By Nick Christensen
A half-century ago, my mom was the UNLV mascot, Beauregard. She dressed as a Confederate wolf and went to football games, where players who had Confederate flags on their helmets represented Nevada’s “South.”
At the time, it might have seemed cheeky. In a nation that had just passed the Civil Rights Acts and Voting Rights Act, in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s electoral trouncing, the idea of “representing the Confederacy” must have seemed like a joke. Who would possibly think the war was still being fought?
A half century later, of course, nobody’s laughing. The Confederate flag still flies as a symbol of defiance, hate and oppression.
Flash forward 20 years to the creation of “Hey Reb” The Mountain Man may have seemed to have qualities that could be appreciated by all Nevadans, but for Indigenous people of the Great Basin and Mojave Desert, we know that the arrival of people like John Fremont, Kit Carson and Jim Bridger portended the colonization of the West and the end of many traditional ways of the Shoshone, Paiute, Makhav and others.
When the symbol of a school causes so much pain for people who are seeking an education – and a point of community unity – it must be reconsidered.
Both of my parents earned master’s degrees from UNLV. I grew up in Las Vegas. I went to basketball games in the Tark years – the chants of “Re-bels” rolling down the stands of the Thomas & Mack are still ringing in my ears. I graduated from UNLV, and my UNLV education has been an asset in my career in politics in Oregon.
And one of the most important lessons I learned at UNLV is, well, to be a Rebel. To be cynical. To avoid the cliché, and question conformity.
So it pains me to think of UNLV having an identity other than a Rebel. I know how important that image was to the development of the school, and to me as a student. It was such a fitting image for a city that rebelled against those who said it would never exist, a university whose very existence was questioned from the get-go.
And the Rebel is an image, in many ways, that supports progress. Across our nation, people are rebelling against the systems and structures that have perpetuated racism in our nation.
But one of the other things I take pride in about UNLV was the diversity of the student body. And the thought that students, or potential students, don’t feel welcome there because of the mascot is disappointing. UNLV needs to be welcoming to people from a variety of backgrounds and identities.
I moved to Portland in 2007. Here in the Northwest, the Rebel brand is nonexistent. It’s been 30 years since the days of Tark and the idea of UNLV as a national brand is ancient history.
Part of the reason for that is because people are not necessarily comfortable with the Rebel symbol. Sure, it’s obvious to Nevadans, and to people with connections to UNLV, that the Rebel mascot is at worst a cheeky dig at UNLV’s stodgy northern sister school, and that “Hey Reb!” is supposed to be an homage to the mountain man. But most people who are unfamiliar with UNLV still assume it’s a relic of the Confederacy and are confounded by its existence in a school that was established less than 70 years ago.
Unfortunately, the stain of the stars and bars is still on the mascot. No matter how hard you wash, I don’t think that smell is ever coming off the word Rebel.
I hope that I’m wrong. I hope there’s a way to salvage the word while losing the stench. But the conversation isn’t about me. It’s about the future generations of students at one of the nation’s most diverse universities.
I hope my home state will listen to their voices as this conversation continues.
Nick Christensen is a Las Vegas native, a UNLV alumnus and the former editor of the Summerlin News. He is now the communications advisor for the Metro Council in Portland. He is on Twitter at @nickcpdx and can be reached via email at [email protected]