Chief Caddo: Searching for solutions after the demise of a treasured (by many) tradition

The answer to the problem is Bigfoot.

Or maybe, it’s a totem pole. Or just a very big log, inscribed with school logos.

But that’s not really the solution in the “Chief Caddo” controversy swirling around the Northwestern State-Stephen F. Austin football rivalry to be renewed Saturday evening at Turpin Stadium.

The problem, for shocked supporters including a horde of angry former Northwestern State players and alumni, is two-fold: 1) sorting through the why’s and who’s behind the sudden Wednesday announcement of the cancellation of the 62-year-old trophy tradition, and 2) what now?

The 7-foot-6, 320-pound wooden Indian statue, claimed by the winner of each football matchup between the schools, stands somewhere in storage on the SFA campus in Nacogdoches, its future unknown. Not long ago it was proudly displayed in the Lumberjacks’ athletic fieldhouse, and was relocated to their basketball arena when Northwestern visited.

But now it’s statue-non grata. Both university presidents issued a statement Wednesday formally shelving the “Chief” because of sensitivity to understandable concerns from some Native Americans, and outlining a vague path about “ongoing discussions about how best to commemorate this nearly century-old rivalry.”

What was left unsaid was exactly when the decision was reached, who was consulted to make it (obviously not players, coaches and alumni who were invested in the tradition for decades, from the widespread firestorm on social media and over coffee or cocktails), and any timeline to move forward with purpose.

When and who was involved is at best cryptic. It didn’t happen when Dr. Chris Maggio was NSU’s president, despite a polite but firm November 2020 letter of complaint to both schools requesting the end of the trophy exchange – not the tradition — from the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma chairwoman Tamara M. French.  It didn’t happen after an April 2021 resolution passed by the NSU Student Government Association later endorsed by the Faculty Senate.

Then the axe was grinding. After many years of shreds of occasional complaints to officials at NSU and SFA, in the aftermath of the social upheaval movement in the summer of 2020, the letter from French was followed a few months later by the SGA and Faculty Senate resolutions – not university policy, just their recommendations, but worthy of note.

Maggio surprisingly retired late that spring, and current NSU president Dr. Marcus Jones took over Nov. 8, 2021. At some point after that, apparently in conjunction with leadership across Toledo Bend, a decision was made. Unpopular, to be sure. But only a small circle of people knew, and whoever did used the ostrich approach. 

It wasn’t announced. Not when the Demons’ 2023 schedule was released with SFA on it. Not by SFA, whose football coach, Colby Carthel, made it clear Thursday what he thinks of the situation.

“There were rumors they (NSU) were going to turn him into wood chips or whatever for lawn landscaping, but that wasn’t going to happen on our watch,” he told Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel reporter Nathan Hague. “So he is secured out of public sight and will not be played for again, unfortunately for a lot of folks.”

All summer long, NSU fans inquired about the presumed upcoming “Battle for Chief Caddo” – after all, it was a fixture for decades — but got no answers. Finally with game day near, a five-sentence statement from the presidents confirmed the Chief was DOA.

“The main issue ex-players have with this decision is the fact it feels like it was done in the dark,” said a Facebook post by former NSU receiver and SFA assistant coach David Groman, a leader in the “Demon Brothers” support group of former players.

“It would have been nice, as an ex-NSU player and an ex-SFA coach, to be able to let the Caddo Nation know the honor and respect we had for the Chief. To let them know we never recognized this as a ‘cigar store Indian.’

“We would have heard from them the objections they have with the representation of the Chief. Maybe we could have come to an agreement to change … him, a better visual representation. Maybe not,” Groman wrote Thursday. “Maybe they could have heard the respect in our voices. Maybe not.

“I can say it was an honor to fight for Chief Caddo, but I can not say I was honoring Caddo Nation if they didn’t feel the same.”

Why this justifiable, albeit painful move wasn’t made public just after the 2023 schedule was released is puzzling and disappointing. That would have allowed months for a new trophy to be developed, one that did the same things the Chief Caddo trophy was created to do – recognize the historic relationship between the two oldest communities in their respective states, and the Native American influence that made their existence possible.

Saturday’s game could have been a celebration of a new tradition. Now the teams don’t meet until 2025. That leaves plenty of time for deliberation – and hopefully this time, collaboration past a small circle. Build some buy-in. Develop a wonderful new tradition. Fold in service activities by both schools to involve and benefit nearby Native Americans. Add some educational components. And a nice, new prize – hopefully one that is still the biggest in all the sports world. Why change that?

The “antiquated” Chief, thought to be reasonably historically accurate when Logansport wood carver Harold Green developed him in 1960-61, was due for an upgrade. Our society has made much progress since then. There are no longer two water fountains or segregated schools. Women and minorities have greatly enhanced standing in today’s America. It’s not perfect. It never will be, but it can always be better. Maybe over the long haul, this change helps, after it understandably inflamed angry emotions from blindsided Demons and Lumberjacks this week.

There’s one more twist. The Chief probably isn’t SFA’s to keep. Former Demons center Tyler Rapp points out the 2019 Lumberjacks had to forfeit nine games, including their 32-20 NSU win, because of rampant academic compliance shortcomings. SFA had to remove basketball conference championship banners, NCAA Tournament marks and other tokens of competitive success from that period.

Even the SFA record book cites results were vacated by the NCAA Committee on Infractions. So the Chief might have one more journey back to Louisiana, if justice prevails – if somebody will, as the NSU fight song ends, “fight for dear ole Demon land.”

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End of an era:  No more ‘Chief Caddo’ for NSU-SFA football

The case presented by Caddo Nation to halt the Chief Caddo trophy exchange