Utah tribal leaders protest legislation aimed to keep Native American mascots

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Native Americans and their supporters gather on the steps of the Utah State Capitol for a rally to oppose a resolution that would discourage the removal of Native American names or symbols from school mascots, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020.

Before facing east to the snowcapped mountains to lead a prayer, Eileen Quintana asked the 50 or so protesters who gathered at the Utah Capitol to raise their hands.

As they wiggled their fingers toward the blue sky, Quintana told them that they were all members of the same clan — regardless of their race or ethnicity.

“You are the five-fingered clan of this Earth,” she said. “We all are five-fingered. We’re humans. We’re on the surface of Mother Earth, holy, sacred being.”

But those who gathered Saturday morning say a Utah legislator’s push to have the state support Native American mascots dehumanizes those indigenous peoples who are living here. It takes their imagery and equates it to pets and animals typically used as sports mascots, said James Courage Singer, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters.

“Native mascots at their very core are dehumanizing,” he told the crowd. “If you look at popular mascots, they are often animals or occupations or, in our case, Natives. Natives do not deserve to be in that same category. We are sacred people. Mascots are not the way to honor sacred people.”

Dozens of protesters gathered on the Capitol steps to oppose the resolution, sponsored by Rep. Rex Shipp, which would discourage the removal of Native American mascots unless local officials “determine that there is a consensus amongst the affected individual Native American or other indigenous people” that the symbol should be dumped.

The Cedar City Republican’s resolution is a position statement — that Utah would encourage the “appropriate use” of Native American symbols by schools and discourage them from removing that imagery. It comes about a year after a high school in his community scrapped its controversial “Redmen” moniker.

Those at Saturday’s rally waved signs that read “Human, Not Mascot” and cheered as speakers asked Shipp to pull the measure just days ahead of lawmakers returning to the Capitol on Monday for this year’s legislative session.

Shipp doesn’t appear to be backing down. When reached by telephone on Saturday, he expressed surprise over the controversy and protest but didn’t give any indication that he’ll abandon the legislation.

He said the resolution is nothing more than a “blueprint” for Utah communities to follow as they wrestle with divisive decisions about whether to keep Native American mascots in their schools.

Many of the Native American mascots, he added, were put in place to honor Native American tribes.

“I’m not sure why they’re looking at this as a controversial issue,” he said. “The resolution is simply saying that if schools are going to use Native American names, we support [those] schools using the names, and encourage them to use them in an appropriate manner.”

Darren Perry, chairman of Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, countered that there was nothing honorable about Native peoples being used as mascots.

“So let me get this straight,” he told the crowd sarcastically. “After you murdered us on a genocidal scale, stole our lands, spread disease and decay among us, stole our children and sent them to boarding schools to be assimilated, forced sterilization upon our women, didn’t allow Native Americans in their own country to vote and destroyed our economics, you now want to honor our spirit by naming sports teams after us? Wow, we are so honored.”

Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, tribal chairperson of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, criticized Shipp on Saturday for not speaking with local tribal leaders before drafting the resolution. She said she found out about the legislation after a Salt Lake Tribune reporter called to ask her reaction.

“That’s not how you speak with sovereign nations or another governmental agency,” she said. “We were blindsided. We had no idea.”

Shipp said Saturday that he did reach out to Paiute tribal leaders about the resolution and never received a response. He said he’s open to having discussions with those concerned, adding that he’s heard from those for and against the legislation in the past few weeks.

The lawmaker worked on the resolution with an out-of-state group called the Native American Guardian’s Association, which advocates for retaining American Indian symbols and images in an effort to “educate, not eradicate.”

NAGA doesn’t defend sideline performers or cartoonish depictions of Native Americans, its representatives say, but it believes symbols should be modified for historical accuracy rather than rooted out entirely.

Shipp said he wanted to bring the resolution after seeing the difficulty his own community went through as it debated whether to discard the “Redmen” mascot from Cedar High.

The high school adopted the “Redmen” mascot in the 1940s to represent local Native Americans, but the symbol has spawned waves of controversy in recent years. Criticism reached its highest pitch in 2016, when a video circulated nationwide showing the school’s drill team in black braided wigs and headdresses for a Native American-themed dance routine.

The Iron County School Board formed a 24-person committee that studied the issue and ultimately supported changing the school symbol. Alumni, students and other community members spoke on both sides of the debate at three public hearings, and the board also accepted written comments, which were split almost down the middle.

Shipp said his resolution will help give guidance to other communities and noted that it won’t change any state laws.

But Borchardt-Slayton said these types of debates should be handled at the local level, without the state government’s interference. If Shipp wants to run legislation concerning Native American issues, she said, he should focus on bringing better education about Native American history and culture into schools.

“We want stronger representation in high schools,” she said. “We want our history taught. We want a course on Paiute history taught so that they know when they’re on that land, that was our land.”