When 17-year-old Ivy Pete walked the hallways of her high school every day, she was greeted by Native American imagery painted in murals, photos of alumni wearing headdresses and shadow boxes of misappropriated regalia on the walls. In a glass case stand two mannequins, a man and a woman wearing traditional regalia in the style of the Great Plains tribes of the Midwest rather than the Coast Salish people of Washington state. Pete likened walking past the mannequins in a box to being at a zoo.
“It’s great that our education system is trying to share our cultural knowledge, but they’re doing it inappropriately. It’s not OK to do that at the expense of the real depiction of Indigenous people and mythologize our culture,” said Pete, who uses she/they pronouns.
As a runner on the cross country team at North Central High School in Spokane, Wash., she was required to wear a uniform with her school mascot written on it — “Indians.” As an Indigenous student of Paiute heritage, they felt it was past time the school changed the mascot.
“I put a piece of black tape over where it says ‘Indians’ on my uniform,” they said, a move that nearly kept her from participating.
To “fight the power,” Pete chose not to put the school mascot — an “Indian head” wearing a warbonnet, a headdress male leaders of the Great Plains tribes traditionally wore — on her letter jacket. In its place was a marmot, a small rodent found locally and the unofficial mascot to some students. But that didn’t always go over well.
“I’ve had people in the grocery store say, ‘Why is there no Indian on your back?’ Alumni, 60- to 70-years old, cursing out racist slurs and attacking our Native kids,” she said.
Inspired by her experience at North Central High School and her family’s long-standing fight against the use of Native mascots, Pete helped write a bill to prohibit the inappropriate use of Native American names, symbols or images as public school mascots, logos or team names.
House Bill 1356 took effect July 25, a little over a year after the NFL’s Washington Football Team removed its mascot and two days after the Cleveland Indians announced it would change the team name to the Guardians.
Pete, like many other Washington students, will return to school this fall with a new mascot. She’ll be spending her senior year as a member of the North Central High School Wolfpack.
When North Central revisited the topic of changing its mascot this spring, Pete said many expressed love for the school’s icon, claiming it honored Indigenous people.
“Every single community has a connection with their antiquated symbols” Pete said. “But there aren’t any other races that are used in this way. And that should raise a red flag.”
The argument that Native mascots are symbols of respect is one that activists and the bill’s backers are used to hearing.
“If you want to honor us as the first Americans, first ask us,” said Washington State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, who is Tlingit and Aleut and the only Native American currently serving in the Washington State Legislature. The democrat serves the 40th District, which includes San Juan and portions of Whatcom and Skagit counties.
In a 2016 poll, the Washington Post found 90 percent of Native Americans did not find the Washington Football Team’s former name disrespectful. The poll has since been used by those who want to keep the mascots as proof that they are not derogatory.
But groups like the National Congress of American Indians have been saying otherwise for decades. In 1968, group launched a campaign to end negative and harmful stereotypes of Native Americans in the media and popular culture.
“Rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples,” the National Congress of American Indians wrote in a 2013 report.
The report cites a series of studies done by psychologist Stephanie Fryberg, an enrolled member of the Tulalip Tribes. In her research, it was found that the mascots protect a romanticized, homogenized stereotype of Native Americans that do not reflect the diversity of tribes, but rather lead to others equating Indigenous people as “frozen in history” and “primitive, aggressive and warlike.”
“I think the bill is very important in protecting the rights of Native people and frankly it’s taken too long,” Fryberg said in an interview with McClatchy. “The psychological data suggest in every domain there’s absolutely no benefit of using Native mascots on Native people.”
Fryberg’s work also concluded the images are harmful to Native youth, impacting their confidence and sense of identity.
“There is so much harm on the individual level with decreases in self-esteem and increases in depression and suicidal ideation. It affects the way they see their potential. It’s important that we move away from the use of Native mascots that perpetuate these stereotypes, especially in an educational environment,” Fryberg said.
In 2019, she led a study that contradicted the Washington Post poll, finding that the majority of Native Americans opposed the Washington Football Team’s previous mascot. Though she admits not all Native Americans agree, even within her own tribe.
Rep. Lekanoff introduced the legislation in February 2021, at a dark time during