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New anti-mascot bill introduced in California legislature

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Undaunted by the defeat in 2002 of a bill that aimed to ban the use of American Indian mascots from California schools, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles has reintroduced the bill for this legislative round.

The bill contains some modifications from last year's version that Goldberg hopes will attract enough votes in the California Assembly. Last year a group of conservative Republicans and Democrats helped derail the bill which lost by a 35 to 29 margin.

If the bill is successful, California will become the first state to outright ban the use of American Indians as mascots, though individual school districts, such as the Los Angeles Unified have already banned the use of American Indian mascots. New York and Minnesota have adopted policies that discourage Indian mascots without making it legally binding.

Recent press reports place part of the blame for last year's defeat on the lack of tribal interest behind the bill. Curtis Notsinneh, a member of the Jicarilla Apache tribe who works in Goldberg's office, says this time around his boss made sure to garner stronger tribal support.

One of the organizations that Goldberg got on board this time is the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) a tribal gaming lobbying group which boasts 50 members.

Though CNIGA supported the last bill, this time they had their members vote on the issue in January and got unanimous consent from all member tribes to support the bill.

"We are usually busy dealing with gaming issues and most of our time and energy goes to that," says Jake Coin, executive director of CNIGA. "However, we decided that we should at least include a letter of support and make sure that our wishes on this issue are known."

Another difference between this and last year's bills is a broader definition of Indian lands, which are exempted under the provisions of the proposed law. While last year's bill allowed an exemption to schools on the reservation, this new version casts a wider net.

The new bill brings the definition of Indian country, for the purposes of exemption, in line with the federal code's definition. For example, off-reservation schools that are tribally affiliated or who are under some kind of more broadly defined Indian control are exempted from the new bill.

"Look, if schools have a historical connection to Indian culture or some kind of thing that truly honors Indian culture, then that's fine," says Goldberg. "However, people need to realize that these mascots actually demean Indian cultures."

Goldberg, a veteran of civil rights struggles, says that she felt the need to reintroduce the bill because she feels that these symbols are important for American Indian cultural dignity and feels that the mascot issue is therefore related directly to civil rights.

Though the debate over Indian mascots has been ongoing since the late 1960s and had some notable early successes, such as when Stanford University went from Indian to Cardinal red in the early 1970s the issue has taken on increased intensity within the previous two years.

Though he was not able to be reached by press time, Assemblyman Jay La Suer, R- La Mesa, an opponent of the bill was quoted in the San Diego Union Tribune as saying that the bill is "political correctness taken 18 steps too far."

La Suer also proudly boasted that he had once been a San Diego State University "Aztec," the school's mascot.

San Diego State University became a flash point in the debate last year when demonstrations were held on campus to protest the school's Monty Montezuma mascot and Aztec nickname. The school offered a compromise by dropping the mascot - who paraded at sporting events geared with a spear and a loincloth - and keeping the Aztec nickname.

Though the bill has solid tribal support, there are a wide variety of opinions in Indian country. One source who works for a prominent Indian agency says that some American Indians do not have a problem with some of the nicknames, such as "Indian," but take exception to more racially charged terms such as "Redskins."

However, the source, who asked to not be identified because it might bring undue controversy to his position also says that the Washington Redskins football team features a more dignified representation of the American Indian, whereas the Cleveland Indians baseball team features the cartoonish and grotesque "Chief Wahoo" as their mascot.

The bill is expected to go into committee in the coming weeks.