Hundreds Of Schools Are Still Using Native Americans As Team Mascots 

Hundreds Of Schools Are Still Using Native Americans As Team Mascots 

In the summer of 2020, public tolerance for companies advertising with racist images was at an all-time low. Brands including Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Uncle Ben’s all announced plans to change their product imagery and in some cases even their names in reaction to widespread public protests against anti-Black racism. The world of sports wasn’t far behind.

After decades of activism and protest against the Washington NFL team’s longtime use of a widely recognized racial slur against Native Americans, change seemed to come swiftly. While owner Dan Snyder had once declared to the media that he would “NEVER” — “use caps,” he told the reporter — change the moniker, it took less than 24 hours after corporate sponsors threatened to pull out of their deals before the team announced it would “review” the name, and 10 days later the team committed to changing it.

Indigenous people have been advocating against the name for years: Amanda Blackhorse, one of the movement’s leaders, was among five Native Americans to push for the cancelation of Washington’s trademark, a drive that initially won a court battle in 2014 before a Supreme Court ruling in a different case rendered the previous Washington decision moot. The crux of their argument is simple: Native mascots dehumanize Indigenous people by employing disparaging stereotypes of Native Americans that cause real harm. This claim has been repeatedly supported by research, and the causes of that harm extend far beyond the Washington football franchise. Condemning the commercial use of an obvious racial slur is the lowest-hanging fruit. But are teams ready to confront the names, symbols and associated behaviors that haven’t been so universally criticized?

Native mascots exist in every level of sports, from high school basketball courts to billion-dollar stadiums. While high-profile teams like Washington and the Cleveland Indians may come to mind first, most Native American mascots are used in secondary schools. Although the number has been shrinking, there are currently 1,232 high schools with Native American team names, according to my analysis of data from MascotDB. That includes 411 Indians and 107 Chiefs or Chieftains, and there are still 45 schools that bear the former name of the Washington Football Team.

To arrive at those numbers, I pulled Mascot DB’s full list of Native-associated team names and logos and reviewed them all. I researched any potentially ambiguous team names and weeded out any that did not directly reference Native culture or imagery — for example, teams called the Warriors were excluded unless they also pictured an Indigenous person or use imagery like feathers — and removed any teams that had changed their branding since they were added to Mascot DB. The remaining 1,232 schools, then, are just those that clearly reference Native culture in their name or logo.1

High schools are governed locally by districts and states, making oversight difficult and consistent regulations unrealistic. Although clashes over the future of Native mascots are likely happening at schools in every state, top-level guidance has been minimal. In my research, I found just four states — California, Maine, Oregon and Wisconsin — that have either laws or department of education policies that to some degree prohibit using Native mascots in public schools. However, it’s possible that this list may soon expand: In reaction to the renewed public interest in Native mascots, proposed legislation could force the removal of these mascots in Illinois and Massachusetts. Lawmakers have also begun discussions in Nebraska, and Washington.

These regulations vary widely. Maine’s comprehensive law, which was signed by Gov. Janet Mills in May 2019, states that public high schools and colleges in Maine “may not have or adopt a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to a Native American tribe, individual, custom or tradition and that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name of the school.” Meanwhile, California’s 2015 law disallows using the Washington Football Team’s former name or logo and bans schools from buying new equipment featuring that branding, but it allows them to continue using existing equipment until it wears out. Essentially the state is hoping that current uniforms and stadium decorations will be retired in the coming years.

These kinds of policy moves also tend to face strong pushback. In January, a proposed resolution to remove Native mascots failed by a landslide in the Wisconsin Association of School Boards delegate assembly, with 101 in favor and 218 against. In Utah, Republican state Rep. Rex P. Shipp introduced a bill that would discourage the removal of names, images and symbols of Native Americans from schools; it has yet to be voted on.

Similarly, Tennessee passed a bill in 2007 protecting Native mascots. In reaction to pressure from the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs to ban Native mascots, the state legislature passed a bill that stated that “no state agency has the authority to require or to prohibit or impair in any way the right of any public or private institution to continue to honor certain persons or cultures through the use of symbols, names, and mascots.”

Even laws on the books have proven ineffective. Wisconsin passed a law in 2010 that triggered a review of a school’s logo or mascot if a single person filed a complaint that it was offensive, making the state one of the first to take action to phase out Native mascots. Yet in the wake of resistance from one affected high school, former Gov. Scott Walker signed a new bill in 2013 that substantially weakened the previous review process. The new law shifted the burden of proof from the school itself to those lodging the complaint, and it required a petition with signatures from the equivalent of 10 percent of the district’s school population. A new effort to ban Native mascots was quashed by the state school board this year.

The case against these mascots isn’t always cut and dried. Of the 1,232 high school mascots in the Mascot DB, 23 are in use at tribal high schools — those operated or funded by the Bureau of Indian Education. These schools, which are often on reservations or near Indigenous communities, primarily serve students who identify as Native American. Their mascots go by many names, including Indians, Apache Chiefs and Braves. Schools not associated with the Bureau of Indian Education may also have genuine ties to Native culture and community, so the number of schools who serve Native students and use a Native mascot is likely more than those I was able to identify.

For these schools, the conversation around Native mascots is about authentic representation rather than appropriation. These students and communities are harnessing Native mascots to honor their own identities and heritage. The traditions that many consider racist when imitated by non-Native athletes and fans take on a new meaning in Indigenous spaces. Currently, about 2 percent of Native mascots are used at tribal high schools.

