October 6, 2000
By Raoul Lowery Contreras
"The only good Injun is a dead Injun," General Phil Sheridan, Civil War hero and Indian fighter proclaimed while commanding the U.S. Army against various Indian tribes in the West.
Such was the predominant view of Indians by American Manifest Destinarians of the 19th century as they flowed into the west claiming it for themselves.
When the "Workingman's Party," a racist blue collar populist political party, took over California in 1875, they offered up $25 dollar rewards for Indian (Digger as in "nigger") scalps turned in at the State Capitol.
In a word, the manner American whites have treated indigenous peoples is: TERRIBLE. Of that, there is no doubt.
So what happens when an American institution of higher learning chooses an indigenous symbol as the nickname, the identifier, for its students? To Wit: San Diego State College students chose "Aztecs" as their identifier, their nickname, 75 years ago in 1925. For 75 years, the San Diego State College Aztecs, then San Diego State University Aztecs, crisscrossed the country engaging in sports and academic activities spreading the name of Mexico's most famous Indian tribe and empire into every nook and cranny of the USA.
During the wondrous Don Coryell football era, every sportswriter in the country typed the word "Aztecs" into their stories, using the word, perhaps, for the first time in their lives. Not only did they have to find out where San Diego was (a little Navy town south of Los Angeles), but they had to learn something about the Aztecs, the real Aztecs, not the football players. Thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans were exposed to Aztec for the first time in their experience other than being told Aztecs ate people.
Some years ago, a small group of Native Americans (Indians) protested at Stanford University about their teams named the "Indians." The university caved and changed the name to the "Cardinal." Ditto at Dartmouth College. The movement against using Indian names for athletic teams gathered steam but ran into brick walls in Atlanta (Braves), Cleveland (Indians) and Washington D.C. (Redskins). I think "Redskins" should go. I think "Braves" should stay. There is a line, and "Redskins" crosses it. However, Aztecs don't.
Unlike other groups and tribes around the world, the Aztecs were a huge military, cultural and political power in a part of the world that has had much import in history since 1492.
Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), the Aztec capitol, was, perhaps the largest city in the world when the Spanish arrived in 1519. It was the seat of a huge empire. It was a sophisticated, well organized, albeit bloody theocracy. The Spanish plowed under that empire. But the Aztec people survived to live and work, speaking Nahua, in the very shadows of gigantic high rises built on the ruins of the Aztec Empire. Some of their blood runs through my veins.
I can't help but wonder if they wouldn't approve their name being used by a ferocious football team in a far away city named by the Spanish, San Diego. A huge Azteca Stadium honors them in Mexico City. Why not, then, honor them on the playing fields of Champaign/Urbana, or the Rose Bowl?
A 22-8 student council vote to do away with "Aztecs" certainly doesn't reflect the wishes of a 25,000 person student body, nor of the fifth of a million alumni. Before a handful (20) of Native Americans get their way, the millions of others who like Aztecs must be heard.
Aztecs don't surrender without a fight. This is such a fight. Every single American with Mexican Indian blood in his or her veins must stand up and say no. The Spanish did their best to wipe out the Aztec people and culture, but that should not extend to our school and to our playing fields.
As long as the Aztecs of San Diego State University carry that name, bold Aztec warriors, vanquished long ago by superstition, Spanish cannon and muskets, symbolically live. If the name goes, they die.