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Resolution urging Utah schools to retire Native American mascots fails on House floor in surprising vote

Republican lawmakers spoke out against the measure, which failed 27-45.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Current naming is pictured around Bountiful High on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, after the school announced it would to retire The Braves name. The Utah House on Tuesday rejected a resolution encouraging schools to replace American Indian mascot names.

A resolution that would have encouraged Utah schools to retire any Native American mascots failed to pass in the House on Tuesday after several conservative state lawmakers spoke out against it — with one questioning whether they were being too sensitive and if animal mascots would next be considered too controversial.

“I’m not trying to directly compare the two,” said Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton. “But will we have PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] arguing against that as well?”

Some legislators shook their heads at the comment. One gasped. Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City and the sponsor of the resolution, tried to respond but was not allowed to, based on the rules for House proceedings.

The microphone was passed around to other lawmakers, who made similar opposing remarks, before she could give final comment on the proposal. At that point, Weight said the measure was about being “more conscientiousness of our Native American neighbors.”

Still, HCR3 was voted down, 27-45, mostly along party lines, with only a few Republicans joining in support.

The resolution was nonbinding and wouldn’t have forced any schools to retire their mascots. But Weight said it was meant to start those conversations about how using Indigenous imagery can be hurtful, urging K-12 districts to reconsider.

She has previously spoken directly to Gibson’s argument, saying that using Native American mascots makes a character out of a living people. And many are offended by it or feel disrespected. That’s far different than being, for instance, the “Bobcats” or “Hawks.” Humans should not be compared to animals, Weight has argued, and should not be treated likewise as mascots.

The lawmaker and former teacher began drafting HCR3 this fall while her alma mater, Bountiful High, was reexamining its mascot, “The Braves.”

At the school in northern Utah, the mostly white student body has for decades worn red face paint and feathers to dress up for events. And at football games, kids have done “the tomahawk chop” and called the other team’s entrance “The Trail of Tears.” That refers to the forced relocation of thousands of American Indians in the 1800s, who were made to move mostly to Oklahoma; at least 3,000 died along the way.

After facing a petition from some alumni and Native American groups, Bountiful High decided to quit using the mascot. It is currently in the process of picking a new one.

Weight said she’s proud of that and wanted to encourage other schools to consider a similar change. The resolution also would have advised the Utah Board of Education and local districts to incorporate new curriculum to discuss Indigenous peoples and cultures, particularly of the tribes that lived in the geographic area of a school. Much of that already exists, ready to use, from the Utah Education and Telehealth Network, which worked with local tribal leaders across the state to create it in recent years. But little of that is currently being taught in classrooms.

More education would have been required for schools that chose to retain their mascots, including those that have majority Native American student bodies and want to keep the names and logos. And it wouldn’t have applied to higher education in the state, such as the University of Utah, which has an agreement with the Ute Indian Tribe to use the name “Utes” for sports.

But even still, several lawmakers, all white men, spoke out against or questioned the effort.

“There’s not a consensus on this in the Native American community,” argued Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding. San Juan County, which is in his district is majority American Indian.

Republican Rep. Mike Winder of West Valley City (which is majority minority) also asked if “other ethnic groups that are used as mascots” in the state weren’t considered. He pointed to the “Fighting Scots” at Ben Lomond High in Ogden and the “Buckaroos” at Monticello High in southern Utah. The latter, though, refers to cowboys and is not a term associated with any race. There has also not been any concerted effort to get rid of the “Scots” mascot at Ben Lomond. Winder, though, did vote in support of the bill.

Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, added that when Cedar High in his jurisdiction switched its mascot from the controversial “Redmen” to the “Reds” in 2019, it was deeply contentious and there’s still ongoing debate about it. It’s come under question again, with two men winning school board seats in November who ran on restoring the “Redmen” name.

“You can’t believe the division that created in our community,” Shipp said, noting that his kids, who are white, went to the school and liked identifying as the mascot. “Somebody doesn’t create their nickname after Native Americans unless they’re honoring them.”

That has long been the argument of those who favor keeping the mascots, including some tribal members who wanted to keep the “Redmen.” But others, including other Native Americans in the state, have said that terms like “Braves” and “Redmen” are vague, discriminatory and don’t honor any specific tribe. And they believe it encourages students to adopt a stereotypical view of all Indigenous people, wearing war paint and hollering at games.

Virgil Johnson, a former tribal chairman of The Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation and the former chair of eight tribes in the state of Utah, spoke during the earlier committee hearing on the resolution and said: “There are negative connotations that are received by Native students. It affects their academics, as well as spiritual and social standings. Those mascots are derogatory. They’re harmful and perpetuate stereotypes that have been around in this country for a long time.”

As there are no Native American state representatives or senators in Utah, Weight said she worked with several tribal leaders and advocates to write the resolution. She also has a letter of support from Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Later in the day, a group called Change the Mascot UT, which is working to start conversations about Indigenous representation shared on social media that its members were “disappointed but not defeated” by the Tuesday vote.

Some schools in Utah that continue to use Native American mascots include North Summit High in Coalville, which also goes by “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).

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