The Syracuse University Involved in Native American Mascot Controversy

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The Syracuse University mascot used to be a very controversial topic back when the mascot was the Saltine Warrior. This racist mascot divided the community and now Otto is bringing the community one step closer to healing that divide. While the controversy and pain of The Saltine Warrior may never be healed, the emergence of Otto is a sign that the university has made strides towards change and sensitivity. In the 1920’s, when we got our first football mascot, we were Vita the Goat. Around ten years later the mascot became The Saltine Warrior. “The Saltine Warrior, an Indian figure named Big Chief Bill Orange, was born in a hoax published in The Syracuse Orange Peel, October 1931” (“Syracuse University History”)”. 

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The Saltine Warrior was never a true representation of an indigenous person and was deeply insulting to many people. When the university decided to officially change the mascot, an article was published in the Syracuse Herald American. “A few weeks ago, Syracuse officials decided to drop the Warrior and replace it with a new one. The action followed formal objections from a group of Native American students who said the mascot was racist and degrading. Expelling the mascot, a tradition of at least 70 years on the campus, apparently was not a completely popular decision, particularly among university alumni and sports fans.” (Cask) Cask writes about the “expulsion” of The Saltine Warrior, making it sound like more than just the changing of a mascot. The Saltine Warrior being expelled from campus is finite and powerful. 

This expulsion of a degrading mascot was seen very differently for different groups on and off campus. For many Native American students, members of the Syracuse community, and alumni, The Saltine Warrior was seen as “the man at the football and basketball games who ran around with warpaint on his face … degrading to the American Indian” (Cask). The Saltine Warrior was not an accurate representation of the Native American community, so they protested. There was even one graduate student that dropped out of Syracuse in protest of undergraduate students that didn’t care how offensive the mascot was. Some students at the university didn’t understand why the mascot needed to be changed. “A freshman … didn't understand Native American objection to the symbol. ‘They should be proud that the Indian has been chosen to represent the school,’ he explained”(Cask). Another student had a similar idea that, “‘Tradition is important because it draws everybody together. If I were an Indian, I would feel proud that Syracuse has chosen an Indian.’”(Cask). Is this truly a strong representation of the indigenous peoples? Is this really more inclusive to the indigenous peoples? 

These students did not understand that The Saltine Warrior was not an accurate representation of the indigenous peoples it was said to have come from. Instead, it demonized and mocked them. The alumni reaction to the changing of the mascot was not the same large uproar that the students had, but still highly polarized and opinionated. Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondagan people graduated from Syracuse in 1958 and was on the lacrosse team during his time at Syracuse. He said the mascot is, ”all in the presentation...The thing that offended me when I was there was that guy running around like a nut. That's derogatory’ (Daily Orange, March 23, 1976).”('Syracuse University History”). Chief Lyons understood that The Saltine Warrior made a mockery all indigenous people, and though it was part of his time at the university, respect for oppressed peoples is more important than preserving history. The other reaction from an alum about this mascot change was from a woman that described the Saltine Warrior to be a “harmless fellow”(Cask). For the most part, the non- Native American alumni seemed to support the Saltine Warrior as a mascot because it was a large part of their time at the university. 

The beginning of the end for The Saltine Warrior began with Doug George-Kanentiio in 1976. He wanted to come to Syracuse University because he thought, given the location if the university, that there was high potential for an indigenous studies program. Unfortunately, Kanentiio was proven wrong when he realized what the mascot was. Once he got to the university, he worked with the Onondaga Nation to organize a meeting between the men who dressed up as The Saltine Warrior and the indigenous students at Syracuse University. (Stern) This meeting led to the end of The Saltine Warrior’s time at Syracuse University. The Saltine Warrior was finally replaced by The Orange in 1980s. A Syracuse University cheerleader is credited with the idea of the “rotund and fuzzy Orange” (“Syracuse University History”). Later in 1984, Sports Illustrated began to come up with good alternatives for the previous Saltine Warrior mascot. One of their ideas was “The Orange (a ‘juiced-up, bumbling citrus fruit from which two legs protrude)” (“Syracuse University History”). A few years later, in 1990, many of the cheerleaders had come up with the names Opie and Otto for their new orange mascot. They finally decided that Opie sounded too much like dopey and began to call our beloved orange mascot Otto. Otto the Orange became the official mascot of Syracuse University in 1995. 

Before that, and likely for a while after, many members of the Syracuse community didn’t support a loving amorphous orange as a mascot: “The beef with Otto is that he is too snuggly, too inane and that he lacks the edgy image that goes big these days in sales”(Kirst). Otto the Orange was seen as neither strong enough nor fierce enough to be a sports mascot. No one would fear an orange. There was so much resistance to Otto the Orange that Dan Forsythe, the student that first dressed up as Otto, began a “Save Otto” campaign. As part of the “Save Otto” campaign, Forsythe and a friend dressed up as Ottos and stormed the field during a game to capture the “SU Wolf”, the other option for the Syracuse mascot. “The puffy orange elbowed in and started throttling the wolf. The other Otto piled on. Security was not amused. Together, the Ottos bagged the creature while the crowd... howled”(Kirst). Now, Otto the Orange is loved by all. While we may never know if Otto is a fruit or just the color orange, the cheerful mascot is loved by all. Some may say Otto is not intimidating enough, but who says a mascot needs to be intimidating? Otto is described as, “exuberant, happy-go-lucky, and kind, Otto always spreads sunshine and Syracuse spirit” (“Honor Syracuse”). This spirit that Otto spreads is one of happiness and openness to everyone. 

The current students of Syracuse tend to be whole hearted supporters of Otto as you can see by all of the orange worn all over campus every day. A select few Syracuse University students love Otto so much that they dress up in a big sweaty Otto costume for sports games, alumni events and more. Otto is loved by more than just the students though. Otto has been ranked by Sports Illustrated as one of the top mascots for multiple years. This year Otto was ranked number nine between Tennessee’s and Western Kentucky’s mascots. (Carlson) The mascot of Syracuse University has always been a very important part of the community. First, The Saltine Warrior caused a large controversy that divided the students, alumni and faculty. This controversy is still alive and the disrespect towards the indigenous peoples continues to steer indigenous students away from Syracuse University. Otto, I believe, is a symbol of moving forward and accepting the mistake that was made. The university is moving in the right direction, though we may not be done healing yet. Now, Otto the Orange is bringing us one step closer to uniting the Syracuse community back together in celebration and admiration for our beloved “juiced-up, bumbling citrus fruit from which two legs protrude” (“Syracuse University History”). 

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