U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Holds Hearings on Native Mascots in Nebraska Schools

Dec. 17, 2020, 4:35 p.m. ·

(Photo taken from NET coverage of 2014 Class C1 Boys Basketball Flashback, Bishop Neumann vs. Wahoo)

In testimony sessions this week with the Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, local Tribal leaders said it’s time for schools statewide to have a reckoning around the use of Native American names, symbols, and images for their mascots.

The conversations came soon after the Cleveland Indians announced the team would begin the process of retiring its name and Native American mascot, which both had been widely criticized for popularizing racist depictions of Indigenous people. And in July, the Washington Football Team made its new name official after dropping its previous name, a racial slur for Native Americans.

According to the Nebraska School Activities Association, 22 schools across Nebraska use Indigenous mascots: 11 teams called the “Warriors”, seven dubbed the “Indians”, one called the “Chiefs”, one the “Braves” and two “Chieftains” teams.

Winnebago Chairwoman Tori Kitcheyan testified on the “invisibility” of Indigenous people in American life, and how many communities’ only exposure to Native imagery is through racist sports mascots.

Citing a study conducted by the nonprofit Reclaiming Native Truth, Kitcheyan said over half of Americans are “not acquainted” with Native Americans, and that a lack of visibility in everyday American life has consequences for the wellbeing of Tribal members. “Invisibility leads to a void that gets filled with derogatory names, imagery, and opens the door to misconceptions, racism and discrimination against my people,” Kitcheyan said.

She referenced an incident in 2015 after the Winnebago Indian High Boys Basketball team qualified for the state championship. After the team defeated Wahoo 66-55 in the final match, a commentator for Wahoosportsonline.com remarked the team would celebrate “in the streets” with “firewater” that night. “Firewater” has historically referenced high-proof alcohol “given to Indians by the military to dull their judgment and get them to sign treaties.”

“One reckless and stupid comment stopped everything in its tracks and cast a pall on our celebration,” Kitcheyan explained. “Obviously, this type of behavior causes hurt, anger, confusion, and affects our children's self esteem and identity to occur at such a moment such a celebration ... it won't be forgotten.”

Alexandria Flanders, a member of the Winnebago Tribe who also descends from the Oglala Lakota and the Sac and Fox nation, recalled painful memories from childhood school sports, where attendees shouted racist battle cries at the opposing team called “the Indians.”

“I remember the floats with the banners hanging off of the sides reading ‘scalp those Indians’ and ‘kneel to your conqueror,’” she said. “At the time, I didn't understand the impact and the importance of a mascot and rather, a living, breathing human being that is being represented as a mascot. A child may not think too deeply into historical trauma if they weren't taught that.”

Flanders later transferred back to her old school on the Winnebago reservation, and now serves as president of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Intertribal Student Council.

During her time at Winnebago Public Schools, sports teams used a Native American mascot, and were named the Indians. But since graduating, she remarked the school has “strayed away from the stereotypical imagery.”

(Photo courtesy of Winnebago Public Schools)

“They're taking pride in the fact that they’re in school on the reservation, with mostly Indigenous students who attend the school,” she said. “And that's why the logo for the school is not an Indian head anymore, but rather a ‘W’ for Winnebago, with a feather that is attached to it.”

An Uncertain Path Forward

During both sessions, attendees raised the idea of the Legislature banning Native mascots, which Flanders and Kitcheyan supported. Chairman Larry Wright of the Ponda Tribe and Omaha Tribe Chairman Everett Baxter also said they see a ban as a positive step forward.

But at a second testimony session on Wednesday, some speakers including State Senator Anna Wishart expressed uncertainty about how a ban would proceed at the state level.

“In Nebraska, we are a local control state, especially when it comes to education policy. And philosophically, I generally do not vote for a lot of statewide mandates, I believe that decisions are best made at the local level,” she said. “There are obviously always exceptions to that, but if our state were to look at doing a statewide mandate, that would be very unusual.”

Jay Bellar, Executive Director of the Nebraska School Activities Association indicated support for ongoing discussion.

“At the time, the leaders of the Communities in Schools did this in an effort to honor people who inhabited these areas ... they believed choosing the Native American mascot was paying homage to their local history,” he said. “However, it has come to light now, the very people in these communities [do not] feel honored, but instead feel these mascots can be demeaning and/or racist.”

But he stopped short of saying the NSAA would pursue any bans.

“We have nothing in our bylaws constitutions that say that we dictate what conference a school is in, and what their colors are going to be, what their mascots are going to be, that's strictly done by them,” he said.

Any policy change would require support from the NSAA board. Jose Soto, Vice President for Access/Equity/Diversity at Southeast Community College urged the organization to pursue that shift.

“I've been in this conversation for about three, three and a half decades. And it's a wonderful conversation to have, but those conversations have never led to any action,” he said. “So what I'm looking for is not platitudes and statements of understanding, what I'd like to see is action.”

Bellar also acknowledged that forcing schools to switch mascots could lead to districts footing the bill for renovating their gyms and fields, producing new merchandise, and replacing uniforms. Senator Wishart floated the idea of easing those financial questions for schools by legislating funds from the state to help with any transitions.

That idea also drew mixed responses, including suggestions that while incentives could work better than sanctioning schools who keep their Native mascots, some still may not act without sanctions in place.

University of Nebraska at Omaha Professor Edouardo Zendejas supports Legislative action, but says combating ignorance around Native American culture also calls for a change in statewide curriculum around Native history.

Since beginning teaching in 1994, he said students in Nebraska are taught “very little” about Indigenous history, including widespread Native genocide committed across land now known as the United States. A failure in education, he says, ultimately impacts policy and wider conversations around respecting Indigenous communities.

“I would say to those administrators and educational leaders and legislators today, if you don't want to legislate Indian mascots out of existence, at least legislate a truthful and accurate Native history into our curriculums,” said Zendejas.

“They get ‘Christopher Columbus discovered America, ’... the ‘pilgrim Indian Thanksgiving myth,’ he said. “And maybe the students get the Cherokee Trail of Tears.”

Citing research that the use of Native mascots negatively impacts mental health among Indigenous students, Nebraska Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt agreed with Zendejas, adding he sees a “basic moral imperative” in addressing the issue. Part of that includes increasing education and representation around Native American history in schools, including on the playing field.

“Ultimately what we want is a better understanding of, of the communities and respect for the cultures … and so if you end up in some type of concern over if this is the right decision based on local control, I think that would be a bad outcome,” he said.

He later commented that continuing to assume the issue will be resolved locally would be “a mistake”.

“I think the better outcome would be that we get to the deep meaningful conversations of why this is the right decision, and that we would be able to accomplish that and people would understand.”

The Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will host one more testimony session on January 7.