SACRAMENTO, Calif. - For the second time in the past year the California Assembly voted down a bill that would have prohibited schools from using American Indian mascots.
The use of sports names, symbols, mascots and logos depicting American Indians by non-Indian teams and organizations is offensive to many American Indians.
On June 5, the California Assembly voted 37 to 31 in favor of the measure, only four votes shy of the Assembly majority needed to pass the legislative chamber. There were 12 abstentions.
The bill was largely spilt along party lines as every single Republican member of the California Assembly voted against the bill.
The bill's author, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, had tried to make modifications to the original bill that she had authored last year.
The problem at that time for some lawmakers was ironically from some California Indians, some of whom had opposed the bill which had made an exception for tribal lands, but did not include Indian schools located off tribal lands. This time around Goldberg saw to it that off-reservation tribally affiliated schools would also be exempt from the proposed law.
Also exempt were schools that had permission to use American Indian-related mascots from nearby tribes.
This time around Goldberg had also enlisted the help of some prominent Indian organizations, including the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), and the politically powerful Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians.
The bill's support largely stemmed from liberal democrats in the Assembly, some of whom spoke passionately about the bill from the Assembly floor. One of these speakers, Assemblyman John Longville, D-Rialto, rhetorically asked opponents of the bill how they would feel if a school had the name "Darkies" instead of "Redskins" as its mascot.
In particular, to American Indians the name "Redskins" is a derogatory term that for at least 300 years has been used to insult, ridicule, deride, and generally cast prejudice and hate upon American Indian peoples. The term has been used and continues to be used as a racial epithet. Indian peoples recognize that when attached to sports teams this pejorative term becomes institutionalized within society, and not only disparages American Indians directly but, with continued use, has the effect of appropriating American Indian image and identity. The term's reprehensible origins are well documented in history. Native peoples believe that support of its continued use by politicians, in this context, exhibits contempt for American Indians.
Opponents characterized the bill as trite and some suggested, as did Assemblyman Rick Keene, R-Chico, that schools with an Indian theme are actually honoring tribes.
However, as American Indians often recognize and the legislation reflects, there exists a substantial distinction to be made between that which constitutes self-description and that which does not. When the Notre Dame football team first named itself "The Fighting Irish," it originated from self-description, not appropriation. Proponents of the legislation believe it is inappropriate to name a sports team after an ethnic or racial identifier. Any extrapolation of sports team names using ethnic or racial descriptions instantly reveals its patent absurdity.
Some of the debate tactics used by opponents were a little unorthodox to say the least. Witness Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, who said he attended Arcadia High School in Southern California, whose mascot is the Apache. Leslie sang his old school song during debate on the bill.
"That was just creepy," said Curtis Notsinneh, who works in Goldberg's office, in response to Leslie's song.
Notsinneh, a member of the Jicarillo Apache tribe, said that after the bill failed to get a majority, Goldberg decided to place it in the "inactive" file. He said under the rules of the California Assembly the bill would have to remain inactive until January of next year at which time it can be brought up for another vote.
"Basically," said Notsinneh, "this means that we have until January to get the four votes."
One initial Republican supporter of the bill, Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City, apparently flipped her position. After telling the press that she would vote in favor of the bill she voted against it in the end.
Though calls to Garcia's office were not returned by press time, Goldberg said that Garcia had told her she would vote in favor of the bill a day before the vote and also promised to bring a few Republicans along.
One source inside the capital says that Garcia may have been strong-armed by the Republican Caucus to vote against the bill. This squares with Goldberg's account, because she said that Garcia changed her position after meeting with the Republican caucus.
Another rumor floating around the halls of the capitol building is that Garcia wanted to author the bill herself.
Goldberg is hopeful that she will get enough support when the bill comes back for a vote next year. She is buoyed by the fact that there were 12 abstentions and said it is easier to convince people who have abstained than those who have already voted no.
Additionally Goldberg said that since this version of the bill, unlike last year's failed measure, is a two-year bill, thus allowing it to remain intact until next year.
"I still have three years left in the Assembly (until term limits force her to vacate her seat) and this bill will eventually pass in one form or the other," said Goldberg.
The bill aimed to be the first of its kind in the nation. New York and Minnesota have previously adopted official positions of discouraging schools from adopting American Indian names as their mascots, but have not made it legally binding.
Through Goldberg's actions California will continue seeking to join the trend of organizations and athletic programs nationwide that have eliminated the use of Native names, symbols, mascots or logos - decisions which have reduced these pejorative usages from approximately 3,000 in 1970 to some 1,200 today.