"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lenawee, Tecumseh, Indians: Drawing Three Deep in Michigan

Q: What sports do Indians play?

A: Soccer, basketball, volleyball, and track!

Well, at least according to this driver:

(click image to enlarge)

I snapped this quick photo many weeks ago while cruising along the highway on my way to Metro Beach to see the voyageur encampment (read about that adventure here: Tim the Fur Trade Reenactment Indian)

The stickers support the young athletes at Tecumseh High School located in the small town of Tecumseh, Michigan.  A better look at the logo can be had at the Tecumseh Indian Fan Club website:


Indian mascots remain today throughout our country as one of the most visible forms of drawing on Indians.  They range from the generic Indians to specific tribes like the Chippewas or Seminoles to more "descriptive" terms such as Warriors or Redskins.

They can also tie into much older examples of drawing on Indians.  Take this line from the Tecumseh Public Schools website about the history of the town:

"Tecumseh was one of the first settlements of the Michigan Territory, and the first in Lenawee County. It was first platted in 1824 by Musgrove Evans. Evans was deeply impressed with the culture and beliefs of the Native Americans of the area and named the settlement after the great Shawnee Chief, Tecumseh."

Thus a possible origin of the Indians mascot but the Indian borrowing goes back even further.  Tecumseh is located in Lenawee County which owes its name to the work of one Henry Schoolcraft, famed ethnographer of Michigan's Indian peoples.  According to the Michigan DNR website:

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, author and Indian agent, mixed words and syllables from Native American, Arabian and Latin languages to make up Native American-sounding words for some of the 28 counties set off in 1840. They include Alcona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Oscoda and Tuscola.

 and Lenawee specifically is...

From a Native American word meaning "man," either from the Delaware "leno or lenno" or the Shawnee "lenawai."

Here is a map of Michigan listing all the county names and a short list of other Michigan counties with "Native American-sounding" names:

(Click to enlarge and see all the counties)


Believed to have been made up by Henry R. Schoolcraft with "al" from the Arabic for "the," "co" the root of a word for "plain" or "prairie," and "na" for excellent; thus the word is interpreted as "excellent plain."


A name made up by Henry Schoolcraft, it is a combination of the Latin "arena" (sandy) and the Native American "ac" (earth). The combined words mean "sandy place."


This was a favorite name used by Henry Schoolcraft for Native American boys and men in his writings. He interpreted the word to mean "water of light."


This word was a Henry Schoolcraft creation, originally spelled Calcasca. One suggestion is that this is a play on words. Schoolcraft's family name formerly was Calcraft. The Ks may have been added to make the name appear more like a Native American word.


Created by Henry Schoolcraft (Ottawas and Ojibwas did not use the letter L), who gave the name "Leelinau" to some Native American women in his stories.


This Schoolcraft creation is believed to be a combination of two Ojibwa words, "ossin" (stone) and "muskoda" (prairie).

Wow!  Three layers of drawing on Indians all located in one small Michigan town.

Americans have always been obsessed with giving things Indian names.  At least twenty-one states draw their names from Indian origins and the list of counties, cities, and towns that do likewise goes on forever.

I believe that this process of Indian place-naming ties into broader issues of myth-making and identity in American history.  From the earliest days of our young Republic, Americans have used the Indian as a proxy to authenticate their claim to this landscape and define themselves as Americans.  Indian place names inherently bring with them all the popular notions and qualities of "Indianness"- the same qualities we want in ourselves and our land.

The same is true with mascots.  People choose Indian mascots not because they are "honoring Native Americans" but rather to invoke that very essence of Indianness (or at least one version of it).  That means strength, honor, pride, and a "savage" nature perfectly suited for the football field.  The problem with these mascots is that they perpetuate one-dimensional stereotypes and undermine the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality, and traditions.

For more on Indian place-names check out:

The Penobscot Building

For more on Indian names in consumer culture check out:

Pemmican Brand Beef Jerky: Part II

For more on Indian mascots check out:

Mascot Indians

1 comment:

  1. Do you have an issue with Tecumseh using The Indians as our mascot? Because our local tribal leader does not.