New resolution would urge Utah schools to retire ‘hurtful and racist’ Native American mascots

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bountiful High School pictured on Monday, July 6, 2020.

A state lawmaker is calling on Utah schools to retire any “hurtful and racist” mascots that depict Native Americans — including at Bountiful High, where the mostly white student body has for decades worn red face paint and feathers as “The Braves.”

Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, who is an alumna of Bountiful, said Tuesday that the ongoing discussions there over whether to replace the name and symbols led her to draft the resolution for this upcoming legislative session. She believes it will help all districts in the state to examine their insensitive imagery now, too.

“Even 50 years ago when I was here, I never could identify as the mascot of this school,” Weight said during a news conference Tuesday in front of Bountiful High, where BRAVES was spelled out on the windows behind her. “It was always embarrassing, uncomfortable. And now it’s become shameful for me.”

After months of study, her alma mater is set to announce its decision Monday on what it will do with the mascot.

The debate started as part of the nationwide rallies against racism earlier this year that prompted some towns to remove statues and a handful of sports teams to reexamine their names. But the controversy has divided the city of Bountiful, just north of Salt Lake City, where many white alumni view the Braves as a legacy that honors tribes — and the mayor has told one woman who objected to be “less easily offended.”

Others say the name is racist and doesn’t refer to any one group of Natives.

Weight’s resolution is a position statement that wouldn’t have the same force as a law. If passed by the Legislature, though, it would mean the state formally supports the removal of Native American logos and names at K-12 schools like Bountiful High.

It would also advise the Utah Board of Education and local districts to incorporate new curriculum to discuss Indigenous peoples and cultures, “including the Native Americans that were first on Utah land,” Weight added. That includes lessons on the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, who lived on what is now Bountiful before white settlers arrived.

James Singer, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters, said at the news conference that the mascots are “inaccurate and dehumanizing” and reinforce hundreds of years of oppression of tribes, such as forcing them from their land.

Using Native people as a mascot, he said, turns them into caricatures and doesn’t acknowledge they still live and exist today. He mentioned the Navajo code talkers who used their native language to confound the Japanese in World War II. And he highlighted current U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, the first two Native American congresswomen. Those people aren’t celebrated with the mascots.

“I have only ever seen Native Americans mascots used to belittle or demean,” he said. “And what’s sad is that many claim that it’s in the name of fun. I’m sick and tired of seeing racism as something fun.”

Bountiful High is not the only school in Utah with a native mascot. In fact, North Summit High in Coalville also uses the Braves. And Escalante High in southern Utah goes by the name of the Moquis for a tribe nearby (though some question whether the term is actually a racist nickname).

A few have changed recently. Creekview Elementary in Price moved from the Chiefs to the Coyotewith little outcry this year.

Cedar High also switched its mascot from the controversial “Redmen” to the Reds with a debate similar to Bountiful’s last year. But that decision was far more contentious. And it’s come under question again, with two men winning school board seats this month who ran on restoring the Redmen name.

At the same time and in support of the Redmen, another state lawmaker proposed a resolution last year opposite to Weight’s that would have discouraged the removal of Native mascots. After several groups spoke out against it, it never got a hearing, though.

Cedar High first adopted the Redmen in the 1940s. Bountiful High became the Braves in 1951.

“Our resolution calls on them to take the opportunity to consider if this is really how we want to be identified as students, as teachers, as a high school community, as a school district,” Weight said.

Singer and several other speakers also pointed to prominent psychology studies that have shown that having a Native mascot can negatively impact the mental health of Indigenous students who attend a school. At Bountiful High, the student population is 94% white and state data says only a handful of American Indian students attend there.

Lemiley Lane, a junior there who is Navajo, has spoken out against the Braves mascot, saying many of the “traditions” that her classmates participate in are painful for her to watch. Her family has convinced the school to, so far, remove the drawings of Native American men, teepees and tomahawks that used to cover its sidewalks

And the school has promised that no matter what, students will no longer be allowed to paint themselves red and put on war paint. Historically, they have also done the “tomahawk chop” at events, though most Western tribes, such as those in the modern boundaries of Utah, never used tomahawks.

And at football games, some students still call the other team’s entrance “The Trail of Tears.” That refers to the relocation of thousands of American Indians in the 1800s who were forced from their homes in the East and made to move mostly to Oklahoma. At least 3,000 died.

“Representations matter,” Singer added. “And it’s time to show some courage and change the name.”

Mallory Rogers, a 2013 graduate of Bountiful High who started the original petition this summer to remove the mascot, said Tuesday that she used to participate in some of those racist depictions and wishes she hadn’t.

“Having a Native mascot gives students a license to participate in casual racism,” she said. “We can right a wrong here. It’s time for us to do better.”

Several current students spoke out, too. Paige Mayfield, a junior, said removing the mascot is an issue of kindness and respect. Eleanor Christensen, also a junior, said she wants everyone to be able to feel pride in the school.

Bountiful High formed a committee to discuss and study the issue. The 14-member group had its first meeting in September. In a brief statement Tuesday, Davis School District said that work will inform the school’s Principal Aaron Hogge, who will make the final decision. If he chooses to retire the mascot, a replacement will then be picked in the spring.

Hogge has previously said: “A mascot can have an impact on the unifying. It has come to our attention that some don’t feel that our mascot is that unifying.”