Bans on Native American mascots pick up after Washington Football Team name change

State legislators are advancing measures meant to bar public schools from using Native American mascots in the wake of a spotlight cast by the Washington Football Team’s decision to drop its derogatory former name.  

Lawmakers in Colorado and Nevada last month passed bills to bar public schools from adopting Native American mascots. They followed Washington state, where lawmakers approved a similar ban earlier this year. Lawmakers in Connecticut and Massachusetts have measures pending later this year.

Before this year, Maine was the only state to have barred schools from using Native American mascots under a 2019 measure signed into law by Gov. Janet MillsJanet MillsCollins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Ex-Maine governor to launch comeback bid Biden administration launches new national initiative to fight homelessness MORE (D). Mills signed the measure shortly after the Skowhegan school district, the last in the state to use a Native American name, voted to retire its mascot.

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The debate over whether to end the use of Native American mascots has raged for decades, after the National Congress of American Indians formally issued a call for change in 1968. More recently, the debate has been fueled by studies from scholarly groups that show such images can have a detrimental impact on young Native American students. 

A 2005 study from the American Psychological Association called on states to end mascots that stood as “stereotypical, misleading and too often insulting images of American Indians.”

The studies did less to force the issue to the front of the national consciousness than did the Washington Football Team’s move last year to end its use of a racial slur, said Matthew Campbell, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund based in Colorado.

“There’s been this conversation going on since the ‘60s,” Campbell said. “With the Washington Football Team making the change, now we’re seeing it in various states certainly coming to a head.” 

Washington state Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D), a member of the Swinomish Tribe and the only Native American who serves in the state legislature, said she had been motivated by the NFL team’s name change to introduce her measure earlier this year. 

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Supporters of keeping the Native American mascots often say those images and names are meant to honor the legacy and history of tribes in their communities. But opponents say those honors have transformed into a different and more pejorative meaning.

“While Indian mascots were often originally chosen to recognize and honor a school’s unique connection to Native American communities in Maine, we have heard clearly and unequivocally from Maine tribes that they are a source of pain and anguish,” Maine Gov. Mills said in a statement when she signed her state’s first-in-the-nation ban. “A mascot is a symbol of pride, but it is not the source of price. Our people, communes and understanding and respect for one another are Maine’s source of pride and it is time for our symbols to reflect that.” 

Today, there are at least 1,891 schools in the country that have Native American mascots or nicknames, according to a database maintained by the National Congress of American Indians. A little under half of those call themselves the Indians; a little under a quarter call themselves the Warriors. About 200 are called the Braves, and 178 are called the Chiefs.

Ninety-three schools across 43 school districts still call themselves the name once used by the Washington Football Team. 

But those numbers are slowly falling: Sixteen schools across the country, from Pilchuck High School north of Seattle to Danville High School in Vermont and Cambridge High School in New York, have voted or decided to change their mascots since the beginning of the year.

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Other states had moved to bar some mascot names, or to block new schools from adopting Native American images, even while outright bans have not yet passed through legislatures.

In California, then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a 2015 law banning schools from using the same slur that once described Washington’s football team, a measure that applied to four high schools in the state. Wisconsin legislators passed a measure in 2010 requiring schools to retain their Native American names only with the permission of local tribal governments, though that law was watered down in 2013. 

Michigan’s Department of Education issued resolutions in 2003 and 2010 to urge school districts to eliminate Native American logos and mascots. South Dakota’s High School Activities Association passed a similar resolution in 2016, though bills to bar racially insensitive mascots failed in the legislature in recent years. The Oregon Board of Education voted in 2012 to ban Native American names, though they revised that decision to allow schools to keep their names with the permission of local tribes. 

The proposed bans on Native American mascots have frequently broken down along party lines. In Colorado, the measure passed a final vote over the objection of every one of the Republican members of the state House of Representatives. Measures introduced in Arizona, South Dakota and Oklahoma this year have all run into roadblocks in Republican-controlled legislatures.  

Change has been more common at the local level, especially when it is driven by students, Campbell said. 

“We often hear from the local schools themselves that it’s about respecting native people and honoring them. But again I think that kind of misses the point when you think of the harms that can occur to students. It’s often Native people themselves who are seeking to have the images removed,” Campbell said. “There certainly seems to be an age divide.”