State board expected to vote on resolution in November
TOPEKA — Haskell Indian Nations University freshman Georgia Blackwood said Indigenous-themed imagery and branding presented in the form of school mascots made her feel non-Native Americans were intent on treating her culture with disrespect.
Blackwood, a Lawrence resident and member of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, told members of the Kansas State Board of Education on Tuesday perpetuation of offensive team names or mascots created a hostile educational environment in schools.
She endorsed a Kansas Advisory Council for Indigenous Education recommendation the state Board of Education and the Kansas Board of Regents make a priority of working to convince local school officials to abandon culturally inappropriate branding. The council report suggested the transition be completed within three to five years.
“Blatantly racist depictions let me know that my opinions aren’t valid and what I have to say is not being taken into consideration,” Blackwood said.
Five state Board of Education members expressed during the meeting a degree of support for a resolution or motion expected to be on the November agenda that would denounce this type of imagery. A list of school mascots in Kansas considered improper included Braves, Red Raiders, Warriors, Thunderbirds, Indians and Redskins.
A challenge in terms of the state’s public schools was that Kansas’ 10-member state Board of Education didn’t possess authority to compel local school districts to select new names or mascots.
State Board of Education president Jim Porter, a Fredonia resident who spent 34 years as a superintendent, said retention of disgraceful mascots and branding interfered with the goal of attaining academic success for every student in Kansas. The 10,000 Native American children enrolled in Kansas schools ought to be educated in places that didn’t cling to demeaning characterizations, he said.
“I will assure you that I am in support,” Porter said. “We do, in fact, have influence. We have been elected as leaders.”
The campaign to reconsider mascots and branding emerged this year after Randy Watson, commissioner of education in Kansas, created controversy by telling participants in an online education conference that when growing up he tried to convince relatives visiting Kansas they ought to be more worried about dangerous American Indians than of real threats posed by tornadoes. He apologized for the racist remarks. The state board suspended him for one month, a punishment denounced as inadequate by some tribal leaders.
Rep. John Wheeler, a Garden City Republican, subsequently said on the Kansas House floor during consideration of bill returning land to the Shawnee Tribe that he had to check behind him to determine whether Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad, D-Wichita, was holding a tomahawk.
Joseph Rupnick, chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomie Nation, said branding reform was needed because social media expanded opportunities for people to engage in bullying and harassment of Native American students. People can be traumatized by bigotry and prejudice related to school branding, he said.
“I understand change is hard,” he said. “I have never felt more pressure and fear than I have today because of the politics and the division that we see in this state.”
Some Kansas school districts have voluntarily decided during to drop shameful imagery. Atchison ditched the labels Redmen and Braves, while Wichita North High School began the process of shedding Redskins. However, there continues to be fierce opposition in Manhattan to dropping Indians as the high school’s mascot.
“We are people. We are humans. We are proud,” said Raphael Wahwassuck, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomie tribal council and supporter of the council’s recommendation.
In the memorandum presented by the advisory council, members said the imagery reinforced “narrow-minded stereotypes that represent American Indians as exotic, warlike people who are stuck in the past.” It taught students to express school spirit in flawed ways, the report said, including the making of fake Indian noises and chants or pep rally banners dedicated to “scalping the Indians.”
“If Kansas wants to truly focus on success of each and every student, we believe taking action against American Indian mascots and branding will improve the educational experiences of all students,” said Alex Red Corn, a professor of educational leadership at Kansas State University and a member of the state Board of Education’s advisory council on Indigenous education.
Eric Davis, superintendent at Royal Valley schools, said the 300 Native American students in the district deserved a safe educational environment that respected their heritage. He said districts defending offensive mascots by claiming they honored Native Americans were deceiving themselves.
The council suggested all levels of Kansas education address the presence of Indian-themed mascots and branding as well as create a funding stream to help schools with the transition of sports or marching band equipment.
The recommendation from the council wouldn’t apply to tribal schools. For example, Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence has competed in athletics as the Fighting Indians.
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