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OU students explain implications of 'boomer,' 'sooner' amid campus organizations' decisions to change names

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Crispin South

OU student Crispin South examines the historical meaning of the phrase "boomer sooner" on his essay, "The Trouble with Boomer Sooner."

When OU’s “Soonerthon” changed its name to OU Dance Marathon, it was met with backlash from members of the OU community. 

On Twitter, one community member expressed her opinion on the matter saying that anyone offended by the phrase “boomer sooner” should transfer schools. After she received backlash from other students, she deleted the tweet.

Crispin South, a computer science junior and member of the Choctaw Nation, said that mindset stems from a lack of knowledge about the history of the terms “boomer” and “sooner.”

“(The) removal of Native people is where the terms ‘boomer’ and ‘sooner’ come from,” South said. “When those terms are referenced without acknowledging the proper historical context, that brings up the historical trauma that's present for a lot of Indigenous people.”

OU Dance Marathon, formerly Soonerthon, announced its new name July 16. In a Twitter post, the organization said the change represented a new chapter of creating “an inclusive and memorable environment.” 

Dance Marathon isn’t the only OU organization to drop “sooner" from its name. Fall 2019, former Student Government Association President Adran Gibbs authored an act to change the name of the Sooner Freshman Council. The act passed, and “sooner” was removed from the name. The council is now referred to as the Crimson Leadership Association.

South said although the name changes are an important first step, the larger problem is rooted in a lack of education about the Indigenous community and culture. In an essay shared with The Daily, South explained the historical context of the terms “boomer" and “sooner.”

South explained in the essay that after the U.S. government forcibly moved Native tribes off of their land and to Oklahoma, some white Americans began to advocate for settling the land. The people who campaigned for opening Oklahoma land to white settlers — before the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 was passed — were known as “boomers.” Those who illegally entered the land early to claim plots during the Land Run were known as “sooners.”

“The modern usage of ‘Boomer’ and ‘Sooner’ ignores these words' connections to a movement that significantly contributed to the destruction of Indigenous cultures,” South wrote. 

Gibbs said he understands name changes don't make the lives of Indigenous students any easier, but he believes the changes could open a door for the university to discuss how it can be more inclusive. 

“(‘Boomer sooner’) quite literally defines our mascot and the culture, and what it means to go to the University of Oklahoma,” Gibbs said. “So, I think even if we could begin the conversation of how we can shift away from ‘boomer sooner’ as a culture at OU and how we say and use those terms in our branding, that would probably be a tremendous next step.”

Gibbs said he received an influx of “hate mail” from fans of the phrase “boomer sooner” when he pushed to change the Crimson Leadership Association's name, but he believes the change is necessary.

“I think part of that goes into the privilege of not having to understand what those terms mean and what the connotations may be for Indigenous people,” Gibbs said. “I think it's really important that we're able to reconcile the tremendous harm we've done to the Indigenous community, and if (the name change) is a step toward that direction of reconciliation, then I think it needs to be taken.”

South said in addition to avoiding the culturally insensitive terms, the Indigenous community at OU needs to be listened to and heard.  

“A lot of the time, Native students feel ignored, or like issues of cultural sensitivity are not really treated in a very serious manner,” South said. 

Citing a 2015 statement from former OU President David Boren, South said he feels the wishes and voices of the Native community are often disregarded on campus. 

In 2015, after members of Indigenize OU called for the removal of the words “boomer” and  “sooner” from the university’s identity, Boren said he would only consider doing so if almost 245,000 alumni agreed to it. 

Boren released a statement about the issue, and South said he is still disappointed with the way Boren addressed the subject. 

“I think the words in their modern context are no longer tied to the history of the Oklahoma land settlement. They have taken on a meaning of their own, which stands mainly for strong support for our state and university,” Boren said in the statement. 

Following his comments, Boren signed the Indigenous Peoples' Day Resolution in October of 2015 — making Indigenous Peoples' Day an official holiday on OU's campus. It is celebrated on the second Monday of October each year and typically includes events celebrating Indigenous culture. 

Moving forward, South said he hopes the OU community can learn to appreciate and understand Indigenous students and their cultures. 

“I think a lot of people go around with the assumption that all of the different tribes are the same and just generalize all Indigenous people under the umbrella of Native American,” South said. “I would like to see more appreciation for individual tribes because each one really does have its own language and culture.”

South said if people were educated about Indigenous culture they may be more sympathetic towards the hardships the Indigenous community faces. He said many are unaware of the countless missing and murdered indigenous women, the harm of settler colonialism and the barriers to quality education in the rural areas where many Indigenous people live. 

In the current COVID-19 crisis, many Indigenous people in low-income areas are struggling to access proper healthcare and many tribal businesses — like casinos — have come to a screeching halt due to the pandemic, according to an article from the Harvard Gazette.

Indigenous people have also been found to be at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19 because they are more likely to suffer from diabetes and heart disease, according to The Harvard Gazette.

To those upset with the removal of “boomer” and “sooner” from organizations on campus, South said he understands the desire to keep up with the tradition, but he believes it's possible to start a new, more inclusive tradition.

“I don't see a problem with trying to make the environment that you're in a better environment and more inclusive environment,” South said. “Hanging on to traditions of the past, when they are insensitive, is just generally something that we shouldn't do.”

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