Yet the business of allowing exceptions for schools like these can be tricky — just ask the NCAA. The governing body of collegiate sports intensified conversations about Native mascots in 2001, the same year the organization banned states that fly the Confederate flag from hosting national championship events. After several years of discussion, the NCAA Executive Board voted unanimously that Native mascots must go, declaring that teams with “hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery” would be prevented from hosting NCAA championship events and required to use equipment that didn’t display that imagery in championship games.

Facing intense backlash after the 2005 announcement, the NCAA agreed to hear appeals from universities vying to keep their Native mascots. In a nod to Native sovereignty, the governing body allowed tribes to endorse schools that used the names of their tribes, but it rejected appeals from names using general descriptors like Indians, Redmen and Savages. In some cases, the NCAA allowed nondiscriminatory monikers to remain as long as all references to Indigenous people and their traditions were removed. Bradley University kept its Braves name and introduced a non-Native mascot, Kaboom the Gargoyle, in 2014; the College of William & Mary retained “the Tribe” as a nickname but stripped a pair of feathers from its imagery and adopted a griffin as a mascot in 2010.

Five institutions — the Catawba College Catawba Indians, Central Michigan University Chippewas, Florida State Seminoles, Mississippi College Choctaws and University of Utah Utes — successfully appealed the mandate on the basis that their institutions had the support of a local Indigenous tribe. Yet this policy masks the complex politics of Indian Country. Histories of forced removal and trends toward urbanization call into question who can speak on behalf of a tribe and its people. For instance, only a single band of the Seminole tribe — the band that resides in Florida — supports Florida State University’s use of the Seminole mascot. According to the NCAA, one is enough.

For most institutions, there was no path forward. The University of Illinois was allowed to keep its Fighting Illini moniker, but without the support of the Peoria tribe, it was required to retire its Chief Illiniwek mascot.

The NCAA’s top-down policy was effective, if hotly debated. Schools were given three years to change their mascots, and by the end of that time period, many had done so. If high schools moved to the same appeal model as the NCAA, the number of schools with a Native mascot would decrease substantially. If professional sports joined in, the number of national franchises would likely dip to zero.

Gabriella Trujillo

Rather than follow the NCAA’s example or try to get ahead of state legislation on the issue, the NFL has stayed silent on the topic of Native mascots. While the media has focused on the Washington franchise and its scramble to rebrand itself, the executives in Kansas City are busy polishing their Lombardi Trophy and dodging the inevitable question: Are we next?

They’ve received no public guidance from the NFL on the matter. But that silence isn’t specific to pro football. Over the past several decades, professional sports leagues have been noticeably quiet as their embattled teams defended the sanctity of Native mascots on the grounds that they are an athletic tradition. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred waded deepest into these troubled waters in 2018 when he said the league had “encouraged dialogue with the Indians organization about the club’s use of the Chief Wahoo logo.” This dialogue eventually ended in the announcement that the racist image would be removed from Cleveland uniforms the following season, although the team would still sell merchandise with the caricature.

On Aug. 20 of this year, the Kansas City Chiefs issued a statement announcing a new set of policies that prohibited certain fan behaviors and costumes at games, including wearing headdresses and face paint that references Native people or culture, and promised a continued partnership with local American Indian organizations. By the team’s own admission, this conversation with Indigenous partners has been going on since 2014 — and prior to its most recent statement, results had been limited.

Although the positive steps taken this summer may seem momentous, professional sports leagues had been relatively stagnant on this issue overall. Prior to announcement that the Washington Football Team would eliminate Native imagery in its name and logo, MLB, the NFL and the NHL together had five franchises with Indigenous names2 and two more that use Native-inspired logos or imagery — the Seattle Seahawks and Vancouver Canucks. (In addition, the Phoenix Coyotes continue to use their original logo, which has well-recognized Native influences, on home throwback sweaters.) Each team is navigating relationships with local Native American and First Nations people independently. While some teams have successfully incorporated Indigenous people into conversations about inclusion and representation, others continue to swim upstream in a constant search for endorsement.

Why are teams so reluctant to let go of their Native mascots? Research has repeatedly shown the mental harm that these icons inflict on Indigenous people, and tribal leaders continue to speak out against teams’ disrespect and appropriation. Finally, in 2020, it seems that broader public opinion might be catching up. Football fandom, perhaps, has not.

Financial implications are certainly a factor. But that can cut both ways, as the Washington Football Team’s refusal to change its name eventually led its sponsors to threaten to withdraw financial support for the franchise. In fact, while economists who studied the financial implications of franchise rebranding have shown that teams may take on additional costs in the first year — including paying lawyers to secure the rights to a new name and logo and changing the branding on merchandise, signage and the stadium itself — they could recoup those deficits in the ensuing seasons.

When the Chiefs secured their first win this season in Arrowhead Stadium in front of crowds limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, headdresses and red face paint were no longer allowed past the gates. The Arrowhead Chop and pregame beating of the drum were under review, although NBC still prominently featured the former in its prime-time broadcast. They scored in end zones declaring “end racism” in block text next to the Chiefs name and near the arrowhead logos. In a year when Washington chose to go by its city name rather than choose a new identity, the controversy over the use of Native mascots will continue to weigh on franchises and fans. As the country celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day in cities like Seattle, Chicago and Kansas City, the pressure to change these names continues, with the teams under an even brighter spotlight.

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