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As schools face calls to drop Native American mascots, some could lose state money

Lemiley Lane, who grew up in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, walks along the Bountiful High School campus during her junior year in 2020 in Bountiful, Utah. The school changed its nickname in 2021 to "The Redhawks."
Rick Bowmer
Lemiley Lane, who grew up in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, walks along the Bountiful High School campus during her junior year in 2020 in Bountiful, Utah. The school changed its nickname in 2021 to "The Redhawks."

It was at a high school baseball game in 2019 that Becky Gaither's quiet resentment was transformed into action. The mother of three, who grew up in the Seattle area and traces her ancestry to the Cowichan tribe of the Pacific Northwest, was there to see her son on the field for South Point High in Belmont, N.C., "Home of the Red Raiders."

As the game got heated, so did the taunts from fans for the rival school, Stuart W. Cramer. It wasn't long before all of the most cliched Native American caricatures and stereotypes came out, she says: the hand-over-mouth war whoop, the "tomahawk chop" and "twirling around in a circle like a war dance."

Of course Gaither, who had been living in North Carolina for some three decades, was aware of the South Point mascot. But the display at the baseball game was the last straw, she says. She filmed it and sent a videotape to some like-minded community members on a Facebook page and spoke at local school board meetings calling for the Red Raider mascot to be retired.

In the four years since that heated baseball game, the Gaston County School Board has refused to budge. (The board did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

Last year, the Belmont City Council went so far as to approve a resolution in support of the mascot. Belmont Mayor Pro Tem Richard Turner, who introduced the resolution, said the Red Raider represents courage and pride and that he'd "never seen anybody do something disrespectful or inappropriate or dress in Indian headdress or Native apparel."

While public backlash against Native American stereotypes has pushed professional sports teams in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland, Ohio, to change their names, there remain countless high schools across the U.S. that continue to use Native American-themed mascots and logos.

"The mascot imagery just continues to perpetrate and reinforce colonial white supremacist ideas and [stands] as a barrier for new opportunities for dialogue and education," says Michael Johnson, chief strategy officer of IllumiNative, a national, Native woman-led racial and social justice organization based in Tulsa, Okla.

In 2020, the website fivethirtyeight.com put the count at more than 1,200 high schools. And while some states have moved to ban such imagery outright, calling it offensive and out of touch, efforts to do so have also met intense resistance by supporters who say the team names are central to the traditions and identity of their communities.

Mascots are causing "firestorms at the local level"

"These things are firestorms at the local level," says Michael Lewis, a professor of marketing at Emory University whose work focuses on sports. "I mean, really kind of vicious battles."

Between the controversy among professional teams and the high schools, "I see more similarities than differences, except that we don't have the high-profile national media covering it," he says.

Self-identified Native Americans made up just 1.1% of the U.S. population in the 2020 census. A study that year by researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed Native Americans "who frequently engage in tribal or cultural practices." Of those polled, 70% said that sports fans wearing chief headdresses was offensive, while 73% said the same of sports fans imitating Native American dances.

Those objections have prompted efforts to do away with Native American mascot names in several states, with proposals introduced in at least 21 states, according to the National Congress of American Indians, or NCAI.

In New York state, where 55 school districts and 12 high schools on Long Island have Native American-themed logos and mascots, the state's Board of Regents voted Tuesday that they must be retired by 2025 unless schools get approval from a recognized Native American tribe to keep them. Schools that don't comply risk losing their state funding.

The vote in New York is one of a handful of such victories for the National Congress of American Indians, which has been at the forefront of the mascot fight that has been gaining steam in recent years. Last year, for example, the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs forbade Lamar High School from continuing to use the term "Savage" for its mascot after the school initially failed to comply with a state ban. Now the school is known as the Lamar Thunder. Despite Colorado's ban going into effect last June, five schools — all with the Native Thunderbird symbol — were considered "out of compliance" as of last month.

In Washington state, a mascot ban passed by the legislature in 2021 requires schools with a Native mascot to get permission from the nearest federally recognized tribe to continue using it. State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, who is part (Alaskan) Aleut, pushed for the bill and says it's really an opportunity for "a consultation between the local school district and the [tribes] ... on how to [use such a mascot] in a respectful way."

She says the law goes hand-in-hand with a push to get Native American history included in school curricula. Lekanoff calls it a "win-win" for both the schools and the tribes, "because to know the history of the people whose lands you live upon would just strengthen the relationship and the understanding and the respect of the first Washingtonians."

Removing mascots can result in a backlash

A sense of community and, among high school alumni, a sense of nostalgia can be powerful motivators for defending a mascot that others might find objectionable, says Tyler Jimenez, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

Jimenez was the lead author on a study published two years ago indicating that instead of increasing understanding and compassion with Native Americans, among some individuals it did the exact opposite.

The study was conducted in the year following the removal of the University of Illinois' "Chief Illiniwek" and the Cleveland baseball team's "Chief Wahoo" and looked specifically at people who said they believed that racism "is not really a big problem in U.S. society," according to Jimenez.

"One interpretation ... [is] that if someone really thinks that racism is not a problem ... then it's kind of hard to make sense of this type of decision," he says. It's "a threat to their belief system and they're reacting prejudicially as a result of that."

However, the study also suggests the backlash might wear off over time, Jimenez says. "There's probably a shorter period of time where prejudices increase," he says. "But then, you know, people forget about things, people move on to other things. It becomes less salient in their mind."

Change doesn't come cheaply

In Minnesota, a law banning Native American mascots that's under consideration would affect several schools in the state, including one in the tiny community of Warroad situated just across the border with Canada.

Warroad High School's website says the school's mascot is respectful and that the local First Nations Anishinaabe people "gifted land to found the first school and alongside that requested that the Warrior name and logo be used for athletic competitions."

Warroad Schools Superintendent Shawn Yates says the logo was created by an Indigenous artist and was "intended to be honoring of the Indigenous peoples." Further, he says, a portion of every sale of logo-themed school merchandise "goes to support programming directly for Indigenous youth."

Besides, it would cost the school an estimated $500,000 to change school sports uniforms, signage and other items that contain the "Warriors" logo, according to Yates. "We operate on about a $14 million budget and 80% of that goes to teachers and staff salaries and benefits," he says. The cost for the change would be "massive," Yates says.

Minnesota state Sen. Mary Kunesh, who is a descendant of the Standing Rock, Lakota Nation, says she understands that Warroad has tried to be respectful. As for the gift of land to the school, "maybe at that time, that was something that the Native communities either could accept or felt powerless to push back against."

"I've received many, many phone calls or emails" of support for the Warriors logo, she acknowledges, but also "at least as many Native folks have said, that ... we still don't appreciate it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 18, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story said that Michael Johnson is interim managing director of IllumiNative. His title is chief strategy officer.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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