From high school gymnasiums to the gridiron of pro football, athletic venues across the U.S. have summarily ejected the Native American mascots and names that had once been so ubiquitous in competitive sports.
This push to retire the brave with his war whoop began more than a generation ago in response to objections from Native American activists about cultural appropriation and the reinforcement of derogatory stereotypes. But the pace of this trend has recently accelerated amid the heightened sensitivity to racial injustice that has emerged since last year’s murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Among the casualties of the new national spirit have been the Washington “Redskins,” who joined the ash heap of history last summer when D.C.’s NFL franchise formally abandoned its use of the contentious name. Also on the way out are the “Indians” of Major League Baseball, who are slated to leave Cleveland for the figurative field of dreams at the close of the 2021 season.
In light of these high-profile moves by sports powerhouses, it may be tempting to infer a similar motive behind the city of Burlington’s recent decision to rechristen the Indian Valley Golf Course as simply “the Valley.”
Under a rebranding plan that received a unanimous nod from Burlington’s city council on Tuesday, the city-owned golf course will gradually shed its old ethnic identifier in favor of the new, pithier name. Yet, this transition, which is expected to occur in drips and drabs over the next several years, is not at all a concession to the forces of political correctness – at least not according to the city staff members who’ve spearheaded the change.
Tony Laws, the city’s long-time director of recreation and parks, made precisely this point when he presented the council with the golf course’s rebranding plan on the eve of its meeting on Tuesday.
“I’ve had people telling me that ‘you’re just dropping the name ‘Indian’ because of political correctness,’” Laws told the council during a monthly work session on Monday. “That is absolutely incorrect. That has nothing to do with this change.”
What’s in a name?
Laws went on to explain that the name “Indian Valley” is little more than a relic of the golf course’s previous life as a privately-owned recreation facility. He recalled that the private developer who established the course chose the sobriquet arbitrarily when he laid out the facility on the north side of the Haw River in the late 60s. Laws, who has worked for the city since 1969, added that the developer also had plans to set up a residential community alongside the fairways. He added that the developer ultimately found himself in the rough when he learned that much of the land he had set aside for homes wouldn’t perk and was unsuitable for septic systems.
Laws told the council that the developer’s misfortune provided the city with a golden opportunity to purchase the golf course at the bargain basement price of about $450,000.
“Indian Valley was the name of the golf course when the developer created it,” he went on to recount at the work session, “When the city bought it, that was still the name, and we just carried forth with Indian Valley as the name of the golf course.”
Laws went on to assure the council that the proposal to strike the word “Indian” from the golf course’s name had nothing to do with supposed insensitivity of this ethnic descriptor.
“I’ve never had a native American complain about the word ‘Indian’ being in the title of the golf course,” he added. “So, it’s not been offensive to the Native Americans in any way, shape, form, or fashion.”
The newspaper offers its own editorial opinion on the city’s posture regarding changing the name of Indian Valley Golf Course – and of Burlington owning and operating a golf course of any name in competition with the private sector. Read editorial here: https://alamancenews.com/surely-burlington-has-something-more-important-to-work-on-than-changing-indian-valley-name/
The recreation director’s assurances were later reiterated by assistant city manager Rachel Kelly, who told The Alamance News that city staff members had obtained a great deal of input about both the old name and the new before they threw their lot in with the latter. Kelly said that staff members even consulted with the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, which is Alamance County’s only state-recognized Indian tribe, in order to determine if there was anything objectionable in either appellation. The assistant city manager went on to note that the proposed name change received the unanimous endorsement from the city’s parks and recreation commission before its presentation to the council on Monday.
During that evening’s presentation, Laws told the council that the city-owned golf course has long been affectionately known as “the Valley” to its patrons. The recreation director’s assertion was later borne out by councilman Jim Butler as he reflected on the two publicly accessible golf courses that, for many years, had been the leading putting spots in Burlington’s immediate orbit.
“For 25 years, there were two names of golf courses – the Valley and the Rock,” he recalled. “It was never Indian Valley and Shamrock. It was the Valley and the Rock.”
Morgan Lasater, the community’s engagement manager, said that she and other city staff members ultimately seized on the golf course’s “vernacular” designation when they decided to rebrand the golf course. Lasater added that this brand overhaul is part of a broader effort to consolidate the way that the city promotes all of its programs and services. She noted that, in the case of the golf course, the point of this overhaul has been more about highlighting the facility’s connection to the city of Burlington than tinkering with its name.
“We began to recognize that we had patrons and residents who didn’t know that this golf course was a municipal golf course or that it was supported and run by their tax dollars,” she explained to the council. “We realized that probably needed to change.”
The confusion about the city’s link to the golf course is somewhat understandable given its roots as a private facility as well as its location north of the Haw River – and past the fringes of Burlington’s municipal limits. The facility has also been in head-to-head competition with privately owned golf courses – a point that Lasater emphasized in her report to the council on Monday. But unlike most other golf venues, the course formerly known as Indian Valley does receive revenue from the city on top of the fees it collects from its patrons.
