The Last Ouampi
By Greg Kozol | Roitstein photo by Eric Francis
Lloyd Roitstein jokes that he went to college for so long, people eventually thought he was a professor.
Attending Omaha University and then UNO from 1964 to 1971, he balanced night school and a job with a stint in the U.S. Army Reserves. Through it all, he always managed to find time to play “Ouampi,” the university's Native American mascot.
Roitstein showed up at football games, rallies and other events in full Native American regalia. With the sounds of drums or the school fight song in the background, he performed a dance to generate support for athletic teams that were known as the Indians from 1939 to 1971.
He never thought anything of it.
Native Americans, he says, taught him an authentic dance known as “double action.”
He said he started learning Native American dances at the age of 10 and was a member of the Ahamo Indian Dancers in Omaha when he was in scouting. "We were taught by Native Americans in the beginning and passed it down over the years. It was all authentic," he says. Roitstein says he even taught Native Americans in Omaha how to dance. His performances at UNO were crowd favorites, he says. His brother, Larry, also performed as Ouampi (pictured).
“Everyone stood up and clapped and never had an issue,” Roitstein says. “I tried to do everything I could to respect the Native Americans and not embarrass anybody. It was something I loved doing and had a lot of fun doing.”
He especially loved the outfit. Roitstein estimates he spent thousands of hours perfecting the elaborate beadwork that decorated Ouampi’s buckskin outfit. He even was asked to bring his Native American regalia to the inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson, in 1965.
“They didn't want me, they wanted my regalia,” he says. “I didn't want it out of my sight.”
It never dawned on Roitstein that he could be the last Ouampi.
Only in the Movies
Like many college students his age, Jim Zadina’s first glimpse of Native Americans came at the movies. It wasn't a good first impression, with many Westerns in the 1950s depicting Native Americans as stereotyped savages.
With that cultural backdrop, Zadina (pictured, courtesy Tulane University) pursued a degree in psychology and became UNO’s student body president in 1971. In February of that year, a fellow student told Zadina that a group of Native Americans wanted to meet with him.
Someone had attended a football game and found the dancing Ouampi character to be offensive. Zadina, went to the off-campus meeting and found it to be enlightening.
“I don't remember them being angry. I don't remember them being hostile,” Zadina says. “I remember them being resolute. They made it clear this was offensive to them, the way the Indian culture was being portrayed was stereotypical and insulting.”
“I felt like they had a pretty good point.”
Within three months, Zadina introduced a Student Senate measure to abolish the Indian nickname, as well as the Ouampi mascot that included a cartoon depiction of a dark-skinned Native American kicking up dust and swinging a tomahawk.
In a packed meeting room, the Student Senate voted to drop the Indian name, and Ouampi, by an 18-7 vote. The Indians joined the Cardinals, Maroons, Ponies and Crimson and Black among the university's discarded team names.
Zadina described the meeting as “intense.” “There was obviously a lot of debate and strong feeling,” he says.
In the student newspaper, the story on the name change was published right below a front-page article on the need for more campus parking.
The debate over UNO's mascot and team name came to a quick resolution in 1971.
Since then, Native American groups have used public pressure and legal means to challenge team names. Change has come more slowly than it did at UNO.
Zadina points out that “UNO was 30 years ahead of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights,” which in 2001 called for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools. A commission release stated: “These references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping. They are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.”
Today, the issue of using Native American names as mascots again has become a national discussion, this time centering on whether the NFL's Washington Redskins should change its name. Even President Barack Obama weighed in on the controversy. "I’d think about changing it," he said.
He likely has support on the UNO campus.
“I've been advocating this for years,” says Ed Zendejas, director of UNO’s Native American Studies program. “It's coming to a point where it's becoming a national topic.”
Zendejas examines the topic of mascot names in his class lectures and wrote a book about it: “Mascots that Honor Indians: The Audacity of a Dope.” To him, the problem with names like Redskins and Indians isn't that they're offensive.
