Lines drawn on school nicknamesAs the University of North Dakota prepares for a new academic year, the first in many years without the ubiquitous presence of the Sioux name, the debate over use of American Indian names and imagery continues around the country.
By: By Chuck Haga , Forum Communications, The Jamestown Sun
As the University of North Dakota prepares for a new academic year, the first in many years without the ubiquitous presence of the Sioux name, the debate over use of American Indian names and imagery continues around the country.
With the collegiate battleground quieter and professional sports franchises seemingly immune to complaints about such team names as Redskins, Braves and Indians, much of the continuing push involves prep and grade schools.
Although hundreds of such nicknames have been dropped since the 1970s, advocates of change still find resistance on the high school level, resistance that mirrors the passion and complexity of the fight to preserve UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname.
In Delaware, a parent asked his child’s school district — the Indian River School District — to eliminate the Indian head logo used at the high school and middle school. In Wisconsin, state and local school officials are working with a 2010 policy that aims to discourage the use of American Indian names and imagery. The policy requires a school to prove its usages don’t promote harassment or stereotyping if there are complaints.
In Oregon, as in North Dakota, the debate has reached a decisive point. Just weeks before North Dakota voters said that UND should drop the Sioux name, the Oregon Board of Education voted 5-1 to ban all such usages, which had been officially discouraged for some time. The latest action forces at least 15 schools to scuttle their Indians, Chieftains, Braves and other Indian-inspired nicknames and to scrub logos featuring Indians in feather headdress or brandishing tomahawks from gym backboards and football scoreboards.
The National Congress of American Indians, among many national and tribal associations, has long actively opposed the use of American Indian nicknames, mascots and logos, claiming they foster stereotypes by presenting misleading images of Indian people.
As in North Dakota, however, some of the sharpest criticism of the campaigns against Indian nicknames comes from American Indians.
While a non-Indian parent asked the school district in Dagsboro, Del., to lose its Indian head logo “because I don’t think any human species or race should be used as a mascot,” the Nanticoke Indian Tribe in Delaware said it’s not offended by the logo “as long as it’s done tastefully,” according to a June 26 report on the online news site Indian Country Today. The tribe added that it has a good relationship with the school district.
In Oregon, the state Board of Education adopted the no-exceptions ban against Indian-based names and imagery despite protests that changes would cost thousands of dollars and scrap decades of tradition — and despite complaints from some Indians that the ban was a patronizing exercise in “political correctness.”
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, one of nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon, issued a statement in mid-June explaining that it “has worked diligently to build positive government-to-government relationships across … federal, state and local levels, including with our local school districts” and the ban was not needed.
According to the statement, published in Indian Country Today, “High school mascots are supposed to be inspirational. High schools do not adopt ‘losers’ or ‘slugs’ as their mascots; they adopt admirable and inspirational figures. The banned names — Indians, Braves and Chiefs — are inspirational Native images and we do not view their use as de facto derogatory.”
The Grand Ronde statement advised opponents of Indian nicknames to put their efforts into education. “Most Oregon students learn more about the Sioux and Apaches than they do about the Umpqua, Rogue River and Kalapuya,” the confederation said.
“If the state Board of Education truly wants to take a giant step towards reduction or elimination of racism toward Oregon’s Native peoples, then put us in your history books. … The history of Oregon did not start with the arrival of Lewis & Clark. It was occurring for thousands of years before they set foot on our land, and many of those Indians, Braves and Chiefs are worthy of being honored as high school mascots.”
Honoring, or keep us in the past?
Brenda Frank, a member of the Klamath Tribes and head of the state Board of Education, presided over eight hours of often passionate testimony in April before voting with the majority to impose the ban.
“To move closer to ‘I’m the same as you,’ we need to remove this rock from the path so the path will become smoother,” she said in an interview with the Herald earlier this year, prior to the state board’s vote. “We may live differently and we may have different traditions, but I believe in racial equality, and we need to remove as much stereotyping as we can.”
She conceded that opposition to the ban included many Indians as well as non-Indians whose sincerity she did not question. “I understand honoring. I understand all their words,” she said. “But why is it so important for them to keep us in the past? Why can’t they see us as doctors, attorneys, engineers, artists or ballerinas?”
She also acknowledged after the vote that some Oregon Indians, like some in North Dakota, fear a loss of identity with elimination of the nicknames.
“Unfortunately, for many of our Native American youth, the decision seems to be between being a mascot and being invisible,” she said, according to a May 18 report in the Los Angeles Times.
Chuck Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.