SALEM, Ore. — When Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed a bill Friday that would have enabled 15 Oregon high schools to work with neighboring tribes to ensure that their mascots are respectful of Native Americans, he left many of the affected parties scratching their heads.
Susan M. Ferris, longtime spokeswoman for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians in Southern Oregon, questioned the governor's wisdom of creating solutions to problems that don't exist. She recalled when students from Roseburg High School approached the Umpqua tribe about the potential offense of its mascot about 15 years ago, the tribe's elders didn't form a task force, schedule multiple meetings or create myriad work groups.
Rather, she said, the tribe asked the students to do "what they thought was right and stepped back." Within short order, she said, the students had jettisoned the image of a Mohawk. Today, the school uses a feather with its mascot, the Indians.
"Many of our tribal members graduate from Roseburg High School, and don't have a problem with the name "Indians," she said. "Why does the state board of education and governor?"
She said she wasn't aware of any Oregon tribe that is having difficulty or dissension with a neighboring school's mascot, but she admits that what is "all right" with the Cow Creek Umpqua Tribe might not be acceptable for other Oregon tribes. But she believes the governor's action takes away the ability of tribes to work with schools on their own to find equitable solutions.
"I think there are far more important matters such as tribal-member health care and education for young tribal members than whether one or two feathers is used as imagery by high schools," Ferris said.
But a Sprague High School student, in a press statement released by the Oregon Indian Education Association a few months ago, said she feels alienated in her own school hallways when schools such as the Roseburg Indians visit for athletic events.
A cheerleader, Dakota Daniels said every time her school plays Roseburg, the environment that race-based athletic nicknames creates in her school "... makes me feel objectified."
Kitzhaber rejected Senate Bill 215, which was crafted in the 2013 Legislature to supersede a 2012 ruling by the state Board of Education that bans the use of tribal mascots in public schools. With the veto, the ban remains in place.
The ban gives schools until 2017 to eliminate mascot names such as Warriors, Indians and Braves. Mascot images also must go, including those of chiefs in profile or headdress.
In a letter to Secretary of State Kate Brown indicating his veto, Kitzhaber said he was open only to a process that would allow for narrow exceptions to the board's tribal mascot ban.
"Specifically, I have indicated that I would support a "namesake exception" modeled on NCAA policy and recommendations from the National Congress of American Indians that would permit school districts and federally-designated Tribes to agree to the use of mascots, names and symbols that are associated with the particular Tribe entering into the agreement," Kitzhaber said.
In his letter, the governor said SB-215 was too broad and ambiguous and that there was no consensus among tribal members and communities in Oregon about the bill, so he couldn't support it.
But bill sponsor Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, said by phone that the majority of Oregon tribes did support the bill.
"Unless something has changed, you will not find one of the nine recognized tribes in Oregon opposed to this bill," Sprenger said.
She also said she had asked the governor to give the bill a chance to work, and that she had promised him that she would personally visit each of the 15 affected school districts in the state and work with their administrations, their communities and the neighboring tribes.
"I assured him that they would not be simple conversations about football jerseys," Sprenger said. "I promised him they would be opportunities to build authentic relationships between schools and tribes."
She said it was very disappointing when tribes, school districts, Democrats, Republicans, urban and rural residents, liberals and conservatives could find common ground, and the governor still found it necessary to use his veto.
State Sens. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, and Tim Knopp, R-Bend, also were co-sponsors.
Michael Mason, a specialist in Native American law who lobbies in Salem for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Coquille Indian Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, said the Warm Springs tribe took no position on the bill, but the Coquille and Siletz tribes supported it. The Cow Creek Umpqua also supported the bill.
"The tribes don't have a problem with the word "Indians" as long as it's not used in a negative way," Mason said. "Warrior, for instance, is often used in a positive connotation. Many of the Siletz tribe had ancestors who fought for their homeland and are proud of the name 'Warrior.' As long as it's used consistently in a positive light, the tribes don't know what all the fuss is about."
Mason pointed to federal restoration programs that have "Indian" in the title, and said the tribes had plenty of opportunity to object to the names if they were offensive.
"But I don't see anyone aggrieved," Mason said.
Sprenger said she will continue to work on the issue in the 2014 Legislative session.
Amity (Warriors); Banks (Braves); Lebanon (Warriors); Marcola (Mohawks); Molalla (Indians); North Douglas (Warriors); Oakridge (Warriors); Philomath (Warriors); Reedsport Charter School (Braves); Rogue River (Chieftains); Roseburg (Indians); Scappoose (Indians); Siletz Valley (Warriors); The Dalles Wahtonka (Eagle Indians); Warrenton (Warriors)