“Being offensive is subjective,” he says. “You can have the best of intentions. The argument is about perpetuating ignorance.”
Zendejas objects to mascots that not only enforce stereotypes but also ignore the history of Native Americans and misuse symbols that have deep meaning, such as arrows, feathers and dances.
He asks students in his class, if they were religious, how would they feel about their faith's sacred symbols and your priest's vestments being used as a vehicle to fire up fans at a football game?
“You have to earn it,” Zendejas says. “You don't go and borrow that stuff. Those things have meaning. Putting feathers in your hair or paint on your face means something. You don't just do it because it looks cute.
“People need to look at it in that light,” he says.
Efforts to change Native American team names often are fought on a case-by-case basis across the country. Opponents of the Washington Redskins name waged a legal battle over the trademark.
Native American groups claimed a major victory in 2005 when the NCAA Executive Committee banned team mascots considered “hostile and abusive.” Of more than 30 schools with Native American mascots, 14 changed their team names before the NCAA ban went into effect. Others, such as the Florida State Seminoles, were exempted after they received authorization from a specific tribe.
Sometimes, the change is subtle. The University of Illinois retained its Fighting Illini name but retired Chief Illiniwek, a Ouampi-like mascot in face paint.
One holdout was the University of North Dakota, which became embroiled in a messy court and legislative battle over the Fighting Sioux nickname. The university is expected to go without a nickname until 2015.
The National Congress of American Indians estimates that 2,000 sports teams have changed their Native American nicknames in the last 35 years, including 28 high schools that used to be called the Redskins. About 1,000 teams retain some sort of Native American-themed name, the organization says.
“It's a slow course,” Zendejas says. “The numbers are changing daily.”
Zendejas scoffs at notions that team names like Redskins and Indians, or mascots decorated with feathers, are a way to honor Native Americans. “People always say that,” he says. “It irritates me to no end that they can't see through their ignorance.”
Ouampi still lives in Roitstein's home.
After graduating from UNO, Roitstein worked 40 years for the Boy Scouts, an organization that incorporates Native American influences in its programs. He wore the costume for scouting activities but put it away around the time he retired as executive of the scout's Mid-America Council in Omaha.
Today, it remains as a relic of traditions that have long since passed. “To this day, I love that tradition,” he says. “I hated to see it go.”
Roitstein believes the university enjoyed a sense of school spirit — he says Ouampi is a combination of OU and a Native American word for spirit – that was hard to replace. He lumps Mavericks in there with other school nicknames in the state that just don't do it for him.
“It's hard to have much excitement about a stalk of corn,” he says.
Asked if he would want to keep the Indians name today, he says it would be better to defer to those who find it objectionable.
“If I was in charge of making that decision, I would let the Native Americans determine that. You have to be respectful,” he says. “I don't think I would be the right person to ask.”
Zendejas says he feels a sense of pride in working for a university that was among the first in the nation to abolish its Native American nickname.
Stanford also switched its team name in the early 1970s, going from the Indians to the Cardinal. After suggesting a steaming manhole cover or a French fry, students at the California campus settled on a tree for its mascot.
UNO students picked the Mavericks over Unicorns, Roadrunners and Demons.
“That's something positive,” Zendejas says. “That's a prime example of how we can move on.”
Zadina moved on to a successful career as a neuroscientist at Tulane University in New Orleans. He led a research team that discovered naturally occurring compounds in the brain, which could lead to new drugs that relieve pain without as much risk of addiction.
With UNO now having played as the Mavericks longer than any other school nickname, Zadina says the battle to abolish the Indian ranks right up there with his other accomplishments.
“I'm actually quite proud of it,” he says. “It was the right thing to do. A number of us took up the cause and fought for it. I feel like with this controversy over the Redskins, UNO should be proud of being a leader on this issue.”
Even better, his alma mater didn't become the Unicorns. “I could have been blamed for that,”