "It goes further than the Seminoles. It goes to all Indian people's self-esteem across the country who have a living culture. We have music, tradition, dance, a way of life that is practiced by many of the people. "The Seminoles," he said, "are real people."

And like any other group, they have a multitude of opinions. Arledge and Zepeda just wish someone would respect theirs.

"My beliefs," Zepeda said, "are not what their beliefs are."

-- Rodney Thrash can be reached at 727 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com