More school districts will consider dropping Native American-themed mascots in response to directives by leaders in two states—Kansas and New York.
Such mascot changes follow decades of nationwide advocacy from groups like the National Congress of American Indians. The group recently found that about 2,000 schools continue to use Native American-themed mascots like “chiefs,” “braves,” “Indians,” and “warriors,” often coupled with racist imagery, slogans, or songs.
Those shifts also bring logistical and political challenges for district leaders, who must explain the need for new symbols in communities where, for nostalgic, cultural, or political reasons, people have different attitudes toward the change; steer discussions of how to replace decades-old symbols, and replace everything from gym floors to band uniforms with new names and logos.
The two recent state actions differ in how rigorously they will be applied.
A directive from New York State Education Department said districts must change Native American-themed team names, logos, and imagery by the end of the current school year or they will risk the removal of school board members or the loss of state aid.
“Schools are learning environments; students learn as much through observation of their surroundings as they do from direct instruction,” said the Nov. 17 memo from Senior Deputy Commissioner James N. Baldwin. “In addition to their legal obligations, boards of education that continue to utilize Native American mascots must reflect upon the message their choices convey to students, parents, and their communities.”
In Kansas, state board members approved a non-binding resolution Nov. 10 that encourages schools to change Native American-themed mascots within five years. That move followed a resolution by an advisory group that included the state’s four federally recognized tribes and a group of Native American educators.
Building momentum to change mascots
Advocates for changing the racist mascots applauded the states’ moves, but some said they still see a lack of urgency. New York’s recent memo would enforce a 2001 directive that many districts never complied with. And some Kansas districts have already shown resistance to changing their mascots.
The Manhattan, Kan., district, for example, has backtracked on a 2017 decision to change a school’s mascot from the Indians to the Wolves. Debate continues as community members launch dueling petitions, public radio station KCUR reported.
In some small towns, resistance comes from generations of families who’ve played for sports teams and worn uniforms with the same imagery. In some cases, non-Native community members accuse school boards of “political correctness.”
“It’s disturbing to me that, as Indigenous people, we are that last group of people where it is socially acceptable to be openly racist like that,” said Gaylene Crouser, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center, which has pushed the Kansas City Chiefs, an NFL team, and local school districts to change offensive mascots and imagery. “If it was any other race of people, they would have put a stop to that.”
The issue is particularly difficult for children who are among a very small number of Native American students enrolled in their schools, Crouser said. It can be difficult to speak up about a divisive issue alone, she said, and some students struggle to play in uniforms that depict stereotypes of their cultures.
The imagery is not only personally offensive; stereotypes like the “tomahawk chop” song and arm motion promote dehumanizing caricatures of Indigenous people and cause people to become desensitized to modern concerns of tribal groups, like the Indian Child Welfare Act and tribal sovereignty, Crouser said.
Moves by Kansas and New York follow similar state legislation or executive orders in states like California and Oregon. The National Congress of the American Indian has tracked action in 21 states to debate such restrictions, with various levels of enforcement. Some would take aim at specific team names; others would more broadly ban any Native American mascot unless districts have an agreement from a local federally recognized tribe.
After Oregon banned the use of Native mascots in 2012, the Banks school district secured an agreement with the nearby Grand Ronde Tribal Council to continue its use of the “braves” mascot on the condition it would replace its logo, an image of a Native American man. Working with a design team from Nike, the district adopted a logo of two capital Bs that form a stylized arrowhead shape.
Crouser, in Kansas City, said approval from one tribal group doesn’t mean that individuals within that tribe, or other tribes, don’t find the mascot offensive.
About 20 Kansas schools still use a Native-themed mascot, the KCUR public radio station reports. But other Kansas school districts, including Wichita and Shawnee Mission, took action to change imagery and team names on their own, well before the state board’s vote.
Those decisions often followed input from students themselves, who testified in support of such changes.
Mascots amount to discrimination, states say
For some school systems, state directives can provide motivation and political cover needed to make such changes.
New York’s education agency said about 60 districts need to reconsider the use of native-themed mascots. Failing to do so would violate a state law banning discrimination against students, including Native American students, the agency’s recent memo said.
Some districts said they will wait for more specific direction from the state before they make changes. They’ve asked questions about issues like scope, timing, and costs to updating facilities, websites, and athletic gear.
In Rotterdam, N.Y., the memo may lead the entire school district to change its name. The school system, formed through the merger of several smaller districts in the 1950s, is called the Mohonasen Central School District. That name is a combination of the names of three Iroquois League tribes: the Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Seneca, Superintendent Shannon Shine said.
Shine wants to know if the high school can keep its mascot, the Warriors, if it decouples it from Native symbols and imagery, making it a more generic identifier. The school system doesn’t have a physical mascot at games, and its symbol comprised of a nested set of three headdresses created by an art teacher years ago.
Shine can find no formal record of consultation with tribes when the district chose its name and image. He researched the history of the decision after a student confronted him about it at a school board meeting a few years ago.
Logistics of a change can mean shelling out big bucks
If the district opts to change its mascot entirely, the community will likely go through a collective brainstorming process that involves an advisory group, an email address to submit ideas, a public vote, and a possible contest to allow art students to submit graphics and mascot designs, Shine said.
District leaders said changing mascots brings a cascade of new costs as they replace dozens of details that aren’t immediately apparent to the public: paintings on gym walls, embroidery on uniforms, designs on trophies and class rings, and symbols on websites.
In Kansas, the Wichita district estimated it would cost $400,000 to retrofit its gym and marching band equipment alone. In Oregon, some Native Americans submitted comments in opposition to the state rule, arguing that the cost of replacing mascots or the possible loss of state funding could harm students.
Recognizing cost as a potential barrier, athletics wear company Adidas scored a public relations win in 2015 when it offered design services and financial support to schools willing to part with offensive Native American-themed imagery.
“The truth is there is nothing that can’t be undone or redone. It’s all logistics,” Shine said. “However we move forward, let’s talk about it civilly and respectfully, and let’s be child-focused.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2022 edition of Education Week as More States Push Schools to Drop Native American Mascots