SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In a strict party line vote, a proposed bill to rid
the state's schools of the name "Redskins" as a mascot passed the
California state Senate Education Committee by getting the requisite seven
votes on the Democratically-controlled committee.
About 70 American Indians of various tribes, many of them high school age,
showed up wearing bright blue T-shirts that declared "I am not a mascot."
They were countered by about 35 Redskin-logo clad students, teachers and
administrators from high schools in the small agricultural towns of Gustine
and Tulare showed up to defend their school mascot.
At issue was a watered-down version of a bill that author Assemblywoman
Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, had been trying to get through the
legislature for the past three years. The original bill, which failed in
2002, sought to ban use of all American Indian mascots from the state's
Goldberg then tried again and failed to muster up enough support last year
and had to make a last second deal to pass it out of the Assembly that only
targeted the term "Redskin."
"In order to pass any version of the bill, I asked several Native Americans
what one single word [used as a mascot] was most offensive and every one of
them singled out this word [Redskins]," said Goldberg.
Calling the term "Redskin" the "R-word," in her testimony Goldberg gave a
list of state agencies and others that had already banned the use of the
term "Redskin" including the California State Division of Motor Vehicles
which banned the word from license plates in the 1990s.
It was perhaps because of the length of time that Goldberg worked on the
bill and the fact that it had been so watered down from its original form
that she refused an offer from Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, to allow
schools already using the term to continue to do so.
In the end Denham, whose district includes the Tulare High School, was the
lone dissenter of the group.
The exchanges were often very spirited though no tempers flared. Opponents
of the bill argued that the bill would take away local control from the
schools by placing a state mandate on them.
In an unusual move, Assemblyman Roy Ashburn, R-Tulare, testified against
the bill before the Senate committee. It is rare that once a bill passes
the Assembly chamber that an opponent will go to testify against it at a
Senate hearing as Ashburn did.
Sen. Ashburn claimed to have the support of the local Santa Rosa Rancheria,
which is near Tulare, in using the term and cited a letter from its
chairman Clarence Atwell and two other tribal officials as proof of their
Sen. Ashburn claimed that the term is actually a respectful one.
"In all the years that Tulare High School has used the logo, no one has
ever been harmed by it," said Ashburn.
Ashburn's testimony also pointed out the deep community tradition of the
mascot, which the school had used since 1924. This remark led to a pointed
question by Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-San Fernando Valley.
"In 1924 were Indians allowed at [Tulare] high school," asked Alarcon, who
also claimed that they were not.
In fact, Tulare High School is about 2 percent American Indian and Gustine
High School has no American Indian students though their vice-principal
claims to have Indian heritage.
Opponents of the bill also cited a Sports Illustrated poll, which claimed
that American Indians actually supported using the term. However,
proponents countered that the poll was unscientific and used a random
Proponents of the bill countered that almost never has a civil rights issue
been solved at the local level. Goldberg also said that she had spoken with
Chairman Atwell about the matter and he said that he had taken a neutral
position only because of fears of reprisals from community members.
Atwell was not available for comment at press time, but an official at the
Santa Rosa Rancheria confirmed that the tribe had taken a neutral position
on the bill.
Perhaps the emotional highlight of the meeting was a tearful testimony from
a Sacramento-area high school student named Melissa Hernandez who put the
debate into an emotional context.
"Other schools have Huskies and Bears, why should we be placed into the
same category as animals," sobbed Hernandez.
During questioning, conservative Democrat, Sen. Jack Scott, D-Pasadena said
that he had reservations about the original bill but would support this
bill. In his comments regarding the bill Scott said that people had a right
to be called what they want.
"As a white guy, I've learned that you should call people what they want to
be called, and no matter if there is not a consensus in the Native American
community or other communities over the name it is in the very least, not a
flattering term," mused Scott.
One of the committee members, Sen. Edward Vincent, D-Los Angeles, provided
some personal insight into the issue. Vincent, an African American and a
former member of the erstwhile Los Angeles Rams (now St. Louis) told a
story from his football playing days with former team mate Jack Youngblood,
an American Indian.
Vincent remembered talking with Youngblood about the irony of having no
Indian players on the Washington Redskins. Vincent also likened the fight
against the term "Redskins" to the civil rights movement.
Next the bill goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee where if passed
then goes to a vote before the entire Senate.