I remember the first time I watched a high school basketball game, Savages versus Russets. I was probably 12 years old and had only imagined what a high level basketball game might look like. My family did not have a favorite sport, and even less so, a favorite sports team. We went rabbit hunting on Super Bowl Sunday. We were decidedly not sports fans, my parents being perhaps more interested in the fierce independence that living in the wilderness allowed rather than the kind of greathearted interdependence that team sports at their best can engender. I was primed in this way to be drawn to sports, and basketball became my passion in Junior High. I don’t recall anything specific about the game itself that winter evening, but I do remember it as the first time I felt that peculiar choking feeling and the brimming of tears that comes when the national anthem is sung and the flag becomes the sole object of attention.
The emotional content that every human feels when their colors are in the foreground and they are surrounded by their people is a sacred thing, not to be tampered with for temporal or private ends. It was precisely this thing that Edmund Burke, the father of political conservatism, championed when he said, “we still feel within us, and we cherish and cultivate, those inbred sentiments which are the faithful guardians, the active monitors of our duty, the true supporters of all liberal and manly morals.” If Burke’s philosophy could be distilled down to a white powder, it would appear that he placed emotional sentiment in direct opposition to the “cold light of reason” that, he believed, fueled a large portion of the terrors of the French Revolution. He was right in the sense that the skin of sentimentality that holds a family, a church, or a town together, regardless of the rationality of those individual sentiments, is preferable to the loss of moral compass that comes from suddenly dispensing with all of that in favor of cold calculation.
Yet alongside his core belief in the positive power of sentiment, Burke also had a revolutionary streak: he approved of the American Revolution, called for vast changes in the way the East India Company operated, and wholeheartedly lauded the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He also favored easing trade restrictions on his native Ireland and promoted religious tolerance, this aimed specifically at eliminating the persecution of the Irish, and of Catholics, who had long been considered second rate citizens and suffered persecution at the hand of the British monarchy. Burke fully understood that change was an eventuality, and, on occasions where it lead to freeing the individual from the bonds of unwarranted persecution, a downright necessity that one should seek sooner rather than later, albeit with gentle persuasion rather than fiat.
It is precisely this type of change that we need to come to terms with at present in Salmon. The matter of the Savage name and logo is one that neither those for or against changing it have a firm handle on, from this writer’s perspective. Sports team names range from the mundane to the enigmatic and understanding them often requires a deep knowledge of the context in which they arise. While a name like the Bulldogs has a clear enough meaning, one like the Russets is bound to confuse the outsider. The far more obscure Alabama Crimson Tide originated when a heavy rain reduced the 1907 Iron Bowl to a sea of red mud that turned the white Alabama jerseys dark red. A similar kind of deep context is really necessary to understanding, and fully appreciating, the name Savages.
While I think we’re all now aware of Irman Gott’s pivotal role in offering the name Savages for the school sports teams, the connection between early 20th century sports and Native Americans supplies much of the necessary context for understanding his decision. Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t solely a dictionary definition of the term. Rather, it was a result of the dominance of an entirely Native American team at the most American of American sports: Football. Most Americans don’t know the story of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a school started by Army Captain Richard Henry Pratt to save the American Indian by destroying their culture and replacing it with puritan values. Pratt’s motto, “Kill the Indian, save the man,” reflected this vision. I must note here, Pratt and others like him, were deeply concerned that the Native Americans faced extinction if left to fend for themselves in the strange new world of reservation life. For this reason, Pratt and the US government converted a prison barracks in Pennsylvania into a school and set about severing the sentimental cultural bonds of a generation of American Indians.
The pupils of the Carlisle school were shorn of hair and given modern clothing, complete with 3 inch wide suspenders and stiff, white collars. Classes consisted of rote learning. Corporal punishment was the medicine prescribed for any indication of sentimentality. But despite the sanitized, institutional environment, life found a way. The children were allowed football, as it was the most popular sport of the Ivy League schools Pratt hoped his school could emulate. The students played it with a fervor that propelled the Carlisle Indians to become the greatest sports team of its time, with a record of 167-88-13 over the 25 year term of the program. Fundamentals that make American football unique, like spiral passing, grew out of the Carlisle students’ love of the game. It became their religion, their cultural language, their way of making sense and gaining control in an otherwise alien world that had demoted the individual to a malleable cipher.
While a number of the Carlisle students went on to become coaches and professional athletes, none stood out like Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest all around athlete the United States has ever produced. Not only was Thorpe the most acclaimed football player of his era, he also won gold in two Olympics in the decathlon. And played major league baseball. And professional basketball. Athletically gifted in every way, Thorpe also won a national ballroom dancing tournament! Late in his athletic career, he signed with the Canton Bulldogs to play for about $6,000 a game. In response, stadium attendance for the Bulldogs went from 1,200 per game to 8,000. Thorpe’s legendary abilities were such that, when he died, two towns in Pennsylvania, to which Thorpe had no connection, bought his tomb. They enshrined it, and conflated their towns under the name of Jim Thorpe.
In this context, the era’s proliferation of team names that drew on the Native American as a type makes a hell of a lot more sense. Adding to this national history, our valley’s unique relationship with Sacajawea, and the Sheepeater and Salmoneater branches of the Shoshone tribe, it seems little more than an eventuality that our community would choose to honor and emulate the Native Americans through our sport. I offer that it would be unconscionable to ignore that history, yet it would be more just to honor our Native American heritage and contribution in a way Native Americans also would find honorable.
While the contribution of Irman Gott and his compatriots, the memories of legendary Savage teams, and the inculcation of our youth with a sense of fierce pride in their community are of no quibbling degree of importance, we have to recognize that our forefathers decisions were not made in concert with the desires of the people they wanted our sports teams to emulate. Of the many current justifications for using the word savage, all of them have in common the deliberate disassociation with its Native American connotation. This is especially surprising and disappointing as the summary dismissal of historical context has the same rationale as “kill the Indian, save the man.”
You could call it kill the meaning, save the mascot. I fear that by following this rationale, we are in great danger of losing the thread of humanity, of where we come from, and what it means to live lives of fierce independence and greathearted interdependence, in this remote outpost of the world. It is my hope that when our children feel patriotism and team spirit tug at their heartstrings, that it will not lead them blindly down a mysterious path. I would hope they know why they are proud of their country, proud of their traditions, and also that they would know that they are creating the path as they travel.