Earlier this year, Colorado passed SB116, which banned high schools from using mascots or imagery that depict Native Americans. Schools in violation of the law as of June 1, 2022 will face a $25,000 monthly fine. Gov. Polis’ signed the bill on June 28, drawing criticism from groups like the Native American Guardians Association and local school boards, both of whom wish to retain the offensive imagery of Colorado’s schools.
No legislation is passed in a vacuum. SB116 is representative of a nationwide shift away from sports organizations using racist, outdated mascots. In the professional sports world, the Washington Football Team prominently pivoted away from their former logo and title, thanks to multiple lawsuits and sponsors threatening to pull support. More recently, the Cleveland Indians announced that the 2021 baseball season would be the last under that club title. These high-profile attempts to catch up with the times made waves in the news, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
As of last October, 1,232 high schools still boasted Native American team names.
Over 1,000 high schools across the country wear racist insignias and shout antiquated chants at football games and see nothing wrong with that. To their credit, hundreds of these schools are in the process of changing their traditional garb and nickname to align with 2021’s values. Some of them did it after years of activism and community organization while others, like many in Colorado, are compelled by legislation to address the status quo.
Many proponents of the status quo…ahem, racists…will point out that groups like the Native American Guardians Association don’t want to see mascots reformed. They pour money into lawsuits, throwing around terms like “unfunded mandate” and “local rights” while conveniently ignoring the combined effort of hundreds of Native American groups to get rid of offensive mascots. In short, arguments to “preserve heritage,” even by some Native American groups, fall flat. They pervert a collective and longstanding desire for change by boiling it down to only their feelings.
This movement is in fact, not benign. In fact, a Center for American Progress study concluded that by using offensive mascots, school administrators create hostile learning environments and undue anxiety for Indigenous students, even linking such imagery to youth suicide and low self-esteem.
So, if opponents to bills like SB116 could be pipe down about the evils of political correctness, we’d appreciate it. What about the evils of institutionally bullying Indigenous students? The psychological and emotional harm that comes from decades of trotting out offensive mascots far outweigh the importance of tradition. Using stereotypes only perpetuates biases, especially among impressionable adolescents.
The truth is simple: offensive mascots dehumanize Indigenous people. Imagery such as this doesn’t provide any room for Native American groups to define themselves but rather grants that luxury to outdated stereotypes. And in case you weren’t aware, our country has been doing this for far too long. Our federal and state governments spearheaded an intensive effort to “civilize” Indigenous groups by teaching them Western customs and erasing their culture.
There’s been a recent focus in Canada and some parts of the U.S. on boarding schools, in which teachers tried to “assimilate” Indigenous students. Curriculum there included forcing Christianity upon young children and instilling rigid discipline and individualism, both principles of Western culture.
Claiming Native Americans as your mascot is along these same lines. It’s another step in a long erasure of Indigenous culture and pride. The impacts go beyond the esoteric too. From harming the psychology of students to perpetuating racism, there are real-world consequences to the actions of our school boards and communities. So, please, enough with the importance of maintaining tradition. Convention is nothing against the well-being of students and our national discourse.