It's Time to Rethink Native Mascots

When we use imagery that makes an entire community feel excluded and diminished, exactly what tradition are we celebrating?
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While I was growing up in the 1980s, I spent most Thanksgivings in Washington, D.C., visiting my cousins. Like many Americans, our weekends were organized around football first, then food. The television rarely went dark -- and when it did, it was often so that we could play football in the backyard. Unless the Washington Redskins were playing my beloved hometown Minnesota Vikings, we cheered for the Redskins.

When Washington played Buffalo in the 1992 Super Bowl in Minnesota, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, I was in high school, and it was the first time I heard American Indians and others questioning the Washington team name and mascot with many of the same criticisms we're hearing now, decades later. It wasn't really a mainstream issue at the time -- and I remember thinking that while the criticism was no doubt appropriate, it seemed to me to be a distraction from more pressing issues facing American Indians in Minnesota.

Since then, I've learned so much more about the varied and diverse experiences of American Indians in this country -- about the troubling history they have faced at the hands of the U.S. government, and all of the ways that history continues to have residual consequences for American Indian youth.

In 2010, Teach For America launched the Native Alliance Initiative (NAI) to deepen our partnership with Native communities. Currently, our corps members teach more than 9,000 American Indian and Native Hawaiian students in New Mexico, Hawaii, Oklahoma and South Dakota -- on reservations, in pueblos and in communities both urban and rural.

These corps members have been inspired by the spirit of determination they see in their students - for example, among the seniors from Wanblee, South Dakota that won last year's national Design for Change competition and served as the US Ambassadors to the international Be the Change conference in India, and among the 8th graders at Navajo Middle School in New Mexico who demonstrated the highest single-year growth in the state in math, science, and reading a few years ago.

But our corps members are also face to face with the devastating realities of a community that has lost so much and had to struggle for control over its own destiny. The suicide rate for young American Indians is three times the national average - and even higher on some reservations. The high school dropout rates are twice as high for American Indian students as they are for others. The ravages of substance abuse affect nearly one in three American Indian teenagers. And through conversations with my American Indian colleagues, I'm still learning about the existential threat facing many American Indian communities, and the strength it takes to face these threats with resiliency, pride and honor.

I think there's only one conclusion to draw from all of this -- as a nation, we have not fulfilled our obligations to American Indians, not just 200 years ago or 20 years ago, but today and every day. Our students deserve to see positive examples of the hope and fortitude that their ancestors possessed, and that their family and community members possess today.

When I look at it now, the issue of American Indian mascots doesn't seem small, and it's absolutely shocking in its ubiquity. There are professional football, hockey and baseball teams, colleges and universities, and perhaps most surprisingly, hundreds of high schools, all using mascots that objectify American Indians.

This is far from trivial. Mascots play a meaningful role in building a sense of community within our schools. They are, as Washington NFL team owner Dan Snyder has said while defending his team's name and mascot, important because they connect fans to the history of their team and their personal relationship with that history.

But when a mascot reinforces negative stereotypes of American Indians, it diminishes all of us precisely because of our personal relationship with that history, and facing those images on a daily basis makes it harder for American Indian young people to develop the academic and cultural identity that we know children need to succeed in our country.

Thankfully, there are schools which have taken courageous steps for their students. Just a few months ago, the Houston Independent School District changed the mascots of four schools, as part of a new policy eliminating mascots or nicknames based on race or ethnicity. In November of last year, Vallejo High School in the San Francisco Bay area voted to eliminate their Apache nickname and mascot. And from Maine to Oregon, there are efforts underway to change many more similar school nicknames.

Schools should be positive learning environments for children of all identities, and tradition should be no defense for maintaining symbols that are anything but affirming for our students. When we use imagery that makes an entire community feel excluded and diminished, exactly what tradition are we celebrating?

Recently, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled to strip the Washington football team of six trademarks, deeming them offensive and thus unworthy of trademark protection. This is the second time the office has made such a ruling, though the last one was overturned on appeal for procedural reasons. The new challenge addresses the procedural issue, and perhaps will result in official condemnation, and further acceleration of this trend. And if not now, it seems to be only a matter of time.

Considering the urgency of the situation in our corps members' classrooms, though, time matters. The stakes for native students today couldn't be higher, and it couldn't be clearer that these anachronistic mascots do not represent the best we can do as a society to follow through on our collective promises to the descendants of this continent's first nations. We don't need a lawsuit to tell us that, and we shouldn't let any more time pass before we do the right thing.

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