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A brief history of decades of debate at SDSU about the Aztec name and Aztec Warrior mascot, er, spirit leader

Richard Guzman, 19, a San Diego State sophomore, practices blowing his conch shell as gets ready to be the SDSU Aztec Warrior mascot while in a men's room.

San Diego State University’s Aztec Warrior is no longer a mascot.

It’s a “spirit leader” ... whatever that is.

After months of deliberation and years of debate on campus and off, SDSU interim president Sally Roush on Thursday announced that she has decided the school will continue to use the Aztec nickname but that she is scaling back the presence of the Aztec Warrior and that its use “will be unfailingly informed and guided by the wisdom” of a 17-member task force that gave her several recommendations in a 312-page report.

“The Aztec Warrior, similarly a source of pride for the collective majority, will be retained, but as Spirit Leader, not mascot,” Roush said in her statement. “There will be immediate and visible changes in demeanor to achieve a respectful portrayal of a powerful figure from Aztec culture.”

At issue was the cultural appropriateness of the Aztec Warrior used for athletic games, as well as apparel and merchandise sold by the university. Students protested the depiction of the mascot as a “racialized stereotype of Native Americans.” Others called it racist.

So, how did we get to this point? Here’s a brief history:

Evolution from 1925 to 2001

Long before it was officially named SDSU, the San Diego university began using the Aztec name for its mascot in 1925. It wasn’t until 1941 that the mascot evolved into the depiction that’s recognizable today of Montezuma, the warrior who ruled the Aztecs in the early 1500s, according to the university.

In 2001, Stephen Weber, the university’s president at the time, announced a decision to rename the mascot and give it a whole new outfit, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

Iterations from 2002 to 2004

After dropping Monty Montezuma as the mascot name, San Diego State briefly experimented with Ambassador Montezuma in 2002, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported. That didn’t work out.

After consulting with Aztec scholars, university officials declared the Aztec Warrior as the official mascot in 2003. One year later, the latest iteration of the mascot emerged in 2004.

That NCAA decision of 2005

A committee of the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics nationwide, in August 2005 officially called for universities to drop “hostile and abusive” Native American nicknames and imagery used as school mascots, a decision that affected 18 schools, the Times reported. The decision, however, did not affect San Diego State’s Aztec Warrior because the NCAA couldn’t find any organized tribe or group related to the Aztecs, a civilization that was mostly wiped out by Spanish settlers in the 1500s.

Still, others thought it should have been on the list to be removed as a mascot.

An effort to drop mascot in 2014

The now-defunction Queer People of Color Collective at San Diego state pushed an effort in 2014 to change the mascot, but that fell through when the student government voted 25-1 to keep it, The Daily Aztec reported.

A professor revives fight in 2015

In 2015, American Indian Studies professor Ozzie Monge revived the fight to drop the Aztec mascot and authored a thesis arguing against the name and depiction at SDSU.

“The mascot itself perpetuates the ‘noble savage’ stereotype, reducing Indigenous people to anachronistic objects suitable for use as a good luck charm during sporting events; this is completely antithetical to SDSU’s achievements in diversity,” Monge wrote.

More students join fight in 2016

In 2016, a Native American student group called the Native American Student Alliance took the fight to the student legislating body with a resolution to end the “intellectual dishonesty of historical inaccuracy and cultural misappropriation of the Aztec civilization and culture through the case of the use of the term ‘Aztec’” in university materials.

A critical vote in 2017

After a failed effort by students to retire mascot earlier in the year, the University Senate voted 52-14 in November in favor of agreeing to retire the Aztec Warrior and its associated depictions, a decision that reportedly took opponents and supporters by surprise, the Union-Tribune reported.

That vote proved to be critical. At the time, the University Senate also called for the creation of a task force to do research and seek recommendations on how to move forward.

A final decision in 2018?

In January 2018, Roush announced that a 17-member task force would weigh the fate of the name and the mascot. In the following months, supporters and opponents engaged in public campaigns to sway the task force. Some organized an online petition that garnered some 9,000 signatures to “Save The Aztec.”

After months of deliberating in secret, the task force released its report on Thursday.

Is this the end of this debate? That’s unlikely.


Twitter: @RunGomez

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Luis Gomez

Luis Gomez

Luis Gomez is an engagement editor with The San Diego Union-Tribune's Ideas & Opinion section. He has been a digital journalist for various news organizations including Yahoo, Southern California Public Radio,, OraTV, and most recently the Institute for Nonprofit News.