The “Redskins” are finished, sort of, at the last four high schools in California that used the term as a team name, mascot or nickname. But to the surprise of some, the Jan. 1 first-in-the nation law banning the word has left intact school logos depicting stoic male Indians in profile, football fans tomahawk-chopping in the stands, students yelling war whoops and a Tulare Union High School teenage girl wearing a fake war bonnet.
The on-campus prohibition has prompted off-campus sales of “Redskin 4 Life” T-shirts by the Calaveras High School football team and “Chowchilla Redskin Way” signs affixed to street signs for 15 blocks near Chowchilla High School, a move unanimously approved by the Chowchilla City Council.
This was not the outcome that the American Indian community had wanted. “It says to me that if you really want to keep racism alive, you will find a way around laws,” said Cindy La Marr, a member of the Pit River/Paiute tribe and executive director of Capitol Area Indian Resources, an advocacy group. “And they have.”
The passage of the California Racial Mascots Act might have prompted a frank conversation about the academic and emotional harm caused to American Indian students by racial and ethnic slurs and caricatures, the disproportionately high rates of suspension of American Indian school children and the brutal treatment of American Indians in the not-so-long-ago California past, La Marr said. Further, she said, the California Education Code requires schools to take steps to combat racism.
But little cultural rapprochement appears to have occurred. The official erasure of the team names largely has left schools free to continue to portray American Indians any way they choose.
School officials at the four high schools — Calaveras High in Calaveras County, Chowchilla Union High in Madera County, Gustine High in Merced County and Tulare Union High in Tulare County — have deleted the team names that included the term, which referred to the bloody scalps of dead Indians killed by bounty-hunting settlers paid by the government, according to the National Congress of American Indians, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
School and city leaders in those communities have stated strongly that “Redskins” has been a beloved team name meant to honor American Indians. “The threads of Chowchilla Redskins are woven long and deep throughout our community and stretch across the country,” the Chowchilla City Council wrote of its proposal to post “Redskin Way” street signs last fall to commemorate 100 years of the high school mascot. “Decades of high school graduates are proud of their legacy to be a Chowchilla Redskin that emboldens a spirit of strength, honor and respect.”
And the Tule River Tribal Council wrote a letter to the Tulare school district acknowledging that the term had been “negative” in American Indian history, but it was time to “move on” and allow the teams’ use of “Redskins” as a term of “pride and honor.”
Now the schools have stopped ordering new team gear branded with the name, and the law requires nothing further. Scoreboards, gymnasium floors, wall murals and uniforms bearing the word do not have to be replaced “until they would have needed to be purchased or replaced without the enactment” of the law, the law states.
“We are striving for compliance,” said Mark Campbell, superintendent of the Calaveras Unified School District. “We have a Native American logo on the scoreboard and on the wall in the gym, and it’s on merchandise and letterhead, but there is nothing with the term itself.”
He considers the law “legislative overreach” and said it was unfair to force the removal of the “Redskins” name while dozens of California schools use names — “braves, squaws, warriors,” he said — that American Indians say trivialize their history and misrepresent their culture.
“Never was it intended to be disrespectful, but I understand it was,” Campbell said. “I’m not going to tell anybody they don’t have the right to feel the way they feel.”
The teams at Chowchilla Union High School are now the “Tribe” — as are the teams at Tulare Union High School. At Gustine High School, the “Redskins” are the Reds, and the school board said the name was a throwback to the original 1913 team name, which referenced the school color.
“Changing the name from ‘Redskins’ to Tribe or to the Reds, that’s just unfortunate — for Pete’s sake,” said Joely Proudfit, a member of the Luiseño/Payomkowishum tribe, an American Indian Studies professor at California State University San Marcos and a member of the Obama administration’s National Advisory Council on Indian Education. “We should not use theme mascots of any population of people.”
The schools “still dehumanize us, minimize us to caricatures from the past, use Native images of heads with headdresses on, when California Indians didn’t have headdresses,” she said. Feathered headdresses were used by Great Plains Indian men, with each feather earned as a tribute to heroism. She added, “The law obviously did not go far enough, but it targeted the most egregious word.”
Randy Celaya, a member of the Mission Indians tribe, had hoped to change a few minds about the “Redskins” name in the multiple hours he spent in meeting rooms last year trying to explain, among other issues, why he does not feel honored by a Tulare Union High School website photo of a teenage girl in a bright red-and-yellow, floor-length war bonnet or a video of a “Redskin Princess” dancing in the feathered bonnet.
Aside from being a sacred garment that was never worn in California, “the headdress is an honor for men to put on,” he told a Tulare committee charged with coming up with a new high school team name. He likened a young girl wearing the feathered headdress to pinning to his own chest his brother’s Vietnam-era Purple Heart and Silver Star. “Stolen valor,” he said.
He told committee members straight up: “We don’t want to be mascots. We don’t have Italian, black, or Hispanic mascots.
“We don’t want to be a circus animal performer or your entertainer,” he said. “Please respect our wishes. They cry, ‘Why are you taking this name from us?'”
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