Michelle L. Price and Sam Metz
Associated Press and Report for America
CARSON CITY, Nev. — Nevada lawmakers are considering legislation to require schools to get rid of racially discriminatory logos and mascots and require officials to push for the renaming of mountains, trails or any other geographic points with racially offensive names.
The bill, which had its first committee hearing Tuesday, comes in the wake of a national reckoning over race that has led to school and professional sports teams dropping their mascots and activists and officials pushing to rename streets, peaks and other places that glorify the Confederacy or make offensive references to Native Americans.
“I think it’s clear to many people that we have a complicated and conflict-filled racial history in this country and in Nevada. One of the lingering legacies of that is in our language and in the names that we use for a lot of things,” said Assemblyman Howard Watts, a Democrat from east Las Vegas, who is sponsoring the legislation.
Watts’ proposal would require public school districts and charter schools to adopt policies barring the use of racially discriminatory names and symbols. It would require the Nevada State Board of Geographic Names to recommend that their federal counterparts rename any geographic features and places that have offensive names, including a Lincoln County mine called “Chinaman Diggings” and a White Pine County stream called “Little Negro Creek.”
Watts said his proposal expands on work already done to rename and replace names and symbols.
Most recently, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas retired its “Hey Reb!” mascot, described by the school as “a cartoonish figure modeled after the western trailblazers of the 1800s" that Native American students and others had called for the school to retire.
The university removed a statue of the mascot from its campus amid last summer's racial justice protests. In January, it announced it would retire it but keep the school’s Rebels nickname, despite its roots in Confederate imagery.
UNLV was founded in 1957. The mascot was created in the late 1960s, originally named “Beauregard” after a Confederate general in the Civil War. It was renamed “Hey Reb!” in 1982, years after the school removed Confederate logos but kept the Rebels nickname.
Watts, a UNLV almunus, initially intended to include college and university names and symbols in the bill, but amended an early draft to take them out after university staff said it would cost from $11.6 million to $16.9 million to make the change.
With “Hey Reb!” gone, both he and UNLV officials said they don't see a problem with preserving Rebels as the university's mascot.
Sabra Smith Newby, the university's Vice President of Government and Community Affairs, said the school's interpretation of the name “is that it is a spirit of non-conformance, of testing the boundaries, of innovating, and that is a spirit that we wish to continue.”
Watts' proposal does not include funding to help schools and districts pay for the changes.
In a budget impact report provided by the Clark County School District, district officials estimated about 20 out of 336 schools would need to undergo rebranding for a total cost of nearly $1.4 million. That includes the Western High School Warriors in Las Vegas, where the mascot is a Native American wearing a headdress.
Efforts to replace the mascot have garnered pushback, the television station KTNV reported in 2018. But only those in favor of the bill testified Tuesday.
The bill has also raised questions about who should have final say over what is offensive. It would allow schools to retain Native American symbols if given permission from local tribes. The provision would protect agreements like the one that Elko High School has with the Elko Band Council of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians. The council approves of the high school competing as “the Indians” and using a headdress logo, Watts said.
Marla McDade Williams, a lobbyist for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians, said mascots perpetuate racism and ignorance about Native Americans and are often children's primary reference points because of the lack of representation in popular culture. As an Elko High School graduate, she said the local tribe's approval didn't reflect the entire community or broadly consider who sees the headdress logo.
“I was a native student-athlete, and I had compartmentalize and separate myself from the jeering about my culture. As a student, you're powerless to do anything else," she said.
Price reported from Las Vegas. Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.