The next front in the fight against “Redskins” mascots: California.
The California state assembly’s education committee last week unanimously approved legislation that would prohibit schools from using the nickname that has drawn controversy mostly for its use by Washington’s NFL team. The name has garnered scrutiny at the high school level across the nation too, as Native Americans have drawn attention to the fact that it is an offensive slur that perpetuates stereotypes and can have damaging effects on their communities.
The vote came a week after a local school board in western New York voted to quit using the same name at Lancaster High School, a contentious decision that drove months of public debate. In California, where Assemblymember Luis Alejo (D) introduced this legislation in December after the legislature approved a resolution condemning Washington’s use of the word, four high schools still use “Redskins,” even as Native American activists and others have fought to change them.
“In today’s society, this term has become widely recognized as a racial slur that promotes discrimination,” Alejo said in a release after the legislation gained committee approval. “For far too long we have allowed stereotypes and derogatory terms to become normalized to our younger generations. But this is more than a team name. It’s about respect. Respect for every culture and person, and Native American tribes must not be left out.”
The California legislature passed similar legislation in 2004, but then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) vetoed it. This time could be different, especially as the ongoing controversies in Washington and in states like New York have increased public attention, said Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a 16-year-old Native American student who has gathered letters of support for the legislation.
“I think with the controversy happening in Washington and New York, as big as the issue is, and with as much controversy that follows it, it’ll definitely have an impact here in California,” Brown, who attends Argonaut High School, said. “With them (changing) it in New York, I think that’ll have a positive impact in setting a precedent for other schools across the country.”
Brown, who founded a non-profit organization to support Native American students, has spoken out against use of the mascot across the country in the past year. Brown started fighting such nicknames when he had to play football against Argonaut’s local rival, Calaveras High, which still uses the “Redskins” moniker.
“The amount of pain felt by our Native youth outweighs the pain of any dedicated racist mascot fans by an immeasurable amount,” Brown said last year at a Washington D.C. event (hosted by the parent company of this site) while detailing the effects such mascots can have on Native American students. “It’s time for a change.”
Brown and his brother Dahlton, a senior at Stanford University, became involved in the legislative fight when they met Alejo while gathering signatures against Calaveras’ use of the name at a Native American heritage event in September. They have since helped gain letters of support for Alejo’s legislation from tribes from around the country and a “diverse group” of individuals and organizations that oppose the mascot. While multiple school districts that still use the name have attempted to organize against the legislation, the positive reactions outweigh the negative, Brown said, adding, “There’s a lot of people in support of this bill.”
The worst opposition, the brothers said, has not been from students or others in the community, where most of the reaction has come in the form of support or questions about the issue. Rather, it has come from the internet. But the criticism they and the legislation have received is in a way proof of the point they are trying to make.
“You’re talking about a dehumanizing mascot, that when Native people try to use their agency and their voice to change it, they’re put down even harder,” he said. “The mascot itself lends the ability for people to bring those stereotypes into the conversation when we’re trying to use our voice to remove them altogether.”
The next step for the legislation is approval from the assembly’s Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism, and Internet Media Committee. Passage there would send it to the full legislature for consideration. And while the legislation has received little attention outside the interested parties thus far, both brothers are hopeful it will gain full approval — and Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) signature — this time around.
California is one of several states where the issue around Native American mascots continues to play out. A Colorado legislative committee narrowly approved a bill to prohibit Native American school mascots unless they were approved by local tribes or a state committee; Oregon enacted similar legislation last year and is still working through a controversial implementation process. An Oklahoma school quit using “Redskins” last year, and in California, where Stanford dropped its “Indians” mascot all the way back in 1970 and a local high school changed a similar mascot this year, such change is hardly unprecedented.
“Many universities and school districts in California have already taken the lead by voluntarily removing this offensive mascot,” Alejo said in his release. “It’s time we as a state take a stand against racial slurs used by our public schools.”