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Put Native Youth Back in Mascots Debate

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“Our cheerleaders dressed up one of our own [students] in a Halloween ‘Pokehottie’ costume and tied her to a stake after dragging her out on the field in shackles against her will. They proceeded to dance around her, acting as if they were beating her and treating her like a slave. This is the most sickening halftime show I’ve ever witnessed.” That’s how Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown described one of his experiences playing his rival team, the Calaveras Redskins, in high school in California. Stories like this are not only common for too many Native youth in our schools across the country—they’re part of a much larger problem for American Indian and Alaska Native people, especially youth.

While the issue has been brought into the spotlight again and again, most notoriously with Washington D.C.’s football team’s legal battles over their name, much of the debate around racist mascots and team names has been missing the point by ignoring the real impacts on Native youth. As detailed in a new report by the Center for American Progress, the mental health research is clear: the presence of these mascots and team names harm Native youth self-esteem and self-worth, undermine the understanding of Native people by non-Native people, and too often contribute to unwelcome and often hostile learning environments. This is all in the context of a suicide rate 2.5 times the overall national rate, poverty double the national rate, some of the worse education outcomes in the country, and severe substance abuse and depression. This is why major professional organizations like the American Psychological Association called for the immediate retirement of all racist representations—nearly a decade ago.

The debate raging in our nation’s capital over its professional football team has largely ignored these saddening realities. Instead, we find ourselves listening to radio conversations between non-Native people talking about fan sentimentality, merchandising economics, and whether this person or that person has the wrong intent in using the name. Again, this is all beside the point.

So how do we have a productive conversation again? While the fate of professional sports franchises like the Washington football team rest with the NFL and the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, there’s a lot we can do to support Native youth in schools who currently deal with these mascots and team names in their own communities. It’s time for the Dept. of Education Office for Civil Rights to use its full legal authority to issue guidance to school administrators and educators on how they impact the school learning environment and what to do about them. Additionally, state and local education agencies can rely on their own local civil rights laws and guidelines to do the same thing. Most recently, the Oregon State Board of Education banned all Native team names, mascots, and logos in 2012 based on a superintendent’s report. These are things public policy can support right now with the political will to do so.

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And what should be our ultimate goal? An end to all mascots and team names, in schools and in professional leagues. The longer we allow them, the longer we allow others to define who we are as individuals, cultures, and tribal nations. That’s not self-determination. Our young people deserve the opportunity to define themselves and their futures without the harmful baggage of mascots and team names.

Erik Stegman is Associate Director at the Center for American Progress. Previously he served as staff Counsel at the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and as a Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Education.