Ending Stereotypes in Oregon School Sports

A column by Suzan Shown Harjo about racist team nicknames in Oregon high school sports.

After waiting in vain for five years for its public schools to voluntarily eliminate Native race-based sports stereotypes, Oregon is on the verge of making it mandatory. The Oregon Board of Education heard testimony on March 8 and 9, and is developing a rule that is likely to favor Native people over “Native” sports references. The board may propose the rule within weeks and vote on it as early as May 17.

The Board of Education’s staff recommends an administrative rule retiring “all Native American names, mascots and logos by Oregon Schools that received public funding.” Fifteen public high schools in Oregon have “Native” sports references, including Braves (2), Chieftains (1), Eagle Indians (1), Indians (4) and Warriors (7), and even more elementary and middle schools have “Indian” references in their athletic programs.

“The perpetuation of derogatory images of any one individual or group leads to misinformation and contributes to a hostile learning environment,” reports the board staff. ”The elimination of Native American mascots can lead to the end of culturally abusive behavior and this piece of institutionalized racism towards Native American people.”

The issue was raised with the Board in 2006 by Che Butler (Siletz) and his sister, Luhui Whitebear (Coastal Band Chumash), who urged the Board to act for “Native people, not mascots.” Butler, then a high school athlete, testified that his family was outraged by the Molalla High School “Indians” halftime show, which featured a half-naked “Native” boy with a target painted on his skin.

In 2007, the board recommended, but did not require that schools with “Indian” names, symbols and personalities should stop using them. In the intervening five years, not a single school has done so.

At the 2012 hearing, Butler, now a Chemeketa Community College student, testified that “it has been swept under the rug.”

Supporters for the continuation of these so-called Native references offered the predictable justifications: they are “respectful” and “honor” Native Americans. None of those who invoked their schools’ “Indian mascot traditions” seemed to appreciate that what they described was a tradition of racism.

Opponents told the Board that “Native” sports references were “disrespectful” and “racist.”

“These mascots have got to go,” testified Tom Ball (Klamath), who said he witnessed racial epithets at sports events and that “Indian” mascots contribute to a hostile environment. An assistant vice president in the University of Oregon’s Office of Equity & Inclusion, Ball said: “Those logos say, ‘You’re less than, and we’re superior.’ They’re taking control of our image, saying, ‘This is what an Indian looks like, you should be proud.’”

Se-ah-dom Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock, Yakama, Nez Perce) testified: “The continued use of Indian mascots teaches Oregon students that it is acceptable to stereotype, that it is acceptable to objectify, that it is acceptable to be culturally abusive.”

Following the hearing, Edmo wrote to me that the issue was being reported as one opinion versus another, but that it’s about informed opinion. “There is a growing body of psychological evidence that links negative social identity development and low self-esteem of Indian young people with the presence of ‘Indian’ mascots, logos and imagery in schools. Research also indicates that it promotes discrimination, pupil harassment and stereotyping.”

Edmo, who is vice president of the Oregon Indian Education Association, says, “OIEA is seeking to protect this and future generations of Indian students in Oregon, as well as hold our state accountable to their commitment to provide a socially and psychologically safe learning environment for all students.”

The Chemawa Indian School and its team, “Braves,” are located north of Salem but would not be affected by any state ruling because they are federally funded and operated by the Bureau of Indian Education. “Indian” mascotting began at federal Indian boarding schools, such as Chemawa, some 130-plus years ago as part of the federal government’s attempt to deculturalize and “civilize” Indian children by separating them from their families, nations and lands, and instilling new allegiances to schools and teams.

As Oregon moves toward ending its schools’ racist tradition, this would be a good time for the federal government to end the tradition it began in the late 1800s and eliminate the “Indian” sports stereotypes in its Indian schools. As in Oregon, there will be some Native people who have internalized these “Indian” sports identities and who will fight for them, but keep the true goal in mind: the health, safety, well-being and identity of the actual Native students.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee) is an award-winning columnist and a poet, writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples to protect sacred places and recover more than 1 million acres of land. She is president of the Morning Star Institute, a national Native rights organization in Washington, D.C.