Decades after Knox chose to remove its former mascot, Siwash, and replace it with Prairie Fire, the conversation continues.
Knox professors, students, staff and alumni gathered in Kresge Recital Hall last Wednesday for “The S Word: Native Nicknames At Knox.” The event was a panel discussion mediated by Tianna Cervantez and led by Professors Konrad Hamilton and Catherine Denial, as well as Athletic Director Chad Eisele. The panel was billed as an opportunity to consider the history of the Siwash name at Knox, its subsequent removal and the problematic nature of its continued use by members of the Knox community.
The event drew a crowd that filled half the hall, including students eager to educate themselves on the subject like sophomore America Salgado.
“I don’t think I knew exactly what Siwash was until I got here, and I really wanted to know more about the word and its history,” she said.
Cervantez, co-director of the Center for Intercultural Life and architect of “The S Word,” designed the panel to be educational and hoped it would act as a primer for future cultural awareness events.
“Ultimately, my goal is to provide the knowledge and the background for people to understand,” she said “Because as adults, [students] are going to have to make the decisions for themselves how they want to act on that information.”
The three panel members approached the topic differently, touching on history, racism and alumni responses in turn. Hamilton, a professor of history and co-chair of the Diversity Committee, referenced another divisive cultural symbol in his call for greater accountability.
“Knox college would never fly the Confederate flag as a symbol of our community, so it isn’t surprising that a college that celebrates its connection with the Underground Railroad … would also come to reject a symbol of Native American oppression,” said Hamilton.
The panelists each spoke for roughly seven minutes and then the floor was opened for discussion. Some audience members commented based on their own experiences, while others challenged the panelists directly.
One student argued that the use of the word acknowledges the oppression that Native Americans have experienced, that Knox had replaced it with a “euphemism.”
Professor Denial responded to the commenter.
“Knowing that this is a derogatory term, it doesn’t seem right to me to repeat it, but we still have to have some way of nodding to it,” she said.
The panelists were undeterred by such challenges and embraced the opportunity to engage with students on the contentious topic.
“We got a lot of interesting interplay by the members of the audience, and that was what we wanted,” Hamilton said. “The idea was to get people talking É and that level of discussion was really high.”
Sophomore Monica Weller enjoyed the discussion and appreciated Knox’s efforts to address this controversial subject, but was somewhat frustrated by the Q&A portion of the panel.
“How do you address someone who just doesn’t care or has an opposing viewpoint? How do you get them to understand that they just cannot [use the term]?” said Weller. “I don’t think that was fully addressed É they basically just said ‘keep trying.’”
Weller is not the only student seeking to hold the community accountable. Freshman Eli Adams, who raised over $1,000 through a GoFundMe page for Prairie Fire apparel to be offered in exchange for clothing featuring the slur, believed the discussion created a well-rounded dialogue in which everyone had a voice.
Adams appreciated the Confederate flag comparison. “It’s a very hot topic issue in the entire country and [the Siwash debate] is very relevant to us. I also don’t think oppression is a contest,” she said.
Eisele also used “The S Word” as an opportunity to announce the Athletic Department’s intention to create a new mascot and logo to better represent the Prairie Fire.
“We’re the Prairie Fire,” he said. “We’re not going to change and we want to use the name more. We want you, as students, to have the same pride that alums had years ago for a different word.”