Michelle Brown: Bountiful High must address legacy of racism by changing its mascot

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) Native American advocate Carl Moore stands in front of a mural of an Indigenous man meant to represent the Braves mascot at Bountiful High School Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Bountiful, Utah. While advocates have made strides in getting Native American symbols and names changed in sports, they say there's still work to do mainly at the high school level, where mascots like Braves, Indians, Warriors, Chiefs and Redskins persist.

Imagine googling the simple phrase “high school mascot.” An array of silly animal costumes from every beast imaginable begin to populate the screen. In addition to all the beasts used for entertaining crowds at sporting events and assemblies, picture a lone Native American more popularly known as “a Brave” at Bountiful High School.

Now imagine being a Native American from any tribe living in Utah, with the full understanding that the people in positions of power believe their portrayal of your race belongs among the lineup of the mascot beasts. It’s not a humanizing feeling.

Bountiful High School’s Braves mascot dates back to its founding in 1951, pre-dating when Native Americans were legally allowed to vote in 1957 in the state. Since July of this year, Bountiful residents and advocates for Native American rights have been actively petitioning school officials to change the Bountiful mascot. To date, no action has been taken.

Schools should be a healthy and safe environment where children learn and thrive academically, free of anxiety, depression, fear and oppression. It should also be a space where culture and ethnicity of all children are equally celebrated and appreciated.

Multiple studies over decades confirm the fact that Native American mascots cause psychological harm to Native Americans, including a study conducted by the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Education. When schools use culturally appropriated mascots, they are not only condoning the miseducation of true Native American cultures, values and belief systems, but also oppressing and neglecting the opportunity for culturally inclusive learning.

Culturally appropriated mascots disregard, ignore and disenfranchise Native American children who identify closely with their Indigenous cultures and value systems. Instead these children are classified, characterized and isolated by labels applied without their consent. And dehumanization inevitably leads to violence.

This mascot depiction of Native peoples is directly tied to the current pandemic of murdered and missing women, children and two-spirit individuals. Native American women and girls are 10 times more likely to go missing or be murdered than the general population in the United States. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, Utah ranks among the top 10 states for cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Human lives are being stolen, due in part because of racist ideology embodied by the continued use of Indigenous bodies as dehumanized mascots.

Before defending the tradition of perpetuating Native mascots, empathize with those who continue to plead, “Please stop.” Why are “white comfort” and “white tradition” prioritized over empathy for Native Americans directly impacted by negative depictions? Begin a new tradition of respect and do what is right by listening to Native voices and respecting the humanity of Native peoples on whose stolen land our homes, businesses, schools and churches sit.

The ancestors of current activists were never consulted in 1951 about the use of their likeness as a school mascot. They were denied even the basic right to vote for leadership and representation. Subsequent generations have objected, and never been heard.

Now, in 2020, as our country reckons with the nation’s foundation of white supremacy, it’s past time for Bountiful High School to acknowledge the racist history of its mascot, and make amends. On Sept. 30, I will be speaking to school officials to urge them to do just that. Will you join me? Send your letter of support to change the Bountiful mascot to ahogge@dsdmail.net

Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown is the chairwoman for PANDOS’ Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives committee. She lives in American Fork with her husband and young son.