Happy to be called Halfbreeds

Alaska schools sport Indian nicknames, cause little controversy

Posted: Tuesday, September 06, 2005

ANCHORAGE - The Alcorn State Braves, the University of Utah Utes and 15 other college mascots are banned from postseason tournaments, pending appeal, because the NCAA has deemed their nicknames "abusive" or "hostile" to Native Americans.

The NCAA would have its hands full if it regulated Alaska high schools.

There are seven teams nicknamed Warriors and three known as Braves. Kokhanok teams are the Warlords. And then there's Aniak.

Students from the Kuskokwim River village march proudly onto the basketball court and the cross-country course as the Halfbreeds.

The village of 532 people, 317 miles west of Anchorage and accessible only by air or riverboat, is more than 73 percent Alaska Native, primarily Yup'ik Eskimos and Tanaina Athabascan Indians. Like much of rural Alaska, families rely on subsistence foods. Many make summer trips to fish camps to catch salmon.

The name Halfbreeds was picked by students in the late 1970s as a nod to the community's origins - white settlers who intermarried with Yu'pik Eskimos, said Wayne Morgan, a graduate of the school and the school board president.

Aniak gets calls when school nicknames deemed offensive make headlines. Halfbreeds is considered a slur elsewhere but not in Aniak, Morgan said.

"We see it as who we are, but not as other people hear it for the first time," he said. "It sounds offensive, but we don't see it that way. It's who we are."

According to Alaska's official Web site on communities, a homesteader, Tom L. Johnson, in 1914 opened a store and post office at the site, which had been abandoned by Yu'pik people. Eskimos Willie Pete and Sam Simeon brought their families from Ohagamuit to Aniak. A trader, Semen Lukin, discovered gold nearby in 1932.

The school had different nicknames before the late '70s.

"How it started was, our name before that was the Apostles. The girls had their own name, the Angels," Morgan said.

"A group of kids at that time changed it to the Halfbreeds. It was up to the kids."

The symbol of the school is a traditionally dressed Alaska Native man holding a spear next to a white man holding a rifle, Morgan said.

"They symbolically cross the spear and the rifle and that's the mascot," Morgan said. A mural on the school wall shows similar characters shaking hands.

Morgan's fraternal grandfather was a full-blooded German who arrived in the early 1900s. He's also Yu'pik. Morgan figures most Americans are a combination.

"Most people are of mixed race, mixed background," he said. "We're proud of it. The kids are still proud of it."

Neither the governing body of Alaska high school sports nor the state's largest Native Alaska organization have addressed high school nicknames.

"It's never been an issue with us," said Gary Matthews, executive director of the Alaska School Activities Assocation, who has lived in Alaska for 37 years.

"They mean something to the communities or they wouldn't select them," he said.

The names were not just "pulled from the sky," Matthews said, and each has a meaning to the community in a state where more than 15 percent of the population is Indian, Aleut or Eskimo.

"It's not a derogatory term to call someone an Eskimo or an Indian or a Harpooner," he said. "It's just a fact of life."

Tim Towarak, co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said team names are a relatively new phenomenon in rural Alaska and they have not arisen as a major issue for the largest Native Alaskan organization. Team names such as Braves reflect the local culture, and students are proud of their heritage, he said.

"Up here in rural Alaska, it's all just part of our culture," he said.

Some in Aniak object to the name, Morgan said, but the objections have never reached the school board level. When people from outside of Alaska criticize the name, Morgan said, residents become more protective.

"We don't want no outside organization coming in and saying, 'That's a bad name,"' he said.

"We're one of a kind. No one else probably in the nation or the world has a name like that. We feel pretty special. There's many Eagles and Panthers and Cougars and Fighting Irish. We're Halfbreeds."

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