The Aztec Warrior — either a source of school pride or a demeaning colonial relic, depending on your bent — is staying at San Diego State University.
Until the next inevitable flare-up, anyway.
Responding to a University Senate vote last fall to retire the former “Monty Montezuma” mascot, do away with violent imagery such as the spear-festooned “DS” logo and examine the appropriateness of the Aztecs moniker, president Sally Roush today announced the following decisions:
We’ll start with the positive developments.
I’ve always supported maintaining the Aztec moniker, and not just because Wampus Cats Killing Him would be an awkward blogger handle. The name, evoking a proud historic civilization, is a key part of an incredibly meaningful connection between the university, its alumni and the community. Given the donorpocalypse that would have occurred had SDSU dropped “Aztecs” I’d be shocked if a name change was ever truly on the table.
I’ll also gladly endorse increasing education about the historic Aztec empire, developing a more nuanced portrayal of Aztec culture and increasing engagement with local native groups. These are all necessary steps if the Aztecs nickname is to be truly used respectfully and I’m eager to see what these steps will entail.
Keeping the Aztec Warrior, however, only re-branding him from a mascot to a “Spirit Leader?” That’s … uh … certainly a decision.
Indeed, this feels like a mistake on a couple of fronts.
From a political standpoint, this constitutes kicking the cultural appropriation can down the road. Had SDSU retired the Warrior — easily the most problematic aspect of the school’s traditions — I believe the Aztec moniker would have stood on firmer footing. While opponents of the Aztecs nickname itself wouldn’t have been placated with this half-measure, the university could’ve at least point out that concerns of student activists and their allies were taken seriously and, indeed, led to real change.
Now, the issue will continue to crop up again and again, until something more than a fig-leaf tweaking of the Warrior — perhaps even touching the nickname — finally comes to pass.
Of course, there’s what’s politically prudent, and there’s what’s right. This move falls short there, too.
To be clear, I don’t find the Aztec Warrior — in its current, updated iteration — to be a racist caricature. The mascot’s regalia was researched for accuracy and is intended to depict the historic Aztecs as badasses, not buffoons. Fervent supporters of maintaining the tradition cannot simply be dismissed as bigots.
But a headdress-wearing Indian
human mascot “Spirit Leader,” however nuanced and well-depicted, is always going to be seen as a questionable representation by many students and groups. Making it so he no longer does push-ups in the end zone or dances with cheerleaders isn’t likely to paper over that fact.
The Warrior’s reprieve today is a relief for the majority opinion, and will continue to make things tricky for years to come.