On Friday, October 10, Peter Collinson ’62 and his wife Margaret unloaded a car-full of Siwash-emblazoned jackets, baseball caps and pins to hand out on the edge of Standish Park. For nearly seven years, the Collinsons have set up camp during Homecoming to distribute items reminiscent of the old college mascot. This year, they arrived with packets filled with a letter addressed to “Knox students (future Knox alums)” and other items, like a Siwash pin and postcards and greeting cards with Siwash written on them, asking that Knox unite its two nicknames within the phrase “Old Siwash, Home of the Prairie Fire.” Through the years, Collinson has written both former president Roger Taylor ’63 and current President Teresa Amott letters asking that they honor this amendment, but the letters mostly went unanswered.
For the Collinsons and many other alumni, Siwash is more than a mascot. It’s an emblem of nostalgia and old times at the alma mater.
But for the gaggle of Knox protestors who showed up with cardboard signs and banners shortly after the Collinsons arrived just north of Alumni Hall, the old mascot, which was obliterated in 1993, is more than a nostalgic name: it’s a racial slur.
Google defines Siwash with two meanings: either an American Indian of the northern Pacific coast, or another term for Chinook Jargon. Both meanings use the word as a noun, and both denote it as a derogatory word.
Approximately eight Knox students quickly organized a protest using household materials to craft signs and using text messages and social media to get the word out. They also quickly started a social media campaign using the hashtags ‘whose community’ and ‘one community.’ As cars sped by honking, the group of protestors raised their signs higher and cheered.
“We don’t want our fellow students to unintentionally don apparel with a racial slur on it, because that’s not Knox. That’s not Knox ideals,” sophomore Miriam Shulze told TKS in an interview later.
“It’s really about respecting people who we owe a lot of respect to because there’s a really bad history. People who we have disrespected in all kinds of ways,” junior Leland Wright said at the protest.
The alumni, however, had a different viewpoint. Joe Stablein ’59 and his brother Ron came back to Knox for Homecoming and stood near the Siwash stand.
“I always liked the name because it was so unique. Other people were the lions or the doggies or the greyhounds, and I always liked the name and I can’t find a reason to change it,” Stablein said. Both brothers wore Siwash-emblazoned sweatshirts and baseball caps.
“I listen to those people down there, but that’s just a bunch of fluff in the wind as far as I’m concerned. All they’re doing is reiterating what other people say,” Stablein said.
Though the protest appeared to be current students versus alumni, the Siwash debate extends beyond two distinct groups. Many current students own Siwash apparel.
Junior Zane Carlson’s Siwash baseball cap has sentimental value for him, but for a different reason: it was passed down to him by a brother from his fraternity, Beta Theta Pi.
“He felt he wanted to pass it down to someone who had a lot of Knox spirit, not just for the school but for the athletics itself É It does have some personal value to it. In my time getting to know the brother who gave it to me, it has meaning,” Carlson said. He’s never been approached on campus for wearing the hat.
“I consider myself a very socially-aware person so I suppose there is a double standard to me owning it, but I’m also … a huge Blackhawks fan, and that’s one of the few sports teams in the athletic world that hasn’t had to change their appearance and name based on Native American involvement and heritage, so I suppose I would openly admit to having a double-standard with having Siwash gear and being a Blackhawks representative,” Carlson said.
Though he acknowledges the term Siwash’s derogatory connotation, he also says that the Prairie Fire may not be wholly representative of what Knox is.
“If there was more thought given to the mascot following [Siwash] there may be less of a desire to return to the Siwash name, but Siwash had been around since Knox College had been created, so there definitely is a longing to return to our roots while our roots may not be politically correct,” he said.
As the protestors huddled across from Alumni Hall, they stressed the spirit of Homecoming and the importance of being proud of Knox without embracing a politically-incorrect mascot.
“Especially because the Knox community has been addressing issues of what diversity looks like here and inclusivity, it’s not okay to then have a racial slur promoted on campus,” said senior Allie Fry. “We’re not anti-Knox, we’re just anti-racism, and we support the Prairie Fire quite strongly.”