Commentary

Discontinue use of American Indian mascots

August 27, 2022 3:00 am

A group of protesters demonstrates against the Cleveland Indians mascot prior to the Opening Day game between the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Royals at Progressive Field on July 24, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio. The team mascot was changed to the Guardians in July 2021. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

During the 2022 Nebraska legislative session, Legislative Bill 1027 was introduced to incentivize public schools in Nebraska to discontinue use of American Indian mascots.

Schools that elect to change their mascots would be eligible for grant funding from the Nebraska Department of Education to cover the costs associated with replacing their mascots.

The bill did not make it out of committee and was indefinitely postponed. This issue of American Indian mascots needs to be addressed, but opportunities seem slim.

On Oct.13, 2020, the Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights adopted a proposal to undertake a study of the impact of Native American names, symbols and imagery in school mascots. The focus of the committee’s inquiry was to examine the impact of the continued use of Native American names, symbols and imagery in school mascots on Native students in particular and on Native communities more broadly. From a civil rights perspective, the committee sought to consider the extent to which this use may perpetuate or exacerbate harassment or a racially hostile learning environment for Native students in Nebraska.  Their findings:

— Decades of social science research indicate that Native American themed mascots are psychologically, socially and emotionally harmful to Native students.

— The committee heard considerable, detailed and repeated testimony demonstrating that regardless of intent, Native mascots do not in fact honor the communities they represent.

— Native-themed mascots reflect, support and perpetuate underlying stereotypes and beliefs that have a real impact on public policy, public attitudes and behaviors.

— Educating students and the public about Native history and culture can help to break down damaging stereotypes.

— As public institutions, schools have an obligation to ensure a learning environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all students.

— Despite financial, historical and emotional ties, retiring Native-themed mascots is possible and reasonable to achieve.

One recommendation was “The legislature should make a formal resolution statement that it is in support of non-native public schools in Nebraska abandoning Native American and indigenous-themed mascots. It should back this resolution with a measure authorizing state funds for the purpose of defraying a portion of districts’ costs to that end.”

Professor Stephanie Fryberg, in a University of Michigan study, wrote, “The psychological research is clear, the use of Native mascots is detrimental for Native people, said study co-author Arianne Eason, assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. These mascots decrease Native individuals’ self-esteem, community worth and achievement-related aspirations, she said.”

The National Congress of American Indians, in a published article “Anti-Defamation & Mascots stated, “Indian mascots and stereotypes present a misleading image of Indian people and feed the historic myths that have been use to whitewash a history of oppression. Despite decades of work to eliminate the use of discrimination and derogatory images in American sports, the practice has not gone away.”

According to State Sen. Megan Hunt, part of the problem is the cost of these changes.  With estimated costs of $300,000 per school, and 22 schools needing to change, it would cost almost $7 million.  If the state can spend $8 million on a recreational trail (see Nebraska Examiner article “Downed trees, deep ravines among obstacles for hike-bike trail linking Omaha and Lincoln”), the state could certainly fund the mascot changes.

A school board member of one school I contacted stated that the board currently had no interest in changing its name and didn’t want to pass any costs on to the taxpayers.  He did indicate if the change was mandated by the state, with state funding, the change would occur.

Support does exist among local Native American leaders, such as Kevin Abourezk, as well as State Sens. Lynne Walz and Jen Day, members of the Education Committee, which held a hearing on LB 1027. And with changes by professional sports teams, such as the Washington football team and Cleveland baseball team, it seems that nationally changes are occurring.

According to Hunt, objections raised by the Nebraska Legislature’s only Native American member, Sen. Tom Brewer, influenced the Education Committee to not forward the bill to the full Legislature. Brewer indicated to me that if mascots were used in a professional and respectful manner, they should be allowed. However, his remarks are inconsistent with supporting evidence already listed. I’m concerned that Brewer may not be aware of the reports and studies that contradict his views. He further expressed to me that he would not introduce such legislation.  This is unfortunate.

We can only hope that some state senator will embrace the report by the Nebraska Civil Rights Commission and have courage to ask schools for compliance and fund the changes.

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Paul Morrison
Paul Morrison

Paul Morrison is a retired government employee who worked at the state, university, and federal levels. Morrison has served as a director with the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District and as an officer with the Nebraska Army National Guard. He has published a book on Crazy Horse titled “Custer’s Conqueror.” His current interests include being a grandpa, woodworking and politics.

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