|Los Angeles Times
Bill Would Ban Indian Mascots
Sports: Activists meet little resistance in the Legislature in bid to bar the
controversial icons in state's public schools.
By MIGUEL BUSTILLO
SACRAMENTO -- Fed up from years of battling local school boards over what
they consider an issue of basic civil rights, Native American groups are
pushing legislation that would make California the first state in the nation
to banish all Indian team mascots from public schools.
Local crusades to rid schools of the cartoon chiefs and tomahawk chops that
many Native Americans consider culturally insensitive often run counter to
popular sentiment. They almost always meet resistance from students and
alumni bent on preserving tradition, as well as conservatives crying foul
over political correctness. Sometimes they encounter opposition from other
But so far in Sacramento, the activists have found virtually no resistance,
and may be poised to win their biggest victory since Stanford University
retired the Indians and embraced the Cardinal three decades ago.
"Locally, it is suicide," said John Orendorff, a Los Angeles school counselor
and veteran of the mascot wars. "This is groundbreaking."
If it becomes law, the measure by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los
Angeles) would accomplish in a single stroke what activists have been
attempting to do for years: running the Redskins, Apaches, Comanches, Chiefs
and Indians out of school gymnasiums across the state.
Eventually, it could also mean the end of the Imperial Valley College Arabs,
the Hollywood High Sheiks and a mass of other non-Indian mascots, because the
bill's larger goal is to ban mascots and team names deemed derogatory to any
racial or ethnic group from all K-12 schools and colleges.
Two existing state education commissions would act as arbiters of mascot
taste, charged with sorting out which were officially offensive. Most Native
American mascot names are identified in the legislation and would be phased
out. Dozens of schools would be prohibited from purchasing logos, sweatshirts
and uniforms that feature such mascots starting in 2003.
"Nobody is pointing a finger saying, 'You racist dog,'" said Goldberg, a
former Compton teacher and board member of Los Angeles Unified School
District. "We understand this was not meant to be offensive. But it is."
Native American mascots became talk-show fodder recently when an intramural
basketball team at the University of Northern Colorado named itself the
Fightin' Whites--and adopted a logo of a square-looking fellow straight out
of the 1950s--to protest a nearby school's mascot, the Fightin' Reds. But the
issue has been simmering a long time.
Though many Native Americans stewed for years about culturally insensitive
depictions, it was not until the late 1960s, when the National Congress of
American Indians led a drive to eliminate stereotypes in the media, that
groups launched formal efforts to get rid of the images in sports.
Within two years, Dartmouth College scrapped the Indians and became Big
Green, and Oklahoma got rid of Little Red, a dancer who skipped along the
sidelines during football games. In 1972, Stanford cut loose the Indians and
returned to the color Cardinal, a decision that has never been fully accepted
by some longtime fans. It later adopted a dancing tree as mascot.
Numerous others have since followed suit, including L.A. Unified, which
banned Native American mascots in 1997. In all, only about 1,200 of the 3,000
or so Indian mascots activists fingered 30 years ago still exist, according
to the Morning Star Institute, a Washington-based Indian rights organization.
But many Indian mascots and nicknames remain--most prominently the Washington
Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League, and the
Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves of Major League Baseball. And a number
of major public institutions have resisted change, notably the University of
Illinois, where groups for years have protested mascot Chief Illiniwek.
"No one ever said, 'This is the redskin I want to marry,'" said Susan Shown
Harjo, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that seeks to strip the Redskins of
their federal trademarks to force a name change. "It's always, 'You dirty
In 1999, the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled in favor of
Harjo's contention that a word identified in dictionaries as a slur should
not be trademarked. The Redskins, who argue that the name honors Native
Americans, have appealed.
Some schools have tried to walk a middle line, including San Diego State,
where protests over Aztecs mascot Monty Montezuma led to modifications that
made Monty a graceful ambassador rather than a bare-chested macho man meant
to rouse the crowd. The dignified Monty satisfied few critics, however, and
the controversy continues.
New York and Minnesota have asked schools to begin phasing out Native
American mascots, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said last year that
the mascots were "offensive to American Indians" and should be abolished.
Still, no states have banned them. A measure to do so in Wisconsin last year
died in committee.
The California campaign is led by the Alliance Against Racial Mascots, an
L.A.-based coalition of Native Americans and others who consider the cause a
civil rights matter. It says the problem is not just the mascots, which are
often crudely stereotypical, but the accompanying game-day antics that mock
Native American culture.
"I've talked to a great number of Native American youth who are just
embarrassed when they do the tomahawk chop or play the stereotypical
Hollywood drumbeat," said Lori Nelson, the group's director. "There is real
harm and real damage. This is denigrating to many people."
More troubling, activists say, is what happens in the stands when the Indians
or Chiefs travel to play a rival. Orendorff, the former head of L.A.
Unified's American Indian Education Commission, can't shake what he saw
several years ago when he took his 7-year-old son to see a football game
between the Burbank High Bulldogs and the Bishop Alemany High Indians.
His son pointed out a large banner on the Burbank side that read "Slaughter
the Indians." When Orendorff complained to a Burbank official, the man
"muttered something about political correctness" and walked off, Orendorff
said. The banner was later flanked by two security officers. It flew until
the game was over.
"I want to be a great role model to my son. I don't want to see him see me in
cuffs and dragged away," Orendorff said. "But if he wasn't there, I would
have done it. I would have gone up there and torn down that sign."
Though Goldberg believes such testimonials make it difficult for anyone to
oppose her bill, AB 2115, she stepped into a recent hearing of the Assembly
Higher Education Committee unsure whether it would survive. It wound up
passing without a single no vote after a remarkable exchange.
Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks), a former college basketball
player for the Whittier College Poets, recalled playing many Indian-themed
teams in his athletic career. Then he asked a question Native American
activists often hear when arguing for change: Exactly why are these mascots
so offensive to you?
Amber Machamer of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation offered an emotional
reply. To honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she said, you would name the
school after him, not the mascot.
"You wouldn't have John F. Kennedy High School," she said, "with the
Jackiettes as the cheerleaders."
Strickland and other Republicans abstained from the vote. A similar hearing
in the Assembly Education Committee went much the same way last week, with
Democratic support and Republican silence. It must still clear the full
Assembly, and then the Senate, before reaching the desk of Gov. Gray Davis,
who has taken no position on the measure.
One of the reasons for the meager opposition may be the power--or perceived
power--of the state's Native American tribes.
With their newfound wealth from gambling casinos, California tribes have
become major political players in the state capital in recent years,
showering millions in campaign contributions on Republicans and Democrats
alike. Though most tribes have taken no position on the mascot bill, some
legislative sources privately say that fears they will become involved this
election season have stifled opposition.