In the city with more cameras to capture its moves than anywhere else, the Los Angeles Unified School District has laid its American Indian mascots to rest.
It is the last of the Gardena Mohicans, the Birmingham Braves of Van Nuys and the University High Warriors in the school district of 670,000 students.
American Indian groups are celebrating a visible victory “against institutional racism.”
It’s great news and it’s a start,” said American Indians in Film founder Sonny Sky Hawk, whose speech before the school board Sept. 2 prompted the move.
“We’ve been fighting with the Washington Redskins, we’ve been fighting with the Atlanta Braves, and that’s a bigger bite to take, but this is the second-largest school district in the United States.”
For 17 years, groups like American Indians in Film, the American Indian Education Commission, the American Indian Movement and others have taken the Los Angeles Unified School District to task on the mascot issue. Finally, a resolution by school board member George Kiriyama was introduced Sept. 2 to end the use of American Indian images as mascots there. The board vote on Sept. 8 was unanimous, with an abstention by the board president, who lives in a district where some don’t see the need for a change.
The concession came after a strong speech to the board by Sky Hawk, a Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud, S.D., who was also speaking for the Committee for Native American Rights. “We find it to be reprehensible, repugnant and appalling to taxpayers, parents and children of all colors and races,” he said. The mascots “reduce the American Indian to the form of a caricature,” he said.
He also showed the board editorials from Indian Country Today that condemned the use of such mascots. And, Sky Hawk had threatened a lawsuit as a last resort. “Any taxpayer-funded institution cannot discriminate against anyone,” he told the board.
The resolution to eliminate the mascots said it is district policy “that institutional forms of racism be identified and challenged” and that the mascots can evoke “negative images that become deeply embedded in the minds of students, depicting American Indians in inaccurate, sterotypic, and often violent manners.” It went on to admit that “inappropriate and insensitive” use of mascots “may prevent American Indian children from developing a strong positive self-image.”
The changeover is already under way and, according to the resolution, should be completed by the end of this school year, district communications spokesperson Shel Erlich said.
“We have prevailed, and now our children can look forward to a brighter tomorrow, free from the ridicule and demeaning stigma of racism and mascots,” said Sky Hawk. “Who knows how many American Indian children have suffered and been affected by this injustice?”
The fact that the school district is so large, and located in such a visible city, won’t hurt the groups’ chances of opening eyes on the issue, Sky Hawk acknowledged. The school district is setting a positive example, he said.
“We are putting all the other school districts throughout the nation on notice that we will be approaching them as to the insensitivity and the incorrectness of this,” he said.
“A lot of it is ignorance, a lot of it is unwillingness to change tradition. It’s the same comments we’ve always heard, that they’re honoring our people, but it’s a simple fact that some of these people just don’t get it.”
The Sept. 2 action came after an earlier promise had stalled. The school board and its president, Julie Korenstein, had halted an original mandate by the outgoing superintendent, Sid Thompson, that American Indian mascots be painted over and otherwise done away with during last summer vacation.
The reason for waiting was budgetary, said district spokesperson Socorro Serrano. The halt came about after it was gauged that it would cost $240,000 for one school to paint over mascots, resurface the gym floor, order new athletic equipment and folders.
“They decided to stop and review what the financial impact would be if we did this at all the schools,” Serrano said. “If we were going to proactively go ahead, a dollar figure had to be attached and a time line attached.”
Sky Hawk said no one group could claim the victory alone. Other supporting organizations include The Rainbow Coalition, The American Jewish Congress, The National Hispanic Media Coalition, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, The National Congress of American Indians, The American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, The Media Action Network for Asian Americans and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“We’ve all been at it for a long time. And we’ll continue to do it collectively as American Indian people,” Sky Hawk said. “This again is a prime indication of what can be done when we unite ourselves in speaking out against these injustices.”
Michael Haney, executive director of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports, said he feels that policies in California toward American Indians have “turned a corner” with the decision. But the atmosphere among some Birmingham Braves fans outside the meeting was confrontational, he said.
Also commenting on the victory was Don Bustany, a national media adviser of the American Arab Antidiscrimination Committee. The committee is involved in the same media image coalition as American Indians in Film.
“It’s a happy day for everybody concerned with, not political correctness, but with human decency,” Bustany said, “and this is just the start of the snowball that we hope doesn’t stop rolling until every American Indian named mascot has been changed.”
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