Lawmakers considering resolution on retiring Native American mascots in Utah public schools

A House committee narrowly approved a resolution to discourage the exploitation and appropriation of Indigenous culture in Utah schools.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo via AP) On Jan. 11, 2019, 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" remains a city marker in the southern Utah town despite a decision to change the high-school mascot that inspired it. Utah lawmakers are considering a resolution which encourages all Utah public schools to retire their Native American mascots and Indigenous stereotypes.

A resolution in the Utah Legislature encourages public schools to work with local tribal leadership to retire their Native American mascots.

Sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, HCR3 encourages K-12 public schools to retire their Native American mascots and emphasize education on Indigenous history and culture, particularly of the tribes that lived in the geographic area of the school.

HCR3 — which would not be binding law, but a statement of encouragement — narrowly passed the House Education Committee 6-5 and now goes to the full House approval.

“Native American mascots and the lack of education are harmful to all our students,” Weight said. “I have known Native students who don’t attend school events because they literally can’t face the portrayals of their Native peoples by the mascots in these schools.”

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, conducted a smudging ceremony during the House Education Committee, using sage and an eagle feather to make sure those attending were “together in mind, thought and spirit” as the issue was discussed.

“There are negative connotations that are received by Native students,” Johnson said. “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.”

An American Psychology Association study conducted in 2005 found that Native American mascots harm Indigenous students’ social identity and self-esteem.

However, HCR3 doesn’t specify that all Native American mascots are required to be changed. For example, tribal sovereignty recognizes the Northern Ute Indian tribe’s authority to enter an agreement with the University of Utah for use of the Ute name. The tribe may void the agreement if the terms aren’t met.

In addition, if a school is named in honor of a Native American, they could choose to retain the name of the school. In this case, the resolution would elevate the degree of education and awareness around the name of the school, including the culture, heritage and traditions of the Native tribe or person it was named after.

The case is different with public high school mascots like the Indians, Braves, Red Men and others because of their nonspecificity. “No one tribe has the authority to regulate these names, images and practices. The lack of proper oversight has allowed scores of public schools to misrepresent Indigenous Americans,” according to James Courage Singer, sociology and ethnic studies professor at Salt Lake Community College, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters and tribal citizen of the Navajo Nation.

“Sometimes we perpetuate a subtle form of bigotry and racism that lies underneath the use of mascots,” Johnson said. “For example, war paint being put on by high school students. To them it’s cool, they think they’re going into battle due to competition. It’s a disgrace that they use war paint that way. When Natives went to battle, they were protecting their home, property, lands and family.”

Native dances and songs considered sacred to tribal communities have also been exploited in public school settings. “Cedar High School’s drill team did a Native American dance during their halftime show at a basketball game,” Johnson continued. “The Native community of Cedar City vented to me, saying the drill team was out of line. They said [the drill team] never asked permission and were disrespectful.”

Bountiful High school announced it would be retiring its “Braves” mascot on Nov. 30.

Bountiful alumni Mallory Rogers said she “unwittingly participated in the exploitation and appropriation of indigenous culture” during her high school years. “The Braves mascot gave me and my fellow students license to mimic religious ceremonies and perpetuate stereotypes in the name of school spirit. We painted our skin red, donned headdresses and feathers, wore warpaint and swung our arms in Tomahawk chops,” Rogers said.

Oftentimes, there is a depiction of honor and stoicism when a student in red face imitates an ancient, mystical ritual. “It’s an act. It’s all part of the pageantry,” Courage Singer said. “We were fighting for our lives and our homelands. Settlers and military alike killed indiscriminately men, women and children. There’s no reason to romanticize violent extermination. [Mascots] trivialize the violence, softening the blow of historical facts.”

A current Bountiful High junior, Paige Mayfield, spoke in favor of the resolution. “There’s little to no Indigenous cultural education occurring in our classrooms and the instruction we are receiving is lacking in quality,” Mayfield said. “Just last week in my U.S. history class, I heard a classmate describe a Native cultural ceremony as ‘cultish.’ It’s easy to see that at the root of this behavior is a lack of basic understanding of Native culture.”