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When Mascots Unite and Divide Us

John Orendorff feels American Indian imagery used for sports teams turns his heritage into meaningless symbols.

June 08, 1997|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes amid the clutter of names, numbers and needs on John Orendorff's phone machine at L.A. Unified's American Indian Education Commission, he'll receive an invitation.

It is always offered politely, with the best intentions: "We were wondering if you might be able to send someone out to perform. Some ritual? A ceremonial dance?"

Though that sort of outreach doesn't fall under the list of services the commission regularly extends, Orendorff will dutifully return the call and tick off the commission's official duties: a themed lecture, parent-teacher liaison services. But folded into the goodbye, often in postscript, as if some further test of his mettle, the caller might interject, voice tipped upward, an idea being born: "Can you come in full regalia?"

Orendorff always obliges. He will appear as he has this day at University High School in West Los Angeles--in a pressed suit, tie and black oxfords shined to approximate lacquer: "My full regalia." He learned the quip some years ago from another Native American speaker familiar with the nasty potholes along the circuit, to nip assumptions and ignorance in the bud.

But today at Uni, it's a dance of a different sort. Looking more like a Secret Service agent, down to the haircut of military symmetry and a dark brush of a mustache, Orendorff knows he comes off to outsiders as an unlikely grass-roots leader. Accompanied by about half a dozen Native American community activists, he follows their trail into the dimly lit classroom, its floors pocked with asbestos lesions, its walls and ceilings sagging in disrepair.

Orendorff seats himself next to student body president Tayola Andrews, who occupies a desk emblazoned with a student's interpretation of the school mascot: an Indian rendered in shades of blue. It's one of many "warrior"-themed icons peppered throughout the room--murals, a bust, faded reproductions; Indians festooned with headdresses, explosions of feather. Face-paint. Stoic silhouettes bent in motion.

To be sure, as far as Orendorff is concerned, the specifics and peculiarities of these images have jumbled into a blur. How they are posed, the authenticity of the feathers, the details of beadwork and face paint are inconsequential, bordering on insulting. It's their very staying power that distresses. Especially in a city that touts itself as enlightened, a harbinger of the new, the City of the Future. Orendorff would probably file away the whole affair as curious, bordering on humorous, if it wasn't weighted with so much sadness, so much simmering acrimony.

Three years ago, when Orendorff became director, dethroning these high school mascots topped his to-do list. As he began his rounds from campus to campus--addressing University's Warriors, Gardena High's Mohicans, then Birmingham's Braves in Van Nuys--he wasn't expecting the steadfast resistance, the overwhelming press of the populace to keep things the same.

Most times, Orendorff is met with an echoing laundry list of objections: the cost of paint to cover the murals and other signage; new uniforms. There is the issue of renaming yearbooks, newspapers. Not to mention re-flooring gymnasiums. Or the vitriol of alumni organizations--linked to tradition as to bloodline--that lend hearty monetary as well as moral support.

And all this to consider while schools sag at the seams. "How do we explain this kind of expenditure to the parents?" asks Deborah Browder, Uni's leadership advisor. "Wouldn't that be $100,000 to paint over a mural that was a gift from a graduating class when we don't have the proper [classroom] supplies? To me that's a little misguided."

Orendorff nods soberly at the observation--familiar in its tone and reasoned logic. This day is no different. The talk winds around itself; a courtly lead, the polite follow, until teacher Ray Parker scraps formality, finger stabbing the air: "So what part of this do you have a problem with?"

The coach teeters backward on his chair, his arms loosely crossed against his chest. "Is it the mascot or the name? I'm just trying to understand . . . because I'm a black man and in African American history we were warriors and that was something to be proud of."

One from Orendorff's group volunteers a hand, an answer, gesturing with a jab of the thumb at a wall mural--more face paint, a feather: "This symbol is derogatory," says Hector Pacheco. "It's racist. It's like we were dead. Our people and your people suffered bigotry and racism. They were treated similarly."

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