Friday, November 26, 2021
Nov. 26, 2021

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Heeding tribal leaders, states ban Native mascots

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When Shawna Newcomb attended high school in Weymouth, Massachusetts, a decade ago, her team faced a rival nicknamed the “Wamps” after a local tribe — her tribe.

Newcomb is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag. As a cheerleader, she was expected to lead a chant of “Stomp the Wamps,” but she couldn’t bring herself to say the words.

“I was ashamed to be Native American because of the stereotypes I would see, and oftentimes that was from a mascot,” she said. “People thought a Native American was this savage less-than-human.”

After graduating, Newcomb became a teacher in Hanover, Massachusetts, where she helped lead her school’s mascot transition last year from the Indians to the Hawks. She’s now leading her tribe’s efforts to support a statewide bill that would ban the use of Indigenous mascots in public schools. More than two dozen schools in Massachusetts still use Native mascots.

“I don’t want my daughter to go to school in a district with a Native American mascot,” she said. “I don’t want her to feel like I felt — alienated, invisible, weird because you’re different.”

Massachusetts is one of nine states that considered mascot bills this year; four states — Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada and Washington — approved them. According to the National Congress of American Indians, a Native rights organization that represents tribes across the country, 19 states in recent years have considered policy changes to ban or limit Indigenous mascots in public schools.

“Stereotypical Native ‘themed’ sports mascots are symbols of disrespect that degrade, mock, and harm Native people, in particular Native youth,” the group said in a statement to Stateline.

The National Congress of American Indians, comprised of hundreds of tribal nations, said its members have been passing resolutions to oppose Indigenous mascots since 1968.

The recent surge in state action follows the much-publicized decision by the National Football League’s Washington Football Team last year to stop using the nickname Redskins, a racial slur.

Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Guardians ditched the Indians name this year after previously retiring their Chief Wahoo logo. But the World Series — featuring the Atlanta Braves and their unrepentant embrace of the tomahawk chop chant — served as a reminder that many fans are still attached to such depictions.

Studies have shown that Native mascots cause psychological harm to both Indigenous students and their non-Native counterparts. In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for an end to the use of such mascots. While many schools have voluntarily changed their mascots in response to those concerns, nicknames such as Indians, Braves and Warriors — and even slurs such as Savages and Redskins — remain entrenched in many communities.

Indigenous rights activists say even nicknames, such as Warriors, that aren’t outright slurs still foment stereotypes of Native Americans as primitive or bloodthirsty, and often are accompanied by offensive imagery.

“It’s just brutally tiring to go district by district and to face the racism and the backlash from people who are very attached to a mascot,” said Massachusetts state Sen. Jo Comerford, a Democrat who sponsored the mascot ban legislation, which is pending in committee.

So far, mascot bills have passed only in states with Democratic majorities, though some legislation has drawn significant bipartisan support. But some Republicans have mounted strong opposition to proposed mascot bans, calling them government censorship or, in one case, “political correctness run amok.”

Some also have framed the matter as a local sovereignty issue and expressed concerns about the costs of changing uniforms and signs on playing fields. Many of the bills include funding for schools to make the switch, or extended timelines to reach compliance.

Several of the mascot bans also empower tribes to grant their permission for schools to continue using Indigenous mascots. Some predominantly Indigenous communities and tribal schools also use Native mascots.

Seven states have some form of mascot ban for public schools, and in some cases, for state universities, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

Oregon outlawed Indigenous mascots in public schools in 2012 with a State Board of Education resolution, while California legislators voted in 2015 to ban the use of Redskins in public schools.

Maine lawmakers voted in 2019 to ban Indigenous mascots in public schools and state colleges, making it the first state to pass such a sweeping restriction through legislative action.

“People could get away with this because tribal people were perceived to be extinct, the savages of the old John Wayne movies and a nice funny mascot for a sports team,” said Maine state Rep. Benjamin Collings, the Democrat who sponsored the measure.

His bill passed with wide majorities, including some GOP support, but Republican opponents in both chambers argued that mascots should be a local issue.

Collings credited Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, for pushing him to introduce the bill.

“Growing up in an Indigenous family and community, your identity is centered around things like the feathers and paint and drums that feel very special to you,” Dana said. “When you see people stealing and misusing it, it feels very hostile and painful.”

