Respect due for mascot ‘Prince Lightfoot’

By Sean Howell
Staff Writer
October 10, 2005

I always saw the issue of Native American mascots in pretty much cut-and-dried terms: that they are racist representations and sports teams should do away with them. The responses I received after expressing a similar view in my first column, in which I explained how Stanford changed its nickname from the ‘Indians’ to the ‘Cardinal,’ have taught me that the subject is a bit more nuanced than I first supposed.

One objected to my comparison of a nickname like ‘Indians’ to Notre Dame’s ‘Fighting Irish,’ as the Native American nicknames is especially offensive because of this country’s history of violence toward them. Another came from Al Kirkland, a defensive tackle on the 1952 Stanford football team. He was offended by my reference to the former Stanford Indians mascot, Timm Williams, as “a guy who called himself ‘Prince Lightfoot.’” Kirkland called the reference “egregious” and said that Williams “never did anything that brought any discredit or dishonor to himself, his tribe, to Indians or to Stanford.”

But the comment that really made me think twice came from one reader who offered to come down to The Daily and “string this jackass [me] up” for what I wrote about Williams. After learning more about him, I can sort of see where that reader was coming from.

Williams, or ‘Prince Lightfoot,’ acted as Stanford’s unofficial mascot for 20 some years until 1972, when a group of 55 Stanford Native American students and staff succeeded in convincing then-President Dr. Richard Lyman to drop the moniker ‘Indians.’

In the 20 years that preceded that decision, Williams attended nearly every Stanford football game, home and away. At each game he performed traditional Yurok tribal dances in traditional regalia — without taking a break.

The Stanford American Indian Organization petitioned for Williams’ removal as early as 1970, calling his performances unnecessary, inappropriate and “a mockery of Indian religious practices.”

Ron Eadie, a defensive end on that 1952 Rose Bowl football team, was one student who felt proud to have Williams representing the school.

“He was a warrior, and we were all damned glad to be Indians,” Eadie said.

Eadie’s son-in-law, William Rodden, met Williams in 1980 at the Williams’ family campsite (Dad’s camp) and formed a strong bond with Williams.

Rodden said that Williams danced out of a love for Stanford and a desire to teach Native American culture. He cited Williams’ tireless work for the Native American community, which included frequent appearances before Congress on behalf of Native American rights and his role in helping to found a privately-funded health care service for Native Americans. Williams also struggled for Native American civil rights in the early 1960’s, actions for which he received death threats for the rest of his life.

“Around the campfire, he would tirelessly explain Indian history and perspectives to the most bigoted people. Timm’s attitude was, ‘If he doesn’t walk away, I’ll keep talking,’” Rodden recalled.

Williams claimed that, despite his years of service, the administration refused to meet with him when the nickname was changed. He told Eadie that he approached them with a proclamation in his favor signed by the chiefs of a number of different Indian tribes nationwide, but was turned away.

After the Tree took over as Stanford’s unofficial mascot, Williams continued to educate informally and work for Indian rights under the Reagan gubernatorial and presidential administrations, serving in the cabinet of the former. He also continued to make the eight-hour drive from his hometown of Crescent City to attend Stanford football games until his death in a car accident in 1987.

“In the proclamation he tried to present to Dr. Lyman, the Indian chiefs wrote something to the effect of, ‘We think it’s not only an honor for our culture to represent Stanford, but for Stanford to be represented by [Timm],’” said Eadie, referring to a conversation he had with Williams years after the mascot was changed.

Williams’ treatment raises the question of whether the University was steering closer towards cultural understanding or just toeing a line of political correctness. Stanford did away with the ‘Indians’ nickname because of the perceived insensitivity of everything surrounding the name, but in hindsight the administration’s purported treatment of Williams may have been short on sympathy towards him.

To be sure, some Native Americans had legitimate concerns about Stanford’s use of the Indians name, the logo (a caricature of a small Indian with a bulbous nose) and Williams’ performances.

“A football field is a mighty strange place for any real or traditional Native American dance or religious ceremony to be performed,” said Denni Diane Woodward, the Assistant Director of the Stanford American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Progam. “It’s not only inappropriate; it’s disrespectful.”

With the NCAA’s recent decision to bar 17 schools from using Native American nicknames in postseason tournaments, the question of who deserves input on such matters is becoming increasingly unclear.

Florida State was granted an exception to call itself the ‘Seminoles’ in postseason play after the Seminole Tribe of Florida declared its support for the University’s use of the name. However, in Woodward’s opinion, FSU’s mascot more resembles a Plains Indian, raising questions over who should be consulted in such decisions.

It is harder to see the issue of Native American mascots in black-and-white terms when it’s colored by the people who are actually wrapped up in each individual controversy. Ironically, Williams, who prided himself as an educator of Native American culture, was a casualty of a movement to increase cultural sensitivity.

There is more to cultural awareness than simply changing a name — it also entails trying to understand and interact with our Native American roots and supporting those who make contributions to our appreciation of them.


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