By Grace Hill
Michigan’s State Board of Education recently renewed its stand against the use of Native American mascots, logos, or nicknames for school teams. During its March 2017 meeting, the board passed a motion to give the state superintendent authority to withhold school aid funding from districts with offensive mascots, nicknames, and logos that had received notice but did not change them after a 60-day response period. The state’s attorney general subsequently issued a formal opinion that the superintendent did not have legal authority to do so. Michigan’s board had adopted a resolution recommending such mascots’ removal in 2003, which it subsequently reaffirmed in 2010.
According to Michigan board member Pamela Pugh, state residents who argued for eliminating the mascots faced discrimination. “It wasn’t just what they were going through with the mascot,” Pugh said. “To me, what was disheartening was what they were going through just by raising their voice. They were being met with a lot of name-calling.”
She expressed hope that further action would be possible despite the attorney general’s decision. “I would like to go back to see how we can address this,” she said.
According to a May report by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) president, 45 high schools in Michigan use Native American mascots, logos, or nicknames. The National Congress of American Indians reports that there are fewer than 1,000 such mascots nationally, although it is unclear whether that figure represents public school mascots or mascots in professional sports and other teams more generally.
Advocates for removal argue that portraying Native Americans in an inaccurate, stereotypical way further harms a group of students who already have some of the worst academic outcomes in the United States. Proponents of continuing the mascots’ use argue that the mascots are not meant to be derogatory and that changing them would be too expensive.
Most research concurs with those advocating the mascots’ removal. For instance, Fryberg et al. concluded in 2008 that exposure to Native American mascots decreased Native American high school and college students’ feelings of personal and community worth.
Schools in other states have also been slow to eliminate the mascots after board action. The Washington State Board of Education first passed a resolution in 1993 asking school districts to review names, mascots, logos, activities, events, caricatures, and behaviors that could be offensive. Oregon followed suit nearly 20 years later, in May 2012, when its state board passed a resolution endorsing elimination. The Washington board reaffirmed its commitment to the removal of biased, derogatory, or inflammatory mascots in September 2012.
Although not initiated by the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Massachusetts’s state legislature held hearings in May 2017 on a bill banning Native American school mascots. The bill defines a mascot as “a name, symbol, or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian tribe, individual, custom, or tradition,” and it gives examples of names that would not be allowed. California’s Racial Mascots Act of 2015 also prohibits public schools from using the term Redskins for team names, mascots, or nicknames.
Grace Hill is a research and policy intern at NASBE.