Students returning to class for the 2015-16 term in Madison K-12 schools won’t be sporting Chicago Blackhawks jerseys or Atlanta Braves T-shirts. And not because they lack interest in the fastest game on Earth or they rally behind the Brewers, though that’s likely.
The Madison School Board has enacted a prohibition on clothing and other items tagged with sports team names, logos or mascots portraying a “negative stereotype” of Native Americans. The policy does not prohibit all Native American imagery on attire and other possessions — just sports team items.
The decision apparently is a first for a K-12 school district in the United States.
Students proposed the prohibition and, over the summer, expect to work with school officials on the details of administering the policy, including creating a list of outlawed imagery and names.
“The existence of these mascots destroys our self-esteem. The existence of these mascots shows us how people really think of us,” Gabriel Saiz, a Madison West High School student, told the Madison school board earlier this year, according to the AP. Saiz, a member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, worked with others involved in the Native American Student Association to draft the policy.
In addition to amending the district’s dress code rules, Madison schools will ask visiting athletic teams to leave behind Native American mascots and logos. If a visiting team flouts the policy, the game could be canceled.
Meanwhile, a student who violates the dress code would be required to take off the item or turn the clothing inside out.
Leaders working to eliminate the mascots, logos and names under Change the Mascot! and Not Your Mascot banners praised the Wisconsin students and school officials, who acted at about the time other government boards and institutions advanced the cause.
In Oklahoma City in late May, the Capitol High School announced the decision to become the Red Wolves, abandoning the Redsk*ns.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Board of Education rejected an amendment intended to weaken a requirement that public schools with Native American mascots choose new nicknames by 2017.
“We express our admiration and appreciation to these educational boards, administrators, students and other advocates for helping eliminate the use of the dictionary-defined R-word racial slur from our schools,” said Jackie Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation representative, in a joint statement. Both are leaders of the Change the Mascot campaign. “These schools recognize the need for a change and are a shining example of the American ideals of mutual respect and equality.”
The effort also got a boost in June from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said the pro football team in Washington, D.C., should change its name, and from California lawmakers, who advanced the California Racial Mascots Act.
The California bill would make the state the first in the nation to ban the use of “redsk*ns” as a team nickname in public schools. California state Assemblyman Luis Alejo introduced the measure with the support of tribal leaders, student activists and health professionals.
“California has the largest number of Native Americans in the country. It’s time we as a state take a stand against racial slurs used by our public schools,” Alejo said. “This is part of a national movement and now is the time for us here in California to end the use of this derogatory term in our public schools.”
He added, “The R-word was once used to describe Native Americans’ scalps sold for a bounty and current use of the term is widely recognized as a racial slur that promotes discrimination against Native Americans.”
Before approving the measure 7-1 on June 17, the California Senate Education Committee heard testimony from Halbritter, Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Tribal secretary James Kinter, student activist Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown and psychologist Michael Friedman. They addressed the harmful impact of the racial slur on the self-esteem and self-identity of young Native Americans and other negative consequences of continuing to use Native American mascots and logos.
Duncan, meanwhile, expressed his praise for a school district in New York state that retired the use of “redsk*ins” as a nickname.
In a pair of tweets, Duncan thanked Lancaster Central School District “for challenging the status quo & saying Native American stereotypes are inappropriate in sports” and “It makes no sense to me why the Washington pro football team won’t do the same and stop perpetuating racial stereotypes.”
The Change the Mascot effort has focused on the Washington NFL team more than any other because the team is located in the nation’s capital, has a long record of racist policies — the team was the last in the NFL to integrate — and team owner Dan Snyder seems indifferent to Native American concerns.
“Across the country there is a growing chorus of students who are stepping forward to say enough is enough when it comes to the usage of the offensive R-word slur,” said Pata and Halbritter. “Washington team owner Dan Snyder, in particular, could learn a lot about basic decency, equality and respect from these young people.”
The push to end the use of American Indian stereotypes as mascots, logos and symbols dates back decades.
The campaign has been a priority for nearly 50 years for the National Congress of American Indians, which has passed a number of resolutions on the issue and worked with hundreds of tribal governments and more than 100 civil rights, educational, athletic and scientific groups to advance the cause.
The NAACP passed its resolution calling on professional sports teams and public schools to “change the mascot” in 1999 and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued its “Statement on the Use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols” in 2001.
Both the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association called for retiring American Indian mascots and imagery. The APA, in its resolution, cited negative effects on the mental health and psychological behavior of American Indian people and the ASA said, “Social science scholarship has demonstrated that the continued use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport harm Native American people in psychological, educational and social ways.”
Under the leadership of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, Wisconsin lawmakers sought to advance the cause in 2009 with the passage of Act 250. The law — the first of its kind in the United States — took effect in 2010 and allowed for a nonpartisan Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction review if a district resident complained that a mascot, logo or name was offensive.
Wisconsin lawmakers, under the leadership of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, changed the statute, making it more difficult to remove mascots by moving oversight to the state Department of Administration and requiring the complainant to collect the signatures of school district residents 18 and older and equivalent to 10 percent of the district’s student population.
Walker signed the measure into law in December 2013. He wrote to tribal leaders who had urged a veto and claimed he was defending free speech rights. “If the state bans speech that is offensive to some, where does it stop?” Walker wrote. “A person or persons’ right to speak does not end just because what they say or how they say it is offensive.”
Native American activists in the state called Walker’s decision egregious.
“We believe the recent decision to override the progress made with the state in regard to the school mascots to be a mockery of the indigenous people in the state and around America,” Mole Lake Sokaogon chairman Chris McGeshik said in March, delivering the State of the Tribes address to the Wisconsin Legislature.
Did you know?
> Marquette University changed its sports team name from the Warriors to the Golden Eagles and ended all use of American Indian names and imagery in 1994. The school’s president said, “We live in a different era than when the Warriors nickname was selected in 1954.” The university abandoned “Willie Wampum” as its mascot in 1971.
> Dozens of Wisconsin public K-12 schools — from Amery to Wonewoc-Center — have eliminated American Indian references to race-based “Indian” nicknames and logos. But 31 schools continue to use “Indian” nicknames and logos, according to the Wisconsin Indian Education Association “Indian” Mascot and Logo Taskforce.
> Nationwide, the number of schools — universities and K-12 — with Native American mascots has declined from more than 3,000 to fewer than 1,000.
> In 2013, President Barack Obama pledged his support to the “change the mascot” push and said the Washington, D.C., NFL team name is offensive and raises “real and legitimate concerns.”
> Groups calling for an end to Native American mascots include: the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Education Association Council, Wisconsin Indian Education Association, WIEA Mascot and Logo Task Force, Wisconsin State Human Relations Association and Youth Indian Mascot and Logo Taskforce of Wisconsin.
The AP contributed to this report.