Indigenous rights advocates say the Maine law was a significant victory, and their efforts gained further momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

But some lawmakers argue that the mascots are harmless or honor Indigenous people.

“They could have a room of 1,000 tribal members who tell them to stop, but if they can find one person who says they’re part-Native who supports it, that’s who they’ll listen to,” Dana said.

The Washington law is among the mascot bans that give tribes the final say over which mascots can stay. Its sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a member of the Tlingit tribe, said more than 30 schools in the state had Indigenous mascots when she introduced the bill.

“The use of feathers, the use of chanting, the use of headdresses, these are all things that treat our culture and values as nothing more than a mockery,” Lekanoff said.

Lekanoff’s measure allows tribes to grant permission to nearby schools that wish to retain their mascots. Toledo High School, whose teams were known as the Indians, counts many members of the nearby Cowlitz Tribe as fans and alums. The school teaches and celebrates Cowlitz history.

Chris Rust, the district’s superintendent, said the school consulted with the tribe, but found that even Cowlitz members were divided about whether the mascot should stay.

“Without an enthusiastic endorsement of our old mascot, I didn’t feel like we should continue,” he said. “One thing that weighed heavily on my mind was the research showing that Native American mascots are harmful to Native American children.”

Toledo’s sports teams now are known as the Riverhawks. The school hopes to have its uniforms and signage switched over by next school year. But in many districts across the country, change has been hard to come by. Indigenous rights advocates and lawmakers who support the changes say that some mascot defenders have targeted Native Americans with extreme hostility.

“They called me ‘Princess Runs-Her-Mouth,’ posted death and rape threats and said disgusting things about me and my children,” said Dana, the Penobscot leader.

Schools in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York have opted to change their mascots, only to have new members elected to the school board on the platform of reinstating the previous nicknames. In Killingly, Connecticut, leaders voted last year to bring back the “Redmen” mascot a year after it was retired.

“State legislation is the only way this was going to change,” said Connecticut state Rep. Cathy Osten, a Democrat who sponsored the state’s newly enacted mascot law.

Osten’s measure prevents communities with Indigenous mascots from receiving state aid generated by tribal casinos. Fear of losing that revenue, a significant funding source in some towns, spurred four schools to change their mascots, and a few others are considering it.

Colorado’s new mascot law also punishes schools that refuse to change. Schools that retain Indigenous mascots will face a $25,000 monthly fine starting next June. A group of students filed a lawsuit earlier this month seeking to block the law. State Sen. Jessie Danielson, the Democrat who sponsored the measure, said about 25 schools in the state still have Native mascots.

“That’s why we needed to do the bill,” she said. “There were still these holdout communities that would never abandon their racist mascots.”

Extensive research has shown that Indigenous mascots are harmful to students, said Laurel Davis-Delano, a professor of sociology at Springfield College in Massachusetts. She pointed to studies that show the mascots decrease the self-esteem of Native youth, reduce their capacity to imagine future achievements, and increase stress and depression. Among non-Native students, the mascots increase negative stereotypes of Native Americans and encourage discrimination against them.

Some lawmakers said harm to students underscored the urgency to act.

“We heard stories of athletes who would travel to places that had these mascots and did tomahawk chops and fake war calls,” said Nevada Assembly member Howard Watts, a Democrat. “[Fans] were extremely racist and derogatory to these students at the same time.”

Watts sponsored Nevada’s new law that bans racially discriminatory mascots, saying he wanted to handle the issue broadly to avoid future controversies.

Some mascot defenders argue the nicknames are a way of honoring Indigenous people. In Wakefield, Massachusetts, town residents voted in a non-binding referendum in April to keep the school’s Warriors mascot a month after school leaders had tried to ditch it.

“We already took away their land,” Elena Corradino, a supporter of the mascot, told WBUR. “We’re gonna take away their identity now?”

But Melissa Ferretti, chair of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, said “having a caricatured image of a Native person is not honoring.”

“It erases the identity of contemporary Indigenous tribes,” she said.

Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of the United American Indians of New England, said Indigenous leaders have been pushing for new mascots for decades, but many schools have refused to budge.

“It’s been frustrating how hard it is to get some school systems to make the change,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to have a statewide bill.”

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