A Utah lawmaker says the state should support Native American mascots

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) This Jan. 11, 2019 photo shows the mascot "Redmen" at Cedar High School in Cedar City, Utah. The southern Utah high school got rid of its “Redmen” mascot last year.

A Cedar City lawmaker wants the state to assert its formal opposition to stripping Native American names or symbols from schools — about a year after a high school in his community scrapped its controversial "Redmen" mascot.

The resolution sponsored by Rep. Rex Shipp would discourage the removal of these mascots, logos or names 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 position statement would lack the force of law if passed by the Legislature, but some American Indian leaders say they’re troubled the state would try to prescribe a blanket approach to these sensitive community decisions.

“It is important that legislation like this is defeated,” Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, tweeted Friday about the resolution. “It’s really unbelievable that this would even come up.”

And Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, tribal chairperson of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and a prominent voice in the debate over the Cedar City mascot, said there are strong arguments for eliminating mascot imagery, which can reinforce stereotypes and cause psychological harm to native students.

"At the end of the day, it's a mascot in a high school," she said. "But if it's hurting a child, then I have an issue with it."

[Read more: Is a ‘Redmen’ mascot racist or does it honor Native Americans? The debate is dividing a southern Utah town.]

Shipp contends that the Iron County School Board should have polled the local American Indians and the community at large before its 3-2 vote to discard Cedar High School’s “Redmen” mascot. He blames a “push towards political correctness” for splitting communities over symbols that some decry as racist and offensive and others defend as part of their local heritage.

“The reason the ‘Redmen’ name was originally assigned was ... to honor the Native Americans,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of them that felt like they didn’t want it changed. And so it was just a real divisive thing.”

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

“These names and images keep us alive even as we have become the smallest minority in a land that was once ours,” Eunice Davidson, a founding member of the association, testified at a November legislative hearing on Shipp’s resolution.

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

Cedar High 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.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) On Jan. 11, 2019, Mohey Tawa, the Cedar High drill team, performs at halftime of a basketball game vs. Canyon View.

Iron County School Board President Stephen Allen argues that extensive community input went into last year’s decision to change the mascot. His board formed a 24-person committee — of which Borchardt-Slayton was a member — 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, Allen said.

“For many people in the community, the process was too much. Others wanted more: more polling, more meetings and even a communitywide vote,” Allen, who voted to remove the mascot, wrote in an email. “There is no rule or policy or law on how to change a mascot — controversial or not controversial. And if there is to be one, it should be done at the local level.”

Shipp, whose wife and children graduated from Cedar High, said constituents appealed to him to get involved in the mascot debate. And while he doesn’t believe it’s the state’s business to mandate an approach to these situations, he decided to sponsor a resolution offering guidance.

“A lot of people that went to those schools; they kind of identify themselves with that. That’s kind of part of their history, the heritage of the community,” the Republican lawmaker said, adding that school districts should be sensitive about removing mascots and “not just helter-skelter make changes like that."

During the recent public outreach process in Cedar City, some Native American high schoolers did express pride in the “Redmen” mascot. Other American Indian students rejected the argument that the mascot was a unifying force in their school and described the racist bullying that they’d endured from classmates. One freshman tearfully testified that a classmate once said, “Native Americans should not have existed and should have been killed off long ago.”

Stories like those were enough to convince Borchardt-Slayton that the mascot and associated warrior head image were problematic, even though she’d grown up accustomed to the symbols.

“It didn’t occur to me that it was racist until it was pointed out by numerous people," she said. “It’s because of the society I lived in. ... I just assumed it was a social norm.”

The Native American Rights Fund argues that stereotyped imagery can create hostile learning environments for American Indian students and undermine their self-esteem, while also spreading misconceptions that affect native and non-native students alike. Because of the harms associated with these images, the American Psychological Association has recommended the retirement of American Indian mascots, symbols and images.

Matthew Campbell, a staff attorney with the Colorado-based Native American Rights Fund, said Shipp’s resolution seems to miss these potential harms and doesn’t adequately address the role that sovereign tribal governments should have in determinations about school symbols.

In this Friday Jan. 11, 2019 photo, a water tank sits above Cedar City, Utah, with the Redmen mascot of Cedar High School displayed on it. The painted image of a Native American and the name "Redmen" will remain as a city marker in the southern Utah town despite a decision to change the high-school mascot that inspired it. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Colorado several years ago studied the use of Native American representation in public schools, concluding that mascots should generally be eliminated, especially those that are “clearly derogatory, offensive, or misrepresent American Indian people or tribes.” Schools that retain their symbols should work in concert with federally recognized American Indian tribes to promote respectful use of them, the report states.

For instance, Colorado’s Arapahoe High School partnered with the Northern Arapaho Tribe on its mascot and uses a culturally specific warrior logo designed by a tribal artist, according to the report.

Ideas about what’s offensive can change over time and vary from one community to another, Parry said, which is partly why he opposes the resolution.

“There’s not a litmus test for it,” Parry said. “That’s why I say you can’t have a policy that broad-strokes it. That’s why you have to engage the local community.”

Borchardt-Slayton believes the Iron County School District did a good job of engaging the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, which has its headquarters in Cedar City, and bridled at Shipp’s suggestion about polling local American Indians.

“Representative Shipp cannot tell me, a sovereign nation, to poll my own people," she said, adding that she’s never met the lawmaker.

She and Campbell agree with the Native American Guardian’s Association that children need more education about American Indians — but they don’t believe mascots are advancing the cause. Reductive depictions do more to erase indigenous identities, Borchardt-Slayton said, especially if children are learning little about historical and contemporary Native American cultures.

“We’re not this historical figure, this mascot, this imagery,” she said. “We’re people. We’re here.”