Racial equity panel examines schools’ use of American Indian mascots

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TOPEKA — A Kansas racial equity panel could issue recommendations for public schools and colleges to eliminate the use of American Indian mascots, nicknames or imagery.

Dozens of elementary, middle and high schools, as well as colleges, across the state are still recognized by American Indian mascots and logos, despite long standing criticism.

Examples include the Hoxie High School Indians, the Ottawa University Braves or the South Barber High School Chieftains.

Shawn Watts, director of the Tribal Law and Government Center at the University of Kansas, told members of the governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice during a meeting Thursday that whether they took personal offense or not, the time had come to remove this imagery from schools.

Watts is also a district court judge for the Prairie Band Potawatomi and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

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He delivered a message he often tells his 10-year-old daughter on how to proceed when you are struggling with a decision.

“If you can’t do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, then you ought to do the right thing because it’s the smart thing to do,” Watts said. “Doing the right thing almost always aligns with the best interest of Kansas, and I think it will in this case too.”

The Commission on Racial Equity and Justice is preparing its midyear report to the governor and Kansas Legislature. The report will focus on the social determinants of health — education, economics and health care — after focusing on criminal justice last year.

The panel was established one year ago after the murder of George Floyd and calls for criminal justice and racial equity policy reforms. No recommendations from its initial report were considered during the 2021 legislative session.

Watts explained several methods that have been pursued at a local and state level to enforce changes to Native American imagery in school mascots. For example, in Maine, there is a ban on all associated names and imagery at the grade school and collegiate level. 

Maine was the first state to prohibit Native American mascots in all public schools in 2019.

Some states have bans on names but not images, or vice versa, Watts said.

In 1998, the Kansas Association for Native American Education called for a ban on the use of American Indian mascots and logos in all schools in Kansas. Their request was largely ignored.

Elyse Towey, a member of the panel and citizen of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, told fellow commissioners the issue was far more scarring than it appeared. She said the names, images and actions bring up intergenerational trauma detrimental to the mental health of young American Indians. 

She said things like the tomahawk chop or people wearing headdresses to games are a violation of things they hold sacred.

“When we see drunk and half-naked people at sports arenas doing those type of things, it really does a number on being proud of who you are,” Towey said. “As a child going through schools in northern California, I remember not telling people I was Native because I was ashamed of it. I was made to feel ashamed of it.”

She also urged for changes in education to eliminate the whitewashing of Native American history. The full commission will take up the exact wording and intent of such a recommendation for the report to be issued in the next few weeks.

Shannon Portillo, co-chairwoman of the commission and a Douglas County commissioner, echoed Towey’s calls for the removal of mascots and improvements in education, no matter the financial hardship to replace jerseys or scoreboards.

“I think the cost for social justice is 100% worth it,” Portillo said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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