California, home to the largest number of American Indians in the country, is for the third time considering legislation that would end the use of “Redskins” as a school team name or mascot.
If the legislation passes and is signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, California would become the first state in the nation to ban the use of “Redskins” as a team name or mascot in public schools, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Congress of American Indians, founded in 1944. Many Native Americans consider the term a racial slur.
The bill is the latest effort in a more than 50-year national campaign by Native Americans to remove race-based team names from schools and sports groups. In California, proponents of the ban have cited peer-reviewed studies by researchers at the University of Arizona, Stanford University and the University of Michigan that found American Indian youth who were exposed to Native American mascots and stereotypical imagery reported a diminished sense of what they could achieve academically.
Cindy La Marr, executive director of the Sacramento-based nonprofit organization Capitol Area Indian Resources, said the harm of stereotypical racial mascots is compounded because there is a widespread lack of knowledge about the modern-day lives of Native Americans or their history. That history, documented by the California Research Bureau in a 2002 report, includes state-funded military expeditions against the Indians in the 1850s and an 1850 law allowing a white person to obtain Indian children for indenture.
“It’s time that we as a state take a stand against racial slurs used in our public schools,” said state Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, author of Assembly Bill 30, known as the California Racial Mascots Act.
The bill unanimously passed the Assembly Education Committee last month and is heading for a hearing before the Assembly Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media on April 21.
“I do not think they knew better or considered what they were doing as wrong,” said Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a junior at Argonaut High School in Jackson, whose friends yelled ‘Send them back to the Trail of Tears!’ during a football game against the Calaveras High ‘Redskins’ team.
Just four California schools continue to use “Redskins” as a team name and mascot: Calaveras High School in Calaveras County, Chowchilla Union High School in Madera County, Gustine High School in Merced County and Tulare Union High School in Tulare County.
“We love our mascot,” said Ron Seals, superintendent of Chowchilla Union High School District. The school mascot is an Indian chief known as “Reddy Redskin,” he said.
“I’m not disputing the fact that it’s offensive to some, but I’m not calling you a Redskin,” he said. “We call ourselves Redskins.”
“The name and the mascot have been a source of pride at the high school for 60 or 70 years,” said Joseph Oliveira Jr., a former first baseman for the Gustine High baseball team and a member of the Gustine City Council, which officially opposes the effort to remove the name. “It’s never been thought of as being a slur. We are the Redskins. We are the mighty Redskins. The town loves the nickname and to lose it now will be devastating.”
Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, 16, a Miwok Indian and a junior at Argonaut High School in Jackson, told a different story at a hearing before the Assembly Education Committee.
As a sophomore lineman for the Argonaut football team, Brown said he dreaded game day against the Calaveras High School “Redskins” because it included war cries from fans, sports announcers announcing “a wild party of Redskins!” and even his own friends shouting “Kill the Redskins! Send them on the Trail of Tears!” He recalled his cousin crying after a football game during which a female student dressed up as “Pocahottie” while other students pretended to prepare to burn her at the stake.
“I do not blame those students, the school or staff for any of these things,” Brown said in an email interview. “I do not think they knew better or considered what they were doing as wrong.” But, he said, “I will blame people for hearing the facts and then not caring enough to stop the harm.”
The California Racial Mascots Act would require California schools to phase out “Redskins” as a team name and mascot by Jan. 1, 2019. Similar legislation failed to pass the state Legislature in 2002, but did win approval in 2003, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said it was up to local communities to decide on team names and mascots.
Schools have a responsibility to ensure that every student feels respected, said Eric Stegman, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan policy institute, and co-author of a report about the impact of Native American mascots on American Indian youth. “We shouldn’t be placing the sentimentality of a letterman’s jacket or jersey above the interest of success for any student,” he said.
In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated that the use of Native American images and names by non-Native schools “has the potential to create a racially hostile educational environment.” The American Psychological Association said in 2005 that Native American team names and mascots create “an unwelcoming and even hostile school environment” for American Indian students.
Thanks for reading.
Can you help sustain our reporting?
Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.