After Alvin Elton died of the coronavirus in March at age 56, his widow, Gretchen Meyer, found a measure of comfort from former high school classmates on Facebook. As she self-quarantined — alone — in her Northwest Side home, she was buoyed by their friendly, caring comments, prayers and wishes.
“Everyone was so great,” she recalls.
But as Lane Tech College Prep found itself embroiled in a mascot controversy in recent weeks, Meyer’s experience on the social platform “did a complete 180.” She felt attacked. After sharing the opinions Elton — a Lakota Sioux, both parents from tribes in South Dakota — had held firmly, she read in dismay as those feelings were belittled.
“All the compassion was gone,” she says.
After more than 100 years, Lane — my school, too — is doing away with its “Indians” name, part of a wave of opposition to Native American logos and mascots that includes high schools, colleges and the NFL team in our nation’s capital.
Elton, Meyer says, would’ve been thrilled by the news.
Some of my own 1980s classmates, on the other hand, are having a hard time handling it.
“I will no longer represent Lane Tech!” one of my football teammates wrote.
“The new mascot should be a snowflake,” opined another. “Stupid PC culture is turning this country into a nation of … .”
Use your imagination to fill in the blank. Suffice it to say, class (think: kindness and grace, not math and science) too rarely is in session.
Native American mascots are a hot-button issue, but what isn’t in 2020? Put such a topic on social media where thousands of alumni — spanning generations — can see it, and the resulting cesspool of inhumanity will drown out most opinions. We reduce one another to “snowflakes” and “sheep,” to “boomers” and “racists.”
It’s more complicated than that, of course. The American Indian Center of Chicago “firmly stands against” such use of racial imagery. The National Congress of American Indians says mascots such as Lane’s belong to an era when “racism and bigotry were accepted by the dominant culture” and have “very real consequences” for Native people. But some Native American individuals and groups are more accepting — even supportive — of a mascot like Lane’s.
In my view, the issue is pretty straightforward: If some are offended and some aren’t, the operative phrase is “some are.” I vote for a team name that won’t offend anybody on racial or ethnic grounds. If that means I have to buy some Lane Snowflakes gear, so be it.
“My chief’s head on my old sweater shows honor and integrity,” wrote one alum, who went on — the irony surely lost on him — to call young alumni a bunch of “crybabies.”
That’s not the way to do it, folks.
An African American former classmate of mine was initially against the change, but then she realized the mascot could be to Native Americans something akin to what the Confederate flag is to her.
“It was a done deal,” she wrote. “If there is any insult, it’s enough for me to understand the pain that it causes.”
See, that’s how you do it.
Hyun Woo Lee was Lane’s student mascot during the 1985-86 school year. A young man with cerebral palsy who’d transferred in as a sophomore, he donned a headdress, danced proudly on the field during football games and “got to hang around pretty cheerleaders” at parties after them. The experience made him feel like he was leaving the “protective bubble” in which he’d existed.
“Due to Lane Tech being a school of excellence and champions, the Indian is a symbol of greatness, strength and honor,” says Lee, 53.
Stuart Eng, 53, was the student mascot as a senior in 1984-85 and “always felt that I brought some dignity to the position.”
“Our warrior was supposed to stand for bravery, leadership and steadfastness in the face of adversity,” Eng says. “I believed that we were paying homage.”
Many years later, as a board member of the school’s alumni association — a mascot controversy now on the table — Eng reached out to Native American groups in hopes of finding support for Lane’s warrior. He found the opposite.
So what did he do? He got on what he figured was the right side of history.
“I am all for replacing the mascot,” he says, “and moving forward with society.”
And that’s what progress looks like.