The use of terms and images referring to Native Americans/First Nations as the name or mascot for a sports team is a topic of public controversy in the United States and in Canada, arising as part of the Native American/First Nations civil rights movements. Since the 1960s, there have been a number of protests and other actions by Native Americans and others targeting the more prominent use of such names and images by professional franchises such as the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins. However, the greatest change has occurred in the trend by school and college teams that have retired Native American names and mascots at an increasing rate in recent decades. The analysis of a database in 2013 indicates that there are currently more than 2,000 high schools with mascots that reference Native American culture, compared to around 3,000 fifty years ago. Many of these changes have been voluntary as the issue has been discussed at a local level. Statewide laws or school board decisions mandating change have been passed in states with significant Native American populations. Other states have official policies that encourage change in accordance with principles of establishing a proper environment for education. However, there has also been resistance and backlash.
The documents most often cited to justifying the trend for change are an advisory opinion by the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 2001 and a resolution by the American Psychological Association in 2005. Both support the views of Native American organizations and individuals that such mascots maintaining harmful stereotypes that are discriminatory and cause harm by distorting the past and preventing understanding of Native American/First Nations peoples in the present. Native mascots are also part of the larger issues of cultural appropriation and the violation of indigenous intellectual property rights, which includes all instances where non-natives use indigenous music, art, costumes, etc. in entertainment or other performances. It has been argued that harm to Native Americans occurs because the appropriation of Native culture by the majority society continues the systems of dominance and subordination that have been used to colonize, assimilate, and oppress indigenous groups.
Defenders of the current usage often state their intention to honor Native Americans by referring to positive traits, such as fighting spirit and being aggressive, brave, stoic, dedicated, and proud; while opponents see these traits as being based upon stereotypes of Native Americans as savages. Supporters also state that the issue is not important, being only about sports, and that the opposition is nothing more than “political correctness”, which change advocates argue ignores the extensive evidence of harmful effects of stereotypes and bias.
Upon introducing a bill to ban dry bag camera, as of January 2017, the Redskins name used by high schools in the state of California, Assemblyman Luis Alejo stated that there is “”no reason why we can’t … phase out that particular derogatory term from our public high schools”. The four affected high schools are Tulare Union High School, Gustine High School, Calaveras High School, and Chowchilla Union High School. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law on October 11, 2015. While specifically targeting only the name “Redskins”, the California Racial Mascot Act states “The use of racially derogatory or discriminatory school or athletic team names, mascots, or nicknames in California public schools is antithetical to the California school mission of providing an equal education to all.” In response, the Bakersfield City School District opened a discussion regarding the use of Native American imagery at two of its elementary schools. Both schools will continue using the name “Warriors” but will replace any Native American imagery with logos based upon their school’s initials.
Gustine High became the first to implement a change in February 2016; becoming the “Reds”, the name used by the school from 1913 to 1936. After a vote between four alternatives, Calaveras High School has selected to remove the Redskins name, but not replace it. The logo featuring a Native American will be retained. The Tulare school board began the process by surveying the public. The local Tule River Indian tribe was also consulted. The committee selected “The Tribe” as its top choice in April 2016. The school principle stated their intention to retain Native American imagery as much as possible. The Tulare Joint Union High School District board of trustees voted 3-2 for “Tribe” as the new mascot in June 2016. Chowchilla Union High School put off its decision until November 2016, after the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the school in October. The Chowchilla team name will be “Tribe”, retaining their logo and Native American imagery.
As of the January 2017 deadline, the four schools have complied with the letter of the law but not the spirit, retaining their Native American imagery and behavior, including a female student portraying an Indian Pricess in a floor length war bonnet and fans whopping and tomahawk chopping at games. With the agreement of the local government, Chowchilla has added “Redskins Way” signs to the streets leading to the school and insist they are maintaining a proud tradition that honors Native Americans, even as tribal members state that these practices trivialize and misrepresent the factual history of Native Americans in California. Calaveras, which has selected no official team name, is calling itself “the Mighty Reds” on it web site while retaining its prior logo.
