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On Native American mascots and the meaning of historical oblivion

Demonstrators in 2014 marched through Minneapolis to TCF Stadium where the Minnesota Vikings were playing Washington D.C.'s football team. Once known as the Redskins, the Washington D.C. team dropped its name in 2020.
Demonstrators in 2014 marched through Minneapolis to TCF Stadium where the Minnesota Vikings were playing Washington D.C.'s football team. Once known as the Redskins, the Washington D.C. team dropped its name in 2020.

Indigenous and constitutional law experts say a lawsuit filed earlier this month challenging Colorado’s ban on Native American mascots could blunt the national movement that's rejecting such racist and harmful imagery.

“Is a lawsuit like this going to deter other states from doing the right thing? The answer is yes,” said Barbara Creel, director of the Southwest Indian Law Clinic at University of New Mexico and a member of the Pueblo of Jemez.

The five plaintiffs claim tribal affiliation — which Creel said could give the complaint traction in court. They include two minors who attend Yuma High School, where the Yuma Indians are the mascot, and a Yuma graduate who has petitioned for his alma mater to keep that mascot. A fourth plaintiff graduated from Lamar High School, home of the Savages. And the fifth is the pastor of Yuma Christian Church.

The Native American Guardians Association joined the five Coloradans in challenging the new law. The North Dakota-based organization fought to help a Pennsylvania school keep its Indian mascot – the Redskins. On its website, the group says the eradication of such mascots is part of "cancel culture."

Research shows Native American mascots harm Indigenous people, especially youth, by affecting negative health outcomes such as suicide rates, depression and substance abuse.

Such data helped spur Colorado’s legislation that Gov. Jared Polis signed into law in June. Nevada passed similar legislation then too. They are among at least 20 states banning Native American mascots. While no other Mountain West states are on that list, some schools in the region have acknowledged the detrimental effects of Indian mascots, like the Bountiful High Braves in Utah. Their mascot became the Redhawks this year.

Kate Finn, executive director of First Peoples Worldwide at University of Colorado Boulder and a citizen of the Osage Nation, has long worked on the issue of mascots, including the high-profile name change of the Washington Football Team, once known as the Redskins. “And what we've discovered is that there really is broad consensus in Indian Country towards retiring these Native American mascots, logos and themes for the betterment of Native American youth and really to forward inclusion of Native American people in all aspects of society,” she said.

Plaintiffs say the Colorado law is too broad, that it sweeps “derisive, neutral, and honorific uses of Native American names and imagery together into the universal term ‘American Indian mascot.’"

They argue the law is akin to banning the name or image of Martin Luther King Jr. “Imagine a state law that barred schools from using the name or image of an African-American individual on its logos or letterhead,” the complaint reads. “That would be the end of school names honoring Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama, or Justices Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas.”

Rebecca Tsosi, who studies federal Indian law at University of Arizona and is of Yaqui descent, pushes back on that comparison.

“Native peoples are governments," she said. "They are sovereign governments and they pre-existed the United States and the United States is in a trust relationship with them. And I think that any state government is doing the right thing, when, in the contemporary era, they say that racial stereotyping about Indians – and that includes the use of Native images as mascots for purposes of a sports team or whatever the case may be – is unacceptable.”

The use of Indian mascots “turns the discourse around nations and the rights of Indigenous nations to this caricature of a genocidal past,” she added.

Several days after the Native American Guardians Association and other plaintiffs filed suit, they requested Colorado’s law be blocked while the court decides the case, arguing the law is a violation of free speech.

The Colorado law, SB 116, is scheduled to take effect in June 2022, fining schools that are not in compliance $25,000 per month. But plaintiffs cite a grant proposal deadline that they say requires schools to show they are in compliance before that deadline.

In their request for a preliminary injunction, plaintiffs said SB 116 will strip them as Native Americans “of their essential constitutional and civil rights by eradicating positive Native American names, logos, and imagery from Colorado public schools.”

They argue the law’s implementation “will also uniquely disadvantage plaintiffs’ ability to debate with others about the importance of respectful and culturally appropriate Native American logos, iconography and imagery, thereby further consigning Native Americans to historical oblivion.”

Creel, for her part, studies the imagery of Native Americans that have long pervaded newspapers, magazines, cartoons and the like. These depictions, she said, have fueled “a really narrow visibility of Native Americans, increased their invisibility, and increased the idea of the savagery of Natives.”

The result, she said, is a false notion that a way to honor Natives is by using mascots to honor their prowess or ferocity in war.

In other words, important cultural and historical context is lost – with lasting consequences.

“That's really disturbing to me because it doesn't allow for all the other contributions that Natives have made and it frankly doesn't allow for the United States’ role in removal and violence against Natives in the Indian Wars.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.