Seawolf chant under student scrutiny
Whether courtside at a basketball game or pounding on the glass during ice hockey, the “what’s a seawolf?” chant is a staple at any UAF-UAA athletics match. However, this chant may be disrespectful towards some Native Alaskans, as pointed out in a Facebook message from Student Government Vice President ‘Wáats’asdíyei “Joe” Yates to the University of Alaska Facebook page.
The seawolf is a creature that appears in both Tlingit and Haida stories, under the names “Gonakadet” and “wasko”. In carvings from Southeast Alaska, the seawolf is usually depicted with a canine front half and the back half of a killer whale. In one Tlingit story, Gonakadet rescues a chief’s daughter from drowning in the ocean, while in another, the son of a chief kills the monster and wears its’ skin for strength. In one Haida story, a man raises two puppies that he found in a tree, only to discover that the puppies were growing into huge dogs-of-the-sea or waskos. The waskos hunted whales so that the man and his tribe would not starve.
“I am a transfer student from UAS. I never heard the chant until I moved here,” Yates wrote in an email interview. “After being shocked by hearing [the chant] during the volleyball season, I tried brushing it off. But when I heard it again during the hockey season, that’s when I had enough.”
In a meeting on Feb. 26, Student Government President Colby Freel referenced this message, which was originally anonymous, and apologized for having chanted the phrase, having been unaware of any cultural connections. In that meeting, Yates took credit for the message and expressed concern over the University encouraging the chant, recalling having attended an event at which the ‘Nook waved a sign with the saying on it.
UAF Director of Athletics Gary Gray wrote, in an email interview with the Sun Star, that athletics does not support any conduct that does not uphold department values.
“I think cultural sensitivity is important and I’m glad this issue was brought to my attention,” Gray wrote. “At all of our athletics events, the PA announcer reads a statement asking fans to avoid any racist, sexist, personal, or other intimidating actions directed at opponents, officials, or other fans. We want our athletics venues and events to be good examples of civility, respect, and good sportsmanship, as opposed to examples of rude, offensive or insensitive behavior.”
The UAA mascot was originally the Sourdough, lasting from 1972-1977. Late basketball coach Bob Rachal lobbied for the change, partially due to the public mocking the Sourdough mascot and logo, saying things like “Oh, here comes the bread.” The UAA Seawolf logo went through two different iterations before the current green-and-gold, formline-inspired look.
“I have nothing against UAA using the Seawolf as a mascot,” Yates wrote. “There’s no one trying to pretend like they are a Seawolf. Same for our Nanook– but then again, that’s not a part of my culture.”
Yates is Haida, a fact he referenced in his original message to the UAF Facebook page, and again in the ASUAF meeting when Freel brought the message up.
“Our history, our stories, our tradition is quickly disappearing. The story of a Seawolf may not connect to me, as its not a part of my clan,” Yates wrote. “But we have to protect our traditions and stories, and not allow others to desecrate them out of ignorance. This is why I feel it’s my duty to educate people about our culture, so they will understand.”
The UAF student section at any major athletics event is a generally rowdy crowd, stomping in the bleachers at basketball games and pounding on the glass at ice hockey. Typical chants at any given hockey match include shouting during specific songs and whenever an opposing athlete gets sent to the penalty box. The “what’s a seawolf?” chant gets used exclusively at UAA games, referencing the mascot’s status as a mythical creature and the fact that many UAA students don’t even know the origin of their school’s mascot.
At UAF, there are some students who feel the chant is not intended to be insensitive.
“The thing I like about attending the hockey games is how exciting it can get when both teams are trying to win,” said Angel Jimmie, a third-year criminal justice student. Jimmie and her friends are frequent spectators at UAF hockey games. “Hockey is a competitive sport and one way to support the team is by chanting. I do participate in some of the chants, because I want the team I’m rooting for to win. I’m not doing it out of spite. I’m not trying to intentionally disrespect anyone or any culture.”
UAA is not the only institution that touts the Seawolf as their mascot. Also part of the “seawolf family” are a minor league baseball team in Erie, Pennsylvania; both Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York and Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California; and Tabor Academy private high school in Marion, Massachusetts.
“That’s crazy that someone would say [that the chant is insensitive],” Jimmie said. “For me, that never came to mind whenever I said ‘what’s a seawolf’. It’s like with football, the Redskins situation.”
Jimmie is referencing the controversy over the Washington, D.C. NFL team name. The name and logo, according to team owner Dan Snyder, is meant to pay homage to Native Americans and invokes qualities like strength and courage. Organizations including the National Congress of American Indians and the American Psychological Association strongly oppose the name and logo, citing the history of the word as a disparaging term and the continued use of the mascot as demeaning native peoples, traditions and rituals.
“I understand that not everyone knows who the Haida people are, but now is the time to learn,” said Yates. “UAA is a rival, which I understand, but that doesn’t give people an excuse to tear down a culture for it. We must learn another way to cheer for our Nanooks.”