Nicholas Gallivan, Graduate Diversity Coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org
One State's Solution to Native Mascots
Athletics are a quintessential part of the American education system. For students, they provide an opportunity for structure, discipline, passion, and physical and mental exercise. Furthermore, for the greater community, athletics provides a sense of unity, even a point of pride. For some students and community members, however, this sense of passion and belonging is not always shared. This is not because they do not enjoy watching sports, or even participating in them; rather, their school’s mascot serves as a revered token of negative, harmful stereotypes. While this unfortunate reality persists for so many, one state is taking steps to help alleviate this emotional burden.
This past February, two representatives in Illinois’s state House introduced legislation that gives high schools using Native-resembling mascots an ultimatum: either fulfill the following requirements or find another mascot. The four requirements include…
- Receive written permission from a tribe within 500 miles of the school, which would have to be renewed every five years
- Conduct a schoolwide program on Native American culture at least twice a year
- Offer a course on Native American contributions to society
- File an annual report with the state on the academic programs they offer about Native Americans
An amendment to the bill has also been drafted which would create a committee of Native American leaders oversee the schools’ changes. Schools that choose to retain their current Native American mascot but fail to comply with above requirements would be ineligible to compete in playoff sports competitions. State Rep. Maurice West, who co-introduced the bill, said in a statement, “Sports logos and mascots should not be used to caricaturize and misrepresent cultures. If the legitimate intent of a school is to honor local Native Americans, this measure provides the opportunity to secure approval from a nearby tribe.” Essentially, through this bill, Rep. West and his colleague provide schools with the opportunity to either bolster their regard of Native American peoples or discontinue their depiction of them.
Controversy regarding Native team names and mascots is not new to Illinois, nor has it been isolated to that state. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, their “Fighting Illini” mascot, “Chief,” wore imitation Lakota dress and would dance during the halftime shows of many of their sporting events. However, after years of protests by tribal nations and pressure from the NCAA’s 2005 policy on “hostile and abusive” Native American mascots, the university voted to retire the mascot in 2007. Although a number of efforts to designate a new mascot have materialized within the university since then, no consensus has been reached and the university’s sports teams compete without a mascot.
Across the country, similar actions have been taken at the state level. In 2012, Oregon’s Board of Education voted to give public schools five years to change their Native-resembling team names and mascots or lose funding from the state. Later, in 2014, Oregon state lawmakers passed legislation that would allow schools to retain their Native team names and mascots only if they reached an agreement with tribal nations in the state. Furthermore, just last year, Maine became the first state to implement a complete ban of Native American team names and mascots in all public schools, colleges, and universities.
Given the nature of this controversy, strong opinions have been vocalized from both sides of the issue. Having been born and raised right outside of Urbana, IL, I still, to this day, hear arguments as to why the University of Illinois should have never retired its mascot. A number of these individuals assert that the mascot and its half-time demonstrations were nothing but the celebration of sacred tradition that honors both the University and the native Illini people. The Illinois Confederation—known as the “Illini” or “Illiniwek”—included 13 Native American tribes who inhabited the upper Mississippi River valley of North America until the early 1800s. Many of these fans believe that the University of Illinois made a mistake retiring the mascot, and they support the efforts of the unofficial “Chief” that still occasionally attends sporting events.
However, these sentiments are not only felt by University of Illinois fans. At the beginning of this year, a Utah state representative sponsored a resolution that would affirm the state’s opposition of removing Native American symbols from schools. This reportedly came after a high school in his community voted to change its mascot and team name, the “Redmen.” Like University of Illinois “Chief” supporters, the Utah representative and other proposal supporters in his community believe that the team name was originally established “to honor the Native
Americans.” Moreover, the representative blames a “push towards political correctness” as the basis for the controversy.
When reviewing the opposing anti-mascot side of the argument, no mention of political correctness has been found; however, calls for decency, respect, and an end to harm have become most prominent. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has been one of the longest and most vocal opponents to Native American team names and mascots. They started a campaign back in 1968 to address Native American stereotypes and their portrayal in popular media and sports, which is still active today. The NCAI challenges these appeals to respect and honoring tradition from the pro-mascot side of the argument by illuminating the negative realities that Native peoples face as a result. On their website dedicated to ending the harmful legacy of Native American mascots, they state that “rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful, perpetuate negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples, and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples.” The NCIA asserts that in idolizing these clichéd imitations, we are not only stigmatizing Native peoples further, but we are also, prejudicially, regarding them as less-than.
Unfortunately, this perpetuation and disregard has led to a growing intensity of harm for Native peoples. As documented by both the American Psychological Association and various researchers across the country, the NCAI states that “derogatory ‘Indian’ sports mascots have serious psychological, social, and cultural consequences for Native Americans, especially Native youth.” Unfortunately, still, the Department of Justice finds that “American Indians are more likely than people of other races to experience violence at the hands of someone of a different race.” Not only are there Native American people who are feeling the psychological pain of mascots and team names, but they are also experiencing physical harm as well.
When it comes to arguments and controversies like this, listening, empathy, and introspection are key. Although these traditions are revered, even meant to foster honor, are they worth the harm? As many of you know, the local Manhattan High School goes by “the Indians.” Although a secondary mascot of a wolf has been approved by the school and city council, no efforts to change its team name have been made, and recent reports indicate no current, concrete plans to implement this mascot change have been provided. So, given the current status of local progress to remove Native American mascots, do you think state-level action is appropriate? To conclude, I leave you with this and the following questions to consider going forward.
- What are your opinions about the stipulations within the Illinois legislation?
- What are your reactions to both sides of this debate?
- How long do you think it will take before this controversy to be resolved?
- “Illinois lawmakers have introduced a bill to ban Native American mascots” – Harmeet Kaur, via CNN.
- “Bill could cause some high schools to lose their mascots” – Cole Henke, via WCIA News
- “A Utah lawmaker says the state should support Native American mascots” – Bethany Rodgers, via The Salt Lake Tribune
- “Ending the Era of Harmful ‘Indian’ Mascots” via the National Congress of American Indians
- “Summary of the APA Resolution Recommending Retirement of American Indian Mascots” via the American Psychological Association
- “Dorst: No current plans to put MHS wolf mascot two years after student vote” – Rafael Garcia, via The Manhattan Mercury