More on Mascots: The Sooners, Lord Jeff, Your $20 Bill, and a Surprising Twist on Redsk*ns

On this day in history, March 2, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed one of numerous  “Indian Appropriations Acts.” That sounds like a good thing for American Indians, where the federal government appropriates money to live up to the terms of its various treaties. In this case, the bill opened up nearly 3,000 square miles of Unassigned Land in Indian Territory for white settlement.

The Unassigned Lands in 1855.
The Unassigned Lands in 1885.

So what is the connection between this event in history and mascots? The name for the Oklahoma University mascot — the “Sooners” — comes from those settlers who went into the “Unassigned Lands” sooner than was legal — before the land was officially opened for settlement. They got in first and staked out the best land.

There is a complicated history here. It includes the Creek Indians getting caught up in the wash of the U.S. Civil War. The Creek were not unanimous in their support of either side of the conflict, but one Creek Council did sign a treaty with the Confederacy. According to Wikipedia, when the Confederacy lost, the United States forced the Creeks into a new treaty in 1866. Under its terms, the Creeks agreed to cede a portion of the lands they held in Indian Territory. The Seminoles, who actively supported the Confederacy, were forced into a similar treaty that ceded all of their lands in Indian Territory. Together, this ceded territory became the “Unassigned Lands.” The Creek treaty stated the United States planned to use the land to relocate other Indians and freed slaves. In the following years, white settlers pressured the government to open the land for settlement.

An amendment to the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 allowed the land to be homesteaded.  The land was officially opened for settlement at noon on April 22, 1889, and more than 50,000 people entered on the first day. According to Wikipedia:

Sooners were often deputy marshals, land surveyors, railroad employees, and others who were able to legally enter the territory early. Sooners who crossed into the territory illegally at night were originally called “moonshiners” because they had entered “by the light of the moon.” These Sooners would hide in ditches at night and suddenly appear to stake their claim after the land run started, hours ahead of legal settlers.

The bottom line is that the name “Sooners” celebrates those settlers who broke the law to cheat  other settlers who wanted to get their hands on land intended for Indians and freed slaves.

Lord Jeff Deposed at Amherst College

by Thomas Gainsborough,painting,circa 1785
Lord Jeffery Amherst

News out Amherst College in Massachusetts is that it no longer supports “Lord Jeff” as its unofficial mascot and it intends to rename the “Lord Jeffery Inn.” Lord Jeff refers to Lord Jeffery Amherst, the namesake of the college and the city.

According to the college’s website, Amherst was an English lord who commanded British troops in the Colonies before American Independence. He was involved in the final French and Indian War battles. “He won victories against the French to acquire Canada for England and helped make England the world’s chief colonizer,” the website said. In recent years, increased scrutiny of Amherst’s war tactics have made him very controversial. Specifically, in his war time correspondence, he suggested using small pox against Native Americans.

Here is the official letter from the Amherst College Board of Trustees regarding the use of “Lord Jeff” as a mascot. It is a weak statement, but it apparently got the job done. A January 27 article in Indian Country Today: Amherst’s Lord Jeff Out: Lessons Learned does an excellent job of filling in the details.

On its website, the college seems non committal on whether it believes Amherst was responsible for using small pox blankets in warfare or if the atrocities even happened at all. The website reads:

Despite his fame, Jeffery Amherst’s name became tarnished by stories of smallpox-infected blankets used as germ warfare against American Indians. These stories are reported, for example, in Carl Waldman’s Atlas of the North American Indian [NY: Facts on File, 1985]. Waldman writes, in reference to a siege of Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) by Chief Pontiac’s forces during the summer of 1763:

… Captain Simeon Ecuyer had bought time by sending smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs to the Indians surrounding the fort — an early example of biological warfare — which started an epidemic among them. Amherst himself had encouraged this tactic in a letter to Ecuyer. …

Some people have doubted these stories; other people, believing the stories, nevertheless assert that the infected blankets were not intentionally distributed to the Indians, or that Lord Jeff himself is not to blame for the germ warfare tactic.

The college website provides additional details on Amherst’s correspondence. It notes that his letters, “also discuss the use of dogs to hunt the Indians, the so-called ‘Spaniard’s Method,’ which Amherst approves in principle, but says he cannot implement because there are not enough dogs.”

Move Over, Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson is one of our many “money mascots.” His mug is on the $20, but it won’t be for long if U.S. Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, gets his way.

Lankford has introduced a Resolution to remove Jackson from the $20 and replace him with “a significant woman” from U.S. history. Lankford targeted Jackson because of his pivotal role in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The resolution reads in part

Whereas the removal policies enforced by Andrew Jackson led to the reductions of the homelands, and ultimately the deaths, of thousands of American Indians across the continent;
Whereas the forced removal of American Indians by Andrew Jackson and the subsequent inhumane settlement of Indian lands represent a major blight on the proud history of the United States; …

Read more details in the Indian Country Today article: OK Sen. Introduces Bill to Replace Jackson on $20 Bill

Washington State Bill Would Ban Redsk*ns Name From Public Schools — Except for Wellpinit High

A bill introduced this year in Washington State would ban public schools from using Redsk*ns as a mascot. According to a Seattle’s Channel 5 News, the bill was introduced by Democratic State Senator John McCoy, who is a member of the Tulalip Tribe.

The bill makes an exception for the Wellpinit High Redsk*ns, which is on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Surprisingly, Wellpinit apparently is the only school in the state to use the Redsk*ns name. The Channel 5 report says many in Wellpinit defend the name as part of their tradition. It quotes Spokane tribal member Gig LeBret saying” “The whole world’s been turned upside down. Everything’s politically correct now.”

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