CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Since 2004, Izzy the Islander has wandered the campus of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi as the official mascot. Loved by some, others have described Izzy as offensive and racist.
According to documents received through a public information request, some students and faculty want the university to stop using the mascot.
Among the faculty who want a change is associate professor Chris Bird, who spent 14 years in Hawaii. As a former member of the Faculty Senate, he raised the issue of Izzy.
The Faculty Senate asked the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) for an evaluation of Izzy. The result?
The mascot's traditional tattoo and mask are in the shape of a sacred Ki’i. It appropriates traditional Pacific Islander cultural knowledge and expression. The tattooing inaccurately portrays relevant practices today and is sacred, the report says.
These are the tattoos the OHA identified. Kakau uhi expresses ancestral relationships and personal responsibility. Ki’i is known as the well-known tiki figure, represents honoring ancestors, traditional gods, and connection to the environment. Lastly, Mo’ai represents ancestral connections specific to Rapa Nui Culture.
"I think that the main point of the OHA letter was that the problem arises when the cultural elements are used for monetary gain," Bird said.
"I think it can be hurtful to those groups," said Mia Moody-Ramirez, an expert in media representation of minorities, women, and underrepresented groups at Baylor University. "Particularly, when something is borrowed without individuals knowing the history and the background of it."
OHA also addressed some of the traditions associated with Izzy. The Shaka, and lei's given at graduation are fine on their own. They've come to be used worldwide. The Shaka is a Hawaiian greeting. The lei is an expression of endearment. The issue they have is when combined with Izzy, it becomes a stereotype. Moody-Ramirez said the entire combination is offensive.
"It's not just the mascot, it's the other things that go along with it. So that's what we're seeing here," Moody-Ramirez said. "Not only is Izzy wearing a mask and not only does Izzy have the tattoos, but you have individuals doing the signs that are meaningful to the Pacific Island Culture. But then people who are doing it don't know the meaning behind that. That's offensive."
The report strongly suggests the university change its mascot. So what did students on campus have to say?
"I'm obviously not a Pacific Islander, so I don't have much feelings towards it," said Samuel Canis, a student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. "But I'm sure someone who was a Pacific Islander saw that, it could be offensive."
"Mascots in general lately have been pretty vulgar when it comes to representations of cultures," Texas A&M Corpus-Christi stiudent Chris Gochnour said. "You see that with the (Washington) Redskins, Chicago Blackhawks, stuff like that. So, you know, it's not right, but it fits the narrative."
"Maybe we just don’t know enough about that culture," another student, Kaylynn Limon said. "Yeah, I can see—probably not knowing enough, just having it on campus just walking around with the tiki head. I understand, they probably did think it’s insensitive."
Retiring the mascot is one way to help reinforce the university's position with minorities, Bird said.
"For the university to definitively divorce themselves from the idea that they might be insensitive to minorities, being a minority-serving institution, it seems easy to embrace Texan culture," Bird said. "Embrace south Texas. Embrace what makes being an islander in Corpus Christi special."
The faculty Senate agreed with the report. They've asked the administration to have a formal retirement of Izzy and issue an apology to the Pacific Islanders.
How has the university responded?
Before the new year, university president Kelly Miller shared a statement with the Faculty Senate. Izzy's image would be reduced and removed from the athletics website. A task force would be formed in the spring to redesign the mascot.
That task force has met twice, according to university officials.
A survey was also sent out seeking opinions on Izzy in which the mascot talked about removing his mask and connected a mask unveiling back to the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than cultural appropriation.
"The way the university community was asked about this was, 'Hey we're going to take off Izzy's mask, who's under the mask?'" Bird said. "Not, 'Hey there's problems with the origins of Izzy and the characterization of a colonized minority in the United States.'"
"I do like the idea of it coinciding with the mask ordinance being lifted," Moody-Ramirez said. "However, I still think they still need to include some background and context and share information regarding the report."
We reached out to TAMU-CC for an interview, which they declined. Instead, they provided a statement.
They said they began discussions about Izzy before the pandemic. Now with OHA feedback, they are moving forward with a task force to find solutions. The plan is to continue to use the Islander name because it's a piece of university history.
Moody-Ramirez said this is something all universities are going through in some way. At Baylor, she's on a committee discussing historical landmarks on campus.
The full TAMU-CC statement is below.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University began internal discussions regarding updates to the current mascot, Izzy. In furtherance of those discussions, the University conducted an official survey to gather feedback from students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Additionally, the University’s Faculty Senate proactively reached out to the State of Hawai’i’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) for feedback on our images and traditions. We learned from OHA that some of our Islander images specifically related to Izzy are of concern. Fortunately, many of our traditions, such as the lei and the shaka, are viewed as widely used in many areas beyond Hawai’i and not offensive when not combined with the characterization of Izzy.
A diverse task force of representatives from across campus is in the beginning stages of assessing all of this feedback. Although it is too early in the process to report findings, the committee has been charged with addressing the concerns of OHA and those raised in the survey, while working to preserve our unique history and better represent the distinctiveness of our region. The University will continue the use of the name “Islanders,” as this name was voted on and approved by students of the Island University. This name continues to bring together alumni from all chapters of the University’s history, while ensuring we are representative of the Coastal Bend community.
This is a serious responsibility that the University does not take lightly. It requires thoughtful and thorough conversations and planning as we move forward. Our hope remains that our timeline will allow us to connect the unveiling or “unmasking” our new mascot to the unique situation in which we find ourselves in light of masks and the COVID-19 pandemic.
This article was written by Eran Hami for KRIS.