SACRAMENTO — Fed up from years of battling local school boards over what they consider an issue of basic civil rights, Native American groups are pushing legislation that would make California the first state in the nation to banish all Indian team mascots from public schools.
Local crusades to rid schools of the cartoon chiefs and tomahawk chops that many Native Americans consider culturally insensitive often run counter to popular sentiment. They almost always meet resistance from students and alumni bent on preserving tradition, as well as conservatives crying foul over political correctness. Sometimes they encounter opposition from other Native Americans.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday May 3, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Indian mascots-An Arcadia High School logo that accompanied a story on Native American mascots in Wednesday's Section A did not reflect changes made two years ago to the school's emblem. The school worked with the White Mountain Apache tribe to make the logo more culturally sensitive.
But so far in Sacramento, the activists have found virtually no resistance, and may be poised to win their biggest victory since Stanford University retired the Indians and embraced the Cardinal three decades ago.
"Locally, it is suicide," said John Orendorff, a Los Angeles school counselor and veteran of the mascot wars. "This is groundbreaking."
If it becomes law, the measure by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) would accomplish in a single stroke what activists have been attempting to do for years: running the Redskins, Apaches, Comanches, Chiefs and Indians out of school gymnasiums across the state.
Eventually, it could also mean the end of the Imperial Valley College Arabs, the Hollywood High Sheiks and a mass of other non-Indian mascots, because the bill's larger goal is to ban mascots and team names deemed derogatory to any racial or ethnic group from all K-12 schools and colleges.
Two existing state education commissions would act as arbiters of mascot taste, charged with sorting out which were officially offensive. Most Native American mascot names are identified in the legislation and would be phased out. Dozens of schools would be prohibited from purchasing logos, sweatshirts and uniforms that feature such mascots starting in 2003.
"Nobody is pointing a finger saying, 'You racist dog,'" said Goldberg, a former Compton teacher and board member of Los Angeles Unified School District. "We understand this was not meant to be offensive. But it is."
Native American mascots became talk-show fodder recently when an intramural basketball team at the University of Northern Colorado named itself the Fightin' Whites--and adopted a logo of a square-looking fellow straight out of the 1950s--to protest a nearby school's mascot, the Fightin' Reds. But the issue has been simmering a long time.
Though many Native Americans stewed for years about culturally insensitive depictions, it was not until the late 1960s, when the National Congress of American Indians led a drive to eliminate stereotypes in the media, that groups launched formal efforts to get rid of the images in sports.
Within two years, Dartmouth College scrapped the Indians and became Big Green, and Oklahoma got rid of Little Red, a dancer who skipped along the sidelines during football games. In 1972, Stanford cut loose the Indians and returned to the color Cardinal, a decision that has never been fully accepted by some longtime fans. It later adopted a dancing tree as mascot.
Numerous others have since followed suit, including L.A. Unified, which banned Native American mascots in 1997. In all, only about 1,200 of the 3,000 or so Indian mascots activists fingered 30 years ago still exist, according to the Morning Star Institute, a Washington-based Indian rights organization.
But many Indian mascots and nicknames remain--most prominently the Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League, and the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves of Major League Baseball. And a number of major public institutions have resisted change, notably the University of Illinois, where groups for years have protested mascot Chief Illiniwek.
"No one ever said, 'This is the redskin I want to marry,'" said Susan Shown Harjo, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that seeks to strip the Redskins of their federal trademarks to force a name change. "It's always, 'You dirty redskin.'"
In 1999, the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled in favor of Harjo's contention that a word identified in dictionaries as a slur should not be trademarked. The Redskins, who argue that the name honors Native Americans, have appealed.
Some schools have tried to walk a middle line, including San Diego State, where protests over Aztecs mascot Monty Montezuma led to modifications that made Monty a graceful ambassador rather than a bare-chested macho man meant to rouse the crowd. The dignified Monty satisfied few critics, however, and the controversy continues.
New York and Minnesota have asked schools to begin phasing out Native American mascots, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said last year that the mascots were "offensive to American Indians" and should be abolished. Still, no states have banned them. A measure to do so in Wisconsin last year died in committee.