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Smoke Screens: Indian Mascots and Teaching Indian History in Oregon

Oregon's governor John Kitzhaber went on record saying he will veto Senate Bill 215. The bill, which has now passed the House and Senate, would effectively overturn the Oregon State Board of Education's 2012 decision to eliminate the use of race-based Native American mascots in Oregon Schools.

At issue here are both group and individual rights—sovereign tribal cultural property rights and Native student human and civil rights not to be discriminated against. That is, exposing individual Native students to mascotting, targeting and bullying for sport, recreation and entertainment, which are not dignified or honoring, and which involve race-based discrimination in violation of the human and civil rights. These rights are violated regardless of a “thumbs-up” from a few local elected tribal leaders. In fact, the vast majority of tribal Leaders in the United States have made their views on this issue known and have asked for a ban of the practice of mascotting.

If Senator Jeff Kruse (R-Oregon) and Representative Sherrie Sprenger (R-Oregon) were really interested in tribal sovereignty they both would have worked with Nine Sovereign tribal nations and tribal people in Oregon on issues beyond mascots. As a sponsor of this bill, attempting to fix this issue for the school her son attends, Representative Sprenger didn’t even know who her local tribe was, at the first hearing on this issue just over a year ago; and
apparently still doesn’t know, because according to her own bill, the tribe she would be getting permission from would be up in the air — Siletz is technically closest, however, she seems to think it would be, and is working with, Grand Ronde. The people of the area now known as Lebanon, Ore., were the Kalapuya people, who were removed to both the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations.

SB 215 binds the teaching of Indian History and Sovereignty to the use of a mascot—this is simply Kruse and Sprenger’s way of getting what they want and using the tribes and sovereignty as a smoke screen to mystify the situation for other lawmakers, who also don’t have a clear understanding of the politics and rights involved.

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It's refreshing and inspiring to see the courage and leadership that Governor Kitzhaber is showing by his commitment to veto this bill. History will be kind to Governor Kitzhaber when recounting this act of leadership and courage for Native American people.

If they are are really invested in the teaching of Indian history and sovereignty, Sprenger and Kruse can do much to ensure something like this never happens again! They could start by following the governor's lead and then changing her behavior and attitudes toward the use of these images. They don't belong to you, they never did and they never will. Let them go and show your commitment to education and honoring tribal people by sponsoring a bill that would require the teaching of Native American history and sovereignty as a requirement for graduation from high school by all Oregon students. That way we never have such a confused body politic on issues of tribal sovereignty. That's a legacy we can all get behind Representative Sprenger and Senator Kruse.

Se-ah-dom Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock, Yakama, Nez Perce) was born and raised in Oregon; her father, Ed Edmo, is from Celilo Village. She coordinates the Indigenous Ways of Knowing Program at Lewis & Clark College and is vice president of the Oregon Indian Education Association.