Amid a late morning buzz of students both studying and snoozing, Uncle Sam made his first appearance. Beneath the bright red, white and blue costume was E.J. Ford, and his long, brown sideburns.
Uncle Sam with sideburns?
For Ford and his classmates, though, that was the point.
Anthropology students from Jonathan Gayles’ Media and Culture class set up shop Wednesday in the lounge of the Phyllis P. Marshall Center. The presentation was somewhat of a mock protest. Gayles’ students wanted to turn the tables on the controversy surrounding professional sports teams’ use of Native American symbols for their mascots.
And it was America’s most recognizable uncle who was the target of their digs.
Ford recognized he didn’t exactly fit the Uncle Sam profile — the cut jaw, the furrowed brow, the white hair and beard — but for his purposes, it was close enough.
“I think I do make a good Uncle Sam; I am a tall white guy,” Ford said. ” But if they think I look a fool, then they should think the same about the Native American symbols on the sidelines.”
Behind Ford was a series of black placards that contained various images and messages related to the subject of appropriation, which the group defined as the act of taking possession of something and making use of it without authority.
There were illustrations of Uncle Sam made to look like the Cleveland Indian of Major League Baseball or like the Florida State University Seminole. They passed around a brochure proclaiming Uncle Sam to be the new mascot for USF, a mascot that would “patrol the sidelines providing his own version of ‘home field security.'”
“What we want to do by using the image of Uncle Sam is to get people uncomfortable with that image and get other people to understand why other people would be uncomfortable with images that depict (Native Americans),” Gayles said, adding the goal of the project was to render students “upset, motivated and challenged.”
Ford said he and other students were required to infiltrate the message boards of certain sports teams on the Internet and encourage discussion about the right to use Native American symbolism in sports. One response read:
“When 80,000 fans rise up in unison to sing Hail to the Redskins, it is unlikely ANY of them even think of those native to this country. It is absolutely certain the usage, even if the thought crosses the mind of a few, is a positive usage.”
A recurring theme, Ford said, was fans that claim the use of Native American symbols in sports honors Native Americans. But that’s not true, he says. Team names like the San Diego Padres or the Boston Celtics were representative symbols of those areas at a certain time, whereas Native Americans probably had no say in the decision to use a tribal name or representative head for a particular sports team.
“It’s not like the Washington Redskins were created by (Native Americans) who used to live in D.C. area,” Ford said.
While the graduate students explained their collaborative project to interested passersby, a track list of about 10 songs played in the background. The songs contained bad covers of popular songs, such as Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?”
The creator of the mix was Noah Porter, who said he chose the songs to underscore the point of the class project: The horrible covers represented poor representation of the popular songs, just like the Native American mascots are poor representations of Native American people.
As the exhibit opened, USF professor Fraser Ottanelli stopped by to see it and to chat with anthropology professor Kevin Yelvington.
“This is real history,” Yelvington joked with the history professor, “not the stuff you guys teach up there.”