‘We ought to be ashamed’: Kansas board urges schools to eliminate Native American mascots

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The Kansas Board of Education is calling on the state’s public schools to eliminate Native American-themed mascots within five years.

Saying it hurts students, the Kansas Board of Education is calling on the state’s public schools to eliminate Native American-themed mascots within five years.

The board endorsed a recommendation from an advisory group on Thursday that included representatives from all four federally recognized tribes in Kansas.

Board member Michelle Dombrosky voted no on the measure; board members Jean Clifford and Ben Jones abstained. The seven other members voted for the recommendation.

“We’re just asking them to start the conversation, do the research,” said board member Ann Mah. “When we say we don’t want bullying, we want equity, we want the best education for every child, then this absolutely fits with our mandates.”

More than 20 Kansas schools still use mascots with names like Indians, Braves or Red Raiders.

The state board’s recommendation, while historic, is unlikely to overcome decades of tradition and identity invested in mascots, which communities often see as honoring American Indians rather than symbols of racist stereotyping.

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson said the board has no plans to tie mascots to a district’s accreditation. Those pushing for change say offensive mascots create a hostile learning environment, which goes against state guidelines on student well-being.

Jones, one of two board members who abstained from Thursday’s vote, said the state holds no sway over local districts on the matter of team mascots.

“One of my fears is that we pass this and nothing changes, in which case this has been an exercise in futility,” Jones said. “What if nobody changes? What then? Does this go away, or do we try something else?”

Alex Red Corn, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Kansas State University, said the state board’s action could inspire local discussions.

“What we’re asking the state board to do is initiate that conversation and help us sustain that conversation,” Red Corn said.

Nationwide, more states are moving to ban or limit Indigenous mascots in schools. Oregon outlawed Native American mascots in public schools in 2012 with a State Board of Education resolution. At least six other states have some sort of mascot ban. California lawmakers voted in 2015 to ban the use of “Redskins” in public schools.

Three Kansas districts have eliminated Native American mascots recently, including Atchison, Wichita and Shawnee Mission. The Shawnee Mission district in northeast Kansas changed four school mascots it said were offensive, including the one at Shawnee Mission North High, which is now the Home of the Bison.

Board member Deena Horst said she supported the recommendation because she graduated from Clearwater High School and now recognizes that the school’s Indians mascot is derogatory and hurtful.

“They now do the tomahawk chop and other things that are demeaning,” Horst said. “It’s wrong. … We ought to be ashamed.

“The time to have a conversation has long passed, and we need to make certain that it takes place as soon as possible,” she said. “So if our recommendation falls on deaf ears, that’s up to the board in the future to make the determination if they want to take it further.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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