Should Schools Keep Native American Mascots if Tribes Give Them Permission?

A Oregan bill expected to become law seeks to preserve some schools’ mascots by working with local tribes.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Feb. 27, 2014, 5:13 a.m.

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.

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