7 states where there are fights to change ‘deeply offensive’ Native American mascots

Loveland High School may have to change its “Indians” nickname under new legislation. CREDIT: (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Loveland High School may have to change its “Indians” nickname under new legislation. CREDIT: (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

As activists continue their fight to change the name of Washington’s professional football team, calling “Redskins” a “dictionary-defined” racial slur that has no place in the sports lexicon, similar mascots are also facing challenges at the high school level across the country.

At the pro level, Washington’s continued use of “Redskins” was a source of protest at games throughout the 2014 NFL season, and it faced more demonstrations at the Super Bowl in February. But Native American mascots have been a source of controversy for years at the high school and collegiate level too, with Native Americans who are opposed to the names saying they foster stereotypes that are harmful to their communities (the American Sociological Association and American Psychological Association have agreed, calling for the “immediate retirement” of such mascots).

Those efforts have led to name and mascot changes at prominent colleges and in high schools for decades, and in the early months of 2015, schools in at least seven states are facing similar challenges, including state legislation, school board reviews, and efforts from Native American students to force changes.

California: On Wednesday, the John Swett Unified School District Board voted to change the name of the John Swett High School Indians, CBS San Francisco reported. The Bay Area school has not chosen a new nickname, but its decision came a year after a school in Vallejo decided to quit using its “Apaches” nickname and mascot. Local activists told CBS that they planned to ask another school, Napa High School, to stop using its “Indians” name next.

In December, state Assembly member Luis Alejo (D) introduced legislation that would require schools to end the use of the name “Redskins” by 2017. School officials in some districts have attempted to rally opposition against that legislation — in Gustine, for instance, school officials organized a community hearing this week meant to help save the name of the Gustine High School Redskins. Alejo’s legislation would apply to four California schools.

Colorado: State Rep. Joe Salazar (D) this month introduced legislation that would put schools that still use Native American mascots under the review of local tribes and a state commission, The Coloradoan reported. If the bill passes, Native American mascots would need approval from the state’s tribes or from the newly-formed commission or else they would have to be changed. It would apply to 48 Colorado schools, including the Loveland High School Indians and Eaton High School Reds, according to The Coloradoan. Loveland school officials have already reached out to the local Lakota Sioux tribe to create a new mascot to “make sure that we are honoring with our Indian logo,” the school’s principal told the Loveland Reporter-Herald. Salazar introduced similar legislation in 2014 and, according to Indian Country Today Media Network, received hate mail for doing so.

Connecticut: The West Hartford school district held a town meeting Thursday to debate the mascots of two local high schools, the Conard High School Chieftains and Hall High School Warriors. “We always strive to be of a Chieftain and do things as chieftains would: be courageous on sports fields and in classrooms,” one Conard student said at the meeting to defend the name, NBC Connecticut reported. “The feeling isn’t going to go away just because you change some logo,” a student opposed to the name countered.

North Haven High School, which uses the name “Indians,” has also faced challenges to its name: a change.org petition drive, which started in January, so far has 731 signatures. Qunnipiac University, located in North Haven, changed its nickname from the “Braves” to the “Bobcats” in 2001.

Maine: This week, the president of the local NAACP chapter wrote to school officials at Skowhegan High School in Bangor, asking them to consider dropping the school’s Indians mascot and logo. “The implications of cultural violence embedded in Skowhegan High School’s nickname and mascot are deeply offensive to native people,” president Michael Alpert wrote, CentralMaine.com reported. Skowhegan is the “only school left in Maine using a Native American nickname and mascot,” according to journalist, author, and college professor Ed Rice, who has advocated for changing it. Other schools still use names like “Warriors” but have abandoned Native American imagery and logos. A former chief of the local Penobscot tribe has also pushed for Skowhegan to change its name.

Banks High School in Oregon could lose its “Braves” nickname under state Board of Education rules. CREDIT: (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Banks High School in Oregon could lose its “Braves” nickname under state Board of Education rules. CREDIT: (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Oregon: The state Board of Education banned all schools from using Native American mascots in 2012, requiring them to adopt new nicknames and logos by 2017. The original legislation bans names like “Redskins,” “Savages,” “Indians,” “Chiefs” and “Braves,” but others, like “Warriors” could be used without a logo depicting Native Americans, according to the Philomath Express.

But last year, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) signed new legislation allowing schools that had the permission of local tribes to continue using such names. In January, officials formed a working group to figure out how exactly the permission rule would work, the Statesman Journal reported, and a public hearing on the process is scheduled for later this month. The proposed rule change would also require schools that enter into agreements with tribes to “include a plan to address achievement gaps between Native American students and other students,” according to The Oregonian. There are currently 15 high schools using Native American nicknames and mascots statewide.

South Dakota: Students on the Lake Traverse Reservation this month asked the Sisseton School District to change the name of the Sisseton High School Redmen, the Associated Press reported. The students, a group of girls’ basketball players who formerly attended Sissteton High, have held a rally and planned other events aimed at changing the name, and a group opposed to the mascot demonstrated against it at a recent basketball game between Sisseton and Tiospa Zina, a tribal school, according to KDLT News. One of the Tiospa Zina students who was passing out t-shirts that read “Not Your Mascot” told another local news station that Sisseton students confronted him and started a fight in a bathroom during the game.

Wisconsin: At an end of January school board meeting, officials voted to maintain the name of the Berlin High School Indians after 92 percent of the local community and 90 percent of the student population voted in favor of keeping the name in a local survey. The debate over Berlin’s name began in 2011 when a graduate of the school filed a complaint at the state level, according to the local Fox affiliate. In 2013, though, Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a law that made it harder to change such nicknames. According to the Wisconsin Indian Education Association, which in February 2014 sent a letter to school districts asking them to stop using Native American mascots and nicknames, 31 such mascots are still in use in the state.

Earlier this month, University of Wisconsin point guard Bronson Koenig, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, said he was “disappointed” that Native American mascots are still in use because they make “people think it’s OK to make fun of us.”