In the past 50 years, more than two-thirds of Native American mascots have been eliminated across the country. Today, fewer than 1,000 remain. The shift has been most successful at the local and state levels, but a new bill suggests the movement still faces resistance in some states.
The Oregon Legislature passed a bill Wednesday that would allow some of its schools to continue using Native American mascots with permission from federally recognized tribes. The mascot names include the Indians, the Braves, the Chiefs, and the Warriors. The measure now heads to the desk of Gov. John Kitzhaber, who has said he will sign it.
The bill would overturn a 2012 rule approved by the state Board of Education that required 15 high schools, as well as some elementary and middle schools, to retire their Native American mascots and symbols by July 17 or risk losing state funding.
Representatives from Oregon tribes say the bill would give them a say in state policy on mascots, but not all Native Americans agree. School pride or history has no bearing when Native Americans are presented as mascots, they argue, and not as people.
The bill would rely on mutual agreement between school boards and tribal representatives over how Native American symbols are used.
The debate over Oregon’s legislation could help fuel the battle over one of the most nationally recognized uses of a Native American mascot: the Washington Redskins.
Last year, the Oneida Nation in upstate New York launched a national campaign to pressure the National Football League to change the name of the Washington, D.C. team. But the movement has gained little to no ground in the nation’s capital, or anywhere else at the professional football level.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said during a press conference before this year’s Super Bowl that the team presents “the name in a way that honors Native Americans.” Two senators criticized him in a letter in response. “The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” wrote Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Indian Affairs Committee, and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the Native American Caucus in Congress. “The National Football League is on the wrong side of history.”
The NFL, unsurprisingly, didn’t budge, and a spokesman responded, “[Doesn’t Congress] have more important issues to worry about than a football team’s name?”
If elementary schools continue to use Native American mascots despite protests from local tribes, it’s unlikely a professional football team would consider rethinking its 80-year-old nickname.