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Manning: South Dakota Taking Steps to Eliminate Native Mascots

South Dakota is considering legislation to discourage Native American mascots.

On Friday, the South Dakota House Committee on Education will hear a bill to eliminate the use of “team names, mascots or nicknames that are determined to be racially derogatory or discriminatory.”

The South Dakota mascot bill, House Bill 1147, is sponsored by South Dakota House Representatives Shawn Bordeaux, Kevin Killer, Steven McCleery, and Senators Troy Heinert and Jim Bradford. 

The proposed mascot bill was read for the first time in the South Dakota House of Representatives on January 28, and then referred to the House Committee on Education. In committee, there will be public testimony where citizens will be able to speak for or against the bill.

This proposed legislation comes on the heels of a resolution within the South Dakota High School Activities Association aimed at eliminating the use of stereotypical Native American imagery in schools. This resolution was proposed last November, introduced by SDHSAA board member and Sicangu Lakota educator, Dr. Roger Bordeaux. 

The SDHSAA resolution, in part reads, “after numerous empirical studies, personal anecdotes and recommendations from national organizations and federal programs, it is evident that stereotypical Indian imagery and Indian mascots cause harm,” and “THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED the South Dakota High School Activities Association encourages its membership to consider not using any stereotypical Indian imagery and Indian mascots that cause harm.”

The SDHSAA recently passed the first reading of the resolution, 8 to 1, in the last board of directors meeting in January. If passed after the second reading on March 2, the SDHSAA resolution will establish an official position for the activities association in regard to Indian mascots, while encouraging South Dakota schools to discontinue the use of stereotypical imagery and monikers of Native Americans.

According to the language of the SDHSAA resolution, the decision to abandon such stereotypical imagery and monikers is ultimately left to local control. In effect, the SDHSAA mascot resolution is honoring the sovereignty of school districts, yet the SDHSAA hopes that school boards will make responsible and informed decisions given the provided list of recommendations and empirical evidence. 

At the first reading of the SDHSAA mascot resolution, school board members from Sisseton High School and Woonsocket High School contested the resolution, as both schools carry the moniker “Redmen” and question the notion that their schools need to make any change.

Sisseton High School has been criticized for decades for the “Redmen” moniker and also for their annual homecoming coronation, in which non-Native students dress up as “Indians,” paint sundance symbols on their bodies and enact a fictitious ceremony and “vision quest“ in which a student “medicine man” selects the homecoming court. 

The Damakota Youth Group. Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning.

Last spring, a group of students organized a peaceful demonstration, protesting the Sisseton “Redmen” moniker and coronation, therein reigniting a decades-long battle to eliminate the use of “Redmen.” Since that demonstration, one year ago this month, some notable progress has been made in the State of South Dakota, however not necessarily within the Sisseton school district. 

Watertown High School, home of the Arrows and a similar homecoming coronation tradition, has taken steps to change their own questionable homecoming coronation, in which non-Native students also dress up as Indians. This change was prompted by a petition and meetings of the Watertown Superintendent and Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, William Mendoza. 

Watertown is currently in the process of changing their homecoming coronation, while making efforts to educate the community. Watertown superintendent Lesli Jutting told the Watertown Public Opinion Newspaper, “The images of Native Americans tend to be in a time warp. It’s not the new image of Native American people today: doctors, lawyers and teachers. I think we have to look at that and make sure it’s right for all of our kids. We need to make sure we’re treating all races with that kind of view.”

With the progress of the Watertown school board, the SDHSAA and the proposed South Dakota state legislation, the tides seem to be shifting, favoring the evidence and recommendations to abandon the use of Indian imagery and activities of “playing Indian.”

Still, Sisseton School Board member Ron Evanson spoke out against the SDHSAA resolution in the last meeting, criticizing the fact that the resolution really could not force schools to change. Evanson also purports that the “Redmen” moniker needs to remain, otherwise certain “tribal elders” would be very upset. Moreover, Evanson challenged the SDHSAA to create more authoritative language if they really seek change. 

South Dakota House Bill 1147 provides the legislative language, and should the bill pass, the SDHSAA resolution will be bolstered. Moreover, the proposed legislation will create the process for changing offensive Indian mascots, while also honoring the local control of tribes, giving tribes within the region of questionable schools with Indian mascots the ability to influence the outcome of the decision.

“It is time that we stop using names that are offensive to people,” South Dakota House Representative Shawn Bordeaux told ICTMN, “especially in our school systems, where education on the meaning of these names should take place.”

In a related issue just months ago, the school board of McLaughlin High School in McLaughlin, South Dakota, voted in September 2015 to discontinue the use of their mascot, “Midgets,” after receiving a letter from Little People of America, encouraging McLaughlin to consider the harm of the name. Their new mascot has yet to be selected.

ICTMN will continue to report on the progress of HB1147 and the SDHSAA resolution.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.