PEMBROKE — The University of North Carolina at Pembroke is seeking suggestions for a new mascot moniker that will replace one school officials say is offensive to American Indians.
The red-tailed hawk that adorns the Braves’ athletic uniforms, and a granite slab near the James B. Chavis University Center on which the bronze bird rests, is currently known as “Tommy” — a name that the school’s web information coordinator and publisher says has become unfortunate when “hawk” is used as a surname.
“That’s very close in sound to the work tomahawk, and to the native community that’s a very offensive term,” Lawrence Locklear said. “When you consider the history of the school and the close relationship to the native community, an offensive term like that is not something we want to promote.”
Locklear is a member of a 1o- to 15-member “integrated marketing” committee, devised of faculty and staff at UNCP, which decided during the summer months that the name needed to be changed.
The university is taking suggestions on its website at http://www.uncp.edu/ucm/mascot/, and will unveil the winning submission during the school’s homecoming week, which starts Sunday and ends Oct. 27. Locklear said that hundreds of suggestions have come in, anywhere from “swoop,” to “red,” to “razzle.” He also said that several suggestions have been that the school keep the “Tommy Hawk” name — but that option isn’t on the table.
“We’ve been trying to stay away from stereotypical images and names for 20 years now,” Locklear said. “This discussion about the word tomahawk has been discussed for a while now, particularly in the Indian community. There’s been some non-Indian members of the UNCP community who had noticed it and also thought it was odd that we would be using that.”
Locklear said the committee has not yet decided if the statue, a gift from the class of 1999, will be modified to accommodate the new name.
According to Locklear, Tommy Hawk hasn’t taken the field for about two years because the mascot’s costume was damaged when it was stored in a room with a leaky roof. Chancellor Kyle R. Carter and other administrators thought it would be a good time to unveil a new name along with the new costume.
“I know when it was first adopted it certainly wasn’t intended to be offensive,” Carter said. “The name has really worried some people, and others it hasn’t bothered at all.”
Locklear said the original name was never voted on by the student body, but named by the senior class that gave the 16-ton slab of granite as a gift to the university. According to UNCP’s website, the rock was in place for four days when a university basketball player was photographed rubbing the hawk for good luck and later scored the winning point in a homecoming game, creating a legend that encourages students to rub the hawk before exams or taking part in an athletic event.
According to Mary Ann Jacobs, chair of the American Indian Studies Department, the Native American Student Association protested the “Tommy Hawk” name in 2007 when it evolved into a chant accompanied by a “chopping motion” at the schools football games.
“Concerned administration, faculty, and students at that time were made aware that the practice was offensive to the American Indian community and our students, just as our community is now being made aware that the offensive associations with our mascot’s name are inspiring a change,” Jacobs said in a statement.
UNCP senior Chaquilla Woods, a social work major, is not offended by the mascot’s name or the “tomahawk chop.”
“It doesn’t bother me,” she said. “It’s just something fun. It’s not racist, to me. It’s just something students picked up as a fun, funny thing to do at football games, like a dance move.”
Elizabeth Taylor, a sophomore, also wonders what’s the big deal.
“It’s horrible,” Taylor said. “It’s been here for so long, why would you want to change it now? It’s part of our history.”
A post on UNCP’s Facebook page by alumnus Nick Phillips, which has 57 “likes,” reads “Tommy Hawk is OUR mascot. His statue has watched over many a graduate and those that walk the campus today. Tommy is a part of each of us that walk past his statue in front of the University Center.”
Another Facebook group, entitled “Save Tommy Hawk,” is encouraging students to continue to submit the suggestion of “Tommy” to the university.
Alisha Locklear, assistant at the Museum of the Native American Resource Center, said she thinks that position is based on the ignorance that people within the university and the Pembroke community have about American Indian culture.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that they are upset that people don’t really know where they are,” she said. “I’m alumni too, born and raised in the community, and it’s not just other people that don’t know the history — it’s our people,” she said.
“If people knew more about the history, they would understand why the mascot name needs to be changed.”