Burlington’s financial support of the site has received periodic attention from local news outlets, including The Alamance News, which did its own deep dive into the facility in 2004.
The newspaper found at the time that the golf course, which had once turned a profit, was relying on the city’s subsidy for more than a third of its operating revenue. Laws told the newspaper in 2004 that the city’s allocation allowed the golf course to fund renovations and provide services that the private sector just didn’t offer – like free access to high school golf teams.
Yet, the taxpayer’s contribution to Indian Valley didn’t sit well with the managers of private golf courses who spoke to the newspaper at the time. One who was particularly critical of the public subsidy was Will Mann, who operated the now defunct Quarry Hills Golf Course in Swepsonville.
“I have a problem with the philosophy that a municipal golf course can be subsidized in the long term,” Mann told the newspaper in 2004. “If it’s not profitable, and it’s taking tax dollars from other services, they have to ask ‘is this the greatest and best use of the taxpayers’ money.’”
On the upswing
Like a number of other area golf courses, Quarry Hills ultimately went belly up as the local economy sputtered and revenue from patrons dried up. Indian Valley, on the other hand, has continued to putter along – thanks, in no small part, to the financial stability it owes to the city’s subsidy. Now, though, the newly-renamed facility may be in a position to pick up a greater share of its operating expenses – thanks to a recent resurgence in golf that also came up during the council’s work session on Monday.
The council received some additional insight about the golf course that evening from Jonathan Dudley, who took over as the facility’s manager about six months ago. Dudley said that the course’s rebranding has coincided with a surge in attendance that he attributed, in part, to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Golf in general…is up about 30 to 35 percent this year,” he told the council as he cited a recent national study. “This is a really great opportunity for us to capture a new generation of golfers…and see Indian Valley as a great place to bring their kids or their grandparents…Whether they’re skipping it off the front of the first tee box or bombing it down the middle, they still seem to be enjoying themselves.”
Dudley informed the council that, during the second half of 2020, revenue from “sales” at Indian Valley shot up some 98 percent from the same period of 2019. He added that the golf course’s patrons played a total of 22,670 rounds during the past year – in contrast to the 10,075 rounds that they putted in 2019.
The golf course’s growing profitability did not go unnoticed by councilman Butler, who offered a suggestion germane to is finances prior to Tuesday’s vote on the rebranding proposal. Butler told the rest of the council that he “almost wishes” the golf course could be operated through an “enterprise fund” – an independent, self-sustaining account not unlike the one which sustains the city’s water and sewer system. As an enterprise fund, the golf course could no longer receive money from the city’s general fund and would, instead, have to cover its cost through the fees it collects.
With the recent spikes in sales and attendance, Dudley told the city council that he thinks the time is ripe for the golf course to step up its game – not unlike a certain pro golfer who attained superstar status in the ‘90s and has recently experienced a renewed burst of success.
“We haven’t seen numbers like this in the golf industry since basically the mid ‘90s,” the facility’s manager reminded the council on Monday. “So, I say, let’s join the comeback tour. Tiger won the Masters last year. We’re trending in the right direction with golf. Why not [give the city’s golf course a lift with] a beautiful logo and a fresh look.”
Shots from the public
The city’s leaders also received another suggestion for the golf course’s improvement during a designated public comment period that closed out the council’s meeting on Tuesday. Two of the three residents who phoned in during the comment period urged the city’s leaders to add a disc golf course to the Valley’s current offerings. This feature would join a number of other diversions, like paddle boat access to the Haw River, that the facility already provides for non-golfers. According to one disc golf enthusiast, Alex Alfonso, a disc golf course would ultimately bring more visitors and more revenue to the facility with a negligible increase in maintenance.
In addition to Tuesday’s public speakers, Laws told the council that he has gotten a barrage of feedback from residents who continue to misread the purpose of the golf course’s name change. As a result, the recreation and park’s director went to the trouble of repeating his earlier disclaimer about the word ‘Indian’ before Tuesday night’s vote.
“This is not a politically correct change, and we are not dropping the word ‘Indian’ because of any controversy or any complaint,” he boomed. “There has been some unfortunate publicity that sort of indicated this and that did not come from us.”
Yet, Laws’ adamant denial didn’t deter one area resident from repeating the charge of political correctness during that evening’s comment period.
Spencer Selle of Gibsonville went so far as to share the presumably sarcastic suggestion that the city ought to escalate its efforts to paper over geographic references to Native Americans in light of the success it has enjoyed with the Valley’s new name.
“Rebranding to be more ‘correct’ is a great step forward,” he told the city’s leaders. “My question is what’s the next step. Can we go after the Haw River…If we want to be fair and across the board, it should not just be applied to our golf courses.”