Moving Past Native American Mascots

Below is the copy of an article I wrote for the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) policy publication, Policy & Legal News.

Moving Past Native American Mascots

Healing and Honoring Native Communities

This year, Washington State joined a national movement by passing House Bill (HB) 1356, prohibiting the inappropriate use of Native American mascots in public schools without proper tribal consultation.

As national sports teams like the Washington Football Team and Cleveland’s baseball team retired their dated and offensive Native American mascots, Washington State finally took action to get rid of harmful and offensive mascots that still permeated our school system.

Often, the use of Native American names, symbols, or images is premised on the promotion of unity or school spirit. This discounts the lived experience of Native Americans. As a little Native girl watching my culture, names, and regalia used as a mockery, a cartoon, and a character did not fill me with school pride. It made me feel like a token, like my family and culture were nothing more than symbols. It has a dehumanizing effect.

Regionally inaccurate and insensitive stereotypes depicted in these mascots do not speak to honor and dignity, nor do they humanize the people of our first nations who reside in Washington. Native Americans are not animals, we are not symbols, we are people, communities, and sovereign nations who deserve respect and dignity.

It is well past time to get rid of Native-themed mascots and logos. Despite calls to discontinue Native mascots from the Washington State Board of Education going back to 1993, over 30 schools in Washington still had Native nicknames or imagery at the time this bill was introduced.

The bill reflects a simple step forward. It requires school districts to engage in formal consultation with the federally recognized tribe in that area to ensure that their Native mascots actually honor the Native American community. If a tribe gives its blessing, the school can keep its mascot. If not, the school is required to pick a more appropriate mascot. This small step forward acknowledges the sovereignty and dignity of the Native communities in Washington and the state’s role in rectifying the harms of the past to create a better future.

Since the bill became law, we have been heartened to see schools take initiative and make progress. For example, the Spokane School District, through the hard work and advocacy of our partner in policy, Ivy Pete, a student leader at North Central High School, and in consultation with the Spokane Tribe, has retired the “Indians” mascot. Instead, students will compete as the North Central High School Wolfpack starting this fall.

Other school districts are following suit, consulting the federally recognized tribe(s) in their area and fostering student and community engagement through the process of changing of their mascot. We have heard from many schools across the state, and we are proud of the work they are doing to honor our native communities and culture.

The time of healing is now. As Washingtonians, we can begin to turn the tides and give respect to our Native communities and culture.