In 2014 State lawmakers in Colorado began considering a bill that rather than a complete ban, would deny state funding to schools on a case by case basis, depending upon the name, logo, and local Native American support. Getting ahead of any potential law, Loveland High School in Loveland, Colorado, is “looking to a Lakota Sioux tribe for help creating a new mascot and a hands-on lesson in history and culture for the school.” Although passed by the House by one vote, the bill failed in a Colorado Senate committee. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has created by executive order a commission that will hold meetings where local community members, state agencies and Native Americans can seek to find common ground on the mascot issue. An example of local action is at Cheyenne Mountain High School, Colorado Springs, Colorado; which has taken action to eliminate stereotyping, including doing the tomahawk chop, or wearing warpaint and headdresses at games.
A bill has been introduced in the legislature to amend the General Laws of the Commonwealth to add a section prohibiting the use of Native American mascots by public schools, which are defined as “A name, symbol, or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian tribe, individual, custom, or tradition that is used by a public school as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead, or team name”. The team names “Redskins”, “Savages glass reusable water bottles,” “Indians,” “Indianettes,” “Chiefs,” “Chieftains,” “Braves,” or “Redmen” are specifically prohibited.
The Michigan State Board of Education issued in 2003, and reaffirmed in 2010, a resolution that “supports and strongly recommends the elimination of American Indian mascots, nicknames, logos, fight songs, insignias, antics, and team descriptors by all Michigan schools.”
In February 2013, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). MDCR’s complaint asserts that new research clearly establishes that use of American Indian imagery negatively impacts student learning, creating an unequal learning environment in violation of Article VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In June 2013, the OCR dismissed the case on the basis that the legal standard required not only harm, but the intent to do harm, which was not established. One of the schools named in the MDCR complaint, Saranac Community Schools in Ionia County, Michigan plans to retain the name Redskins but has replaced the logo on its uniforms with a “Dreamcatcher” and the band will no longer play the “Tomahawk Song” at games.
The cost of removing Native American imagery has been a barrier to change, but a new Michigan Native American Heritage Fund will receive money for such changes due an amendment to the Tribal-State Gaming Compact between the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (NHBP) and the State of Michigan.
On May 17, 2012, the Oregon State Board of Education voted 5–1 to adopt a rule prohibiting Oregon public schools from using Native American names, symbols, or images as school mascots; giving schools until July 1, 2017 to comply. Fifteen high schools using the nicknames Indians, Warriors, Braves and Chieftains were affected. However, Native American response was not unanimous; out of nine Federally recognized tribes in the state, two voiced opposition to the statewide ban on the basis of tribal sovereignty. Leaders said that there might have been an opportunity for developing an educational program for all students to learn about true native culture. In 2014 a state law was passed allowing schools to consult with nearby Native American tribes on acceptable names and imagery. While some Native Americans support such relationships with their local schools, Native American students who compete in athletics with these schools state that they are sometimes uncomfortable with the imagery used, and some groups maintain that the use of Native mascots needs to end everywhere. “These mascots undermine the educational experience of all students, particularly those with little or no contact with indigenous or native Alaskan peoples,” said Se-Ah-Dom Edmo, interim president of the Oregon Indian Education Association.
In May 2015 the Board of Education unanimously voted down an amendment that would have allowed schools to retain their current names and mascots, maintaining the 2017 deadline for change. However, in January 2016 the board decided to grant exemptions to schools if they work out agreements with local tribes. Two schools have decided not to seek the approval of any tribe, citing the difficulty of doing so. The Fort Vannoy Elementary “Indians” (now the “Nobles”) and Fleming Middle School “Rogues” (now the “Cavaliers”), both in the Three Rivers School District have changed their mascots meat tenderizer uses. Rather than seek approval from any of the many tribes in the area, The Dalles High School decided to change from the “Eagle Indians” to become the Riverhawks in 2014. Warrenton High School now uses a generic sword and shield logo while retaining its Warriors name.
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde entered into negotiations with the remaining high schools. So far, agreements have been made with four schools on the conditions of removing some imagery and implementing a native history curriculum: Banks High School Mohawk High School, Molalla High School and Scappoose High School. However, after further consideration, Mohawk High School in Marcola, Oregon will drop its “Mohawk Indian” name because its imagery refers to an east coast tribe, the only connection being the local Mohawk Valley.
The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Philomath, Oregon School District are continuing to work toward an agreement to keep Warriors as Philomath High School’s mascot. The Siletz were one of the tribes that opposed the original 2012 ban, and wants the Siletz Valley Charter School in the town adjacent to the Siletz Reservation to remain the Warriors.
