Washington State Lawmakers Consider Banning Native-Themed Mascots In Schools

The Chieftains mascot at Columbia River High School in Vancouver, Washington, is on the way out following a unanimous vote of the school board. CREDIT: Molly Solomon/OPB
The Chieftains mascot at Columbia River High School in Vancouver, Washington, was previously retired after a vote from the school board in 2020. CREDIT: Molly Solomon/OPB

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BY TOM BANSE / N3 & NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS / AP

Public schools with Native American-themed mascots and logos would need to find new team names under a proposal that drew supportive testimony to the Washington Legislature on Friday.

The pending phase-out bill hews closely to an earlier, hard-fought policy in Oregon to change names and mascots.

School team names such as Indians, Braves and Warriors perpetuate derogatory stereotypes, according to Nisqually tribal member Chay Squally.

“We are seen as less than human. We are not your costumes nor are we your mascots,” Squally said Friday during a legislative committee hearing.

Around 31 Washington schools have Native-themed monikers, including Cashmere Middle School, where Bea Kelzenberg is in 8th grade.

“We call ourselves the Cashmere Chieftains. But we aren’t Chieftains. We aren’t from a Native American tribe. We are students going to school with a passion to learn. But what isn’t being taught is the disrespectfulness behind our mascot,” Kelzenberg said.

The bill was introduced by state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, an Alaska Native who is Tlingit and Aleut.

“Native Americans are not animals,” Lekanoff said during a public hearing Friday on the bill before the House Education Committee. “They are people.”

House Bill 1356 seeks to ban Native American names, symbols and images for use as public school mascots, logos or team names, as of next Jan. 1. The ban does not apply to schools located within Native American areas. Washington State has 29 tribes.

The bill contends that the use of such names and symbols singles out Native Americans for derision and cultural appropriation. It fails to respect the cultural heritage of Native Americans or promote a productive relationship between governments.

Washington state Rep. Debra Lekanoff. CREDIT: WA Legislature

Washington state Rep. Debra Lekanoff. CREDIT: WA Legislature

The National Congress of American Indians says there are about 1,900 schools nationwide that continue to use tribal mascots. But there are only 31 in Washington state who do, Lekanoff said.

Lekanoff, who has worked to change the names of the professional football team in Washington, D.C., and the baseball team in Cleveland, said those changes at the professional sports level paved the way for making changes in other communities.

“This is a bill of respect,” Lekanoff said.

Moving the issue to the high school level is important for the self esteem of Native American children, she said.

The days when it was acceptable to see a white student wearing Native American regalia and war paint, shouting and running around at a sporting event, are over, she said.

“We do not feel honored in any way,” she said.

Republican State Rep. Joel McIntire wondered if there had been polling done to determine if some Native Americans supported the use of such mascots. Lekanoff said it was unlikely that every single Native American opposed the mascots, but that it was time for a change.

Several students, including non-Native Americans, spoke in support of the bill.

Bill Kallappa, a member of the State Board of Education and an educational liaison for the Nisqually Tribe, said the state board supported the bill.

“Let’s get this bill passed so we can put mascots in our past,” he said.

The superintendent of the Reardan-Edwall School District west of Spokane asked legislators to include an exception – as Oregon did – to allow schools to keep a Native American mascot or name if a nearby tribe approves. Reardan’s sports teams are the Indians, a name the superintendent says is a source of pride for his Native American students from the nearby reservation of the Spokane Tribe.

Reporting by the Associated Press was used in this story.

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The Chieftains mascot at Columbia River High School in Vancouver, Washington, is on the way out following a unanimous vote of the school board. CREDIT: Molly Solomon/OPB

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