Indian Mascot Does Not Run Afoul of Rights Law, O.C.R. Says

By Lynn Schnaiberg — August 02, 1995 3 min read


Yakoo is safe for now.

For nearly six years, school officials in Quincy, Mass., have been embroiled in a debate over the mascot for the North Quincy High School “Red Raiders,” which culminated in an investigation by the Education Department’s office for civil rights.

Last month, the O.C.R. decided that the existence of the character--who is often depicted sporting a tomahawk and a feather-laden headband--does not constitute a violation of federal civil-rights law. It apparently is the first time the agency has weighed in on the controversial issue of American Indian mascots.

“In the fall, kids will come back, school will begin, and Yakoo will be part of the football season the same way he always has,” said Eugene W. Creedon, the superintendent of the 8,500-student Quincy district, which is located on Boston’s southern border.

About 23 percent of the district’s students are members of minority groups, but no more than a handful are of Native American ancestry.

The Yakoo is the product of a 1958 contest to create a mascot for the Red Raiders football team. The model for the caricature was Allan Yacubian, a student of Armenian descent who graduated that year. While Yakoo is most often depicted clad in traditional Indian garb, the figure is also seen wearing a graduation cap and toting books on booster-club paraphernalia, Mr. Creedon said.

An uproar ensued several years ago when a previous superintendent tried to ban the mascot, he said, and the school committee eventually reversed the decision.

The O.C.R. probe was sparked by a complaint filed in 1991 by a non-Indian teacher in another Quincy school, who charged that use of the mascot violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars racial discrimination.

‘Offensiveness’ Not Illegal

In a “letter of finding” issued last month, federal officials said they found no evidence that a “racially hostile environment” exists at North Quincy High or that students were denied any services on the basis of race or ethnicity.

“Offensiveness is not the standard by which a Title VI racial-harassment claim can be assessed, particularly in light of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” which guarantees free-speech rights, wrote Thomas J. Hibino, the director for the O.C.R.'s Boston office.

But the finding does not bar the possibility that other schools with such mascots could be declared to be in violation of Title VI if officials found that the characters contributed to a hostile atmosphere, according to Michael Burns, the Boston office’s deputy regional director.

“We’re not saying that these symbols are O.K. forever and on,” Mr. Burns said.

Indian mascots have become the subject of debate in recent years--for professional sports teams as well as for schools--and many districts have dropped them. Many Native American groups oppose the use of such mascots, which they view as insulting. (See Education Week, 12/4/91.)

But the Quincy case is apparently the first time the O.C.R. has issued a ruling in a case involving an Indian mascot, an Education Department spokesman said.

The O.C.R. has addressed other mascot-related issues. In a 1979 decision involving the Pekin Community High School in Illinois, the department found that the school’s nickname for its teams, “the Chinks,” did not violate civil-rights law because there was no evidence that the schools were denying services to Asian students.

In March, the agency received a complaint alleging that a Colorado student was being racially harassed by other students and that her school’s Indian mascot contributed to the problem. But the O.C.R. did not rule on the mascot because the district signed an agreement promising to address the complaints.

The school also dropped the “Braves” team name--a move that was under discussion before the complaint was filed.

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1995 edition of Education Week as Indian Mascot Does Not Run Afoul of Rights Law, O.C.R. Says