Three Douglas County, Oregon school districts have decided to take the necessary steps to move forward with keeping their Native American mascots. Roseburg High School would remain the Indians with the agreement of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians; the Reedsport Community Charter School Braves and the North Douglas High School Warriors in Drain, Oregon are also seeking tribal approval. However, three local tribes; the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw, the Coquille, and the Siletz do not agree that the “Reedsport Braves” is honorable way to represent their tribes. In an effort to retain part of their tradition, some in the community are thinking of changing to “Brave” and eliminating all Native American imagry. At a meeting of the residents and the school’s Native American Name and Image Committee, one of the committee members asked how many preferred no change, with an overwhelming majority of those present agreeing. However, it was stated that was not an option.
Additional high schools must either establish such an agreement or change their mascot before the deadline:
In January 2016 the South Dakota High School Activities Association passed a resolution asking all schools in the state to drop Native American nicknames and mascots. A bill was introduced in the South Dakota Legislature “to prohibit school districts from using school or athletic team names, mascots, or nicknames that are determined to be racially derogatory or discriminatory”, but failed to pass by a vote of 22 to 46.
Opposing the trend for change, in response to the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs seeking a ban though the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, the Tennessee Senate passed a law allowing only elected officials to take any action banning school teams using American Indian names and symbols.
In December 2013 the Houston Independent School District by unanimous vote passed a preliminary plan to eliminate all ethnically sensitive names and mascots, one of which is the Lamar High School Redskins. The Washington Redskins issued a statement repeating its position that such names are not offensive to many Native Americans, but rather are a source of pride. In April 2014 the schools affected by the policy announced new names: the Lamar High School Redskins will become the Texans, both the Hamilton Middle School Indians and Westbury High School Rebels will be the Huskies and the Welch Middle School Warriors will be the Wolf Pack. The initial cost of the change was $50,000 for new fall uniforms, and there will be additional costs such as changing names and logos on facilities. The total cost is estimated to be $250,000. However it was noted that team uniforms are periodically replaced anyway, so the cost is not due only to the name changes. “The moral cost to our reputation as a diverse district — where we care about the sensitivities of every single individual — would be incalculable if we were not to do this,” HISD superintendent Terry Grier said.
On September 24, 1993 the Washington State Board of Education (WSBE) passed a resolution encouraging all state schools to end the use of Native American mascots This was a reinteration by a similar resolution in 2012.
In the absence of mandatory regulations, change has come only as individual schools have addressed the issue. Bellingham High School had a Native American mascot until it was closed for renovation. When it reopened in 2000, the mascot was changed to a bird of prey, but the name “Red Raiders” was retained. The Seattle-area Issaquah School District adopted a policy banning symbols based on racial stereotypes; resulting in a change of the Issaquah High School team from the “Indians” to the “Eagles” in 2003 over the protest of some students. The “Indian Head” logo used by the Clover Park High School “Warriors” has been replaced by a block “CP” with a spear.
In 2010 a law was passed in Wisconsin to eliminate race-based nicknames, logos and mascots in schools; but allowing retention if they have the permission of local Native American tribes. Many mascots were changed either voluntarily or in response to complaints. However, in October 2013 the law was changed to make it more difficult by requiring the complainant to collect signatures of 10% of the school district’s population and prove discrimination, while under the 2010 law only one petitioner is needed, and the burden of proof was on the school to disprove racism. Although now allowed to do so, some schools that have already made a change have decided not to restore their prior mascots. Native American groups opposed the change in the law. Delivering the State of the Tribes address to the Wisconsin legislature in March 2015; Mole Lake Sokaogon Chairman Chris McGeshik stated: “We believe the recent decision to override the progress made with the state in regard to the school mascots to be a mockery of the indigenous people in the state and around America.”
Prompted by the concerns of Native Americans, the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin has implemented a policy banning student clothing having “words, pictures, or caricatures based on negative stereotypes of a specific gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or disability”, which would ban all sports apparel displaying Native American mascot names, images or logos. However the ban may not pass the legal test that freedom of speech does not allow for a ban on expression unless there is a “substantial disruption of the educational mission”. Visiting athletic teams will also be asked to leave behind Native American mascots and logos, otherwise the game could be canceled.