OLYMPIA – Washington would prohibit the use of Native American names or symbols as public school mascots, logos or team names, if a proposed House bill passes.
The bill, which received its first committee hearing Friday, would require public schools to change their mascot, logo or team name beginning Jan. 1, 2022. It would not apply to school names.
Democratic Rep. Debra Lekanoff, of Bow, presented the bill to the House Education Committee wearing Native regalia, including a vest handed down from her grandmother. As the only Native American currently serving in the Legislature, Lekanoff introduced the legislation to “overturn history and create a better future for young Native American children and Indigenous people.”
Impersonating these mascots and using war paint and Native regalia is very disrespectful, she said. Some schools may think they are honoring Native Americans, but they are not.
“We do not feel honored in any way,” she said.
Ivy Pete, a junior at North Central High School in Spokane, said the bill would begin to mend the broken relationships between tribes and school districts. North Central’s mascot, currently the Indians, would change if this bill passed.
As a Native American student, Pete said seeing her school’s mascot every day can make it extremely difficult to find her identity as a young Indigenous person, when it seems as if she is constantly shown what to look like or how to act.
“The picture we paint of these mascots is not of a real human, group of humans or culture,” Pete said. “It is a selection of preconceived notions and ideas that must be set straight.”
Some public schools would be exempt from the bill; specifically, those located within a tribal reservation or tribal trust lands are exempt from the bill. However, schools on those lands must consult with the tribe to determine the most appropriate use of any mascot, logo or team name.
A bill in 2015 to require schools to stop using Redskins as a mascot would not have provided a similar exemption and faced criticism from some on the Wellpinit School Board. Wellpinit High School, which sits on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is the last school in Washington with a school that uses Redskins as a mascot.
Eric Sobotta, superintendent of the Reardan-Edwall School District, testified against the bill, suggesting the bill be amended to allow districts who aren’t located on tribal land to be able to work with neighboring tribes on mascot names. The district’s team name, currently the Indians, would change if the bill passed.
Sobotta said the district is currently working with the Spokane Tribe of Indians to make other changes at the school, including with the K-12 curriculum. The district has created two videos spoken in Salish to show students and is currently working on creating a credit-earning course on Salish.
He said he wants to be able to work with students, families and the tribe to discuss their mascot, which he said is “grounded in respect and a source of pride for Native American students.”
“I am asking we be given this opportunity for authentic engagement on the topic,” Sobotta said.
Many sports teams across the country are feeling pressure to rethink their mascots. The Washington Football Team in Washington, D.C., became one of the first NFL teams to do so last summer after the club announced it would no longer be known as the Redskins. Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team announced in December it would drop “Indians” from its name.
Still, many sports teams have yet to make the change. This Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs will play in the Super Bowl. Activists have called on the team for years to drop its name, mascot and “Arrowhead Chop” fans use during games. In August, the team banned fans from wearing headdresses, but the name remains.
Spokane also still has two sports teams with Native American mascots, the Chiefs hockey team and the Indians baseball team. The Spokane Indians have worked with the Spokane Tribe to find ways to use the name respectfully, including creating a logo in Salish and highlighting tribal culture and heritage throughout the stadium. In July, the Chiefs told The Spokesman-Review the team would continue to work with local tribal leaders regarding the team’s representation of Native American culture.
The State Board of Education has adopted two resolutions discouraging the use of Native American mascots, one in 1993 and one in 2012.
The bill gives school districts some time to phase out the mascot or team name. Schools must select a new mascot by Dec. 31, 2021 but have until the end of the 2021-2022 school year for it to take effect. Beginning in 2022, schools cannot purchase any uniforms that include the old mascot.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction estimates that more than 30 high schools currently use Native American names or symbols for their mascot or team name. The fiscal note for the bill mentions the expenditure impact on school districts, although each is different depending on how many materials they would need to replace.
Some materials likely include sports uniforms and equipment, marching band uniforms, mascot uniforms, signage, letterheads and supplies, and yearbook logos.
Lekanoff said passing this bill may not be easy, but lawmakers are not there to do easy things. Native Americans deserve respect and dignity, she said, and inaccurate stereotypes depicted in mascots do not speak to that dignity.
“When these are used in mockery, when they are used in a place of sports and activities, how can we truly be respected as the first Americans?” Lekanoff said.
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