Why, and How, We Removed the Saltine Warrior

By DOUG GEORGE-KANENTIIO
News From Indian Country

In the winter of 1977 I was a student from Akwesasne attending the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I was planning to transfer back to the northeast and sought a school which I thought could serve as the basis for a radically new approach to aboriginal cultural preservation and the dissemination of indigenous knowledge, one which would become, in effect,  a national Native university.

After considering many schools from Cornell to Columbia, Colgate to Clarkson I believed (and still do) that Syracuse had the potential to create this research and learning center thereby elevating SU to international prominence.

I envisioned aboriginal scholars, administrators and students gathered together with their collegiate partners to create a curriculum which permeated all areas of the school while breaking free of the constraints of  the academic ghetto of “native studies”.

We would offer formal instruction and advanced degrees in Native languages, music, art, engineering, biology, communications, astronomy, religion among other disciplines in a way no other institution had, or has, done. It would have SU the best place in the world to study indigenous knowledge while attracting thousands of students to central New York.

But how to get SU’s attention? In August of that year I elected to enroll at Syracuse and found that the school had an identity problem. Not only was it in the academic shadow of nearby Cornell it had elected to exploit a prank, a lie, by promoting the “Saltine Warrior” as its mascot.

In the 1920’s a few students claimed the remains of a Native man were uncovered during the construction of a building on campus. They decided to call this man the Saltine Warrior since Syracuse had, at one time, been the location of a large salt mining business. The “warrior” would later be named “Bill Orange” after the school’s official color. The students later acknowledged it was all a joke but the Native image was not, at least for the Iroquois.

This stereotypical “Indian” was offensive in many ways with his warhoops, war dances, scalping motions and garish Plains Indian style costume; it gave SU a very bad reputation among perspective Native students. I asked then why would a university, a place of learning, elect to use such a racist image?

I decided this had to change so I went to visit Chancellor Melvin Eggers. He greeted me by saying “I have been waiting for you” and together we created a strategy to remove the Warrior. The chancellor endorsed the creation of Onkwehonweneha (the Way of the Human Beings) the most active Native student organization in SU’s history.

We found there were 30 Native students at Syracuse, all struggling to pay tuition and meet their academic requirements but willing to take on this issue. Chancellor Eggers and I knew confrontation would not work so, with our group, we approached the Onondaga Nation Council and its chairperson the  Tadodaho Leon Shenandoah to help us persuade Lambda Chi fraternity (the sponsors of the warrior) to meet at the Nation’s longhouse and work out a solution.

In an historic session (sadly never repeated anywhere in the ongoing mascot controversy) the Native students and the brothers at Lambda Chi were guided to a resolution by the chiefs and clanmothers of Onondaga using the traditional diplomatic techniques of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.

We did not need to buy ads or sue anybody. We did not threaten or embarrass Andy Burns, the last “warrior” but sought to enlighten and reason while forging an alliance with Lambda Chi.

Our methods worked and by the spring of 1978 the Saltine Warrior was history.

Our plans to make SU into a world class indigenous knowledge center were obscured by the building of the dome and the inevitable departure of the Native students which meant we could not sustain the energy or enthusiasm beyond that singular issue.

Thirty six years later and I still believe Syracuse can become the hemispheric center for indigenous knowledge. With the appropriate allocation of resources, an aggressive recruitment campaign and the creation of a formal partnership with the Native nations of the northeast SU may yet rise to this opportunity.

The lessons of the Saltine Warrior can be, I am convinced, applied to the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves. Resolution based on reason using our traditional values and diplomatic techniques can change even the most adamant opponent. We need to ask Dan Snyder, the Redskins owner, to meet in a council at Onondaga to reason together and see how we can forge an agreement to remove this hurtful image, one based on honour, truth and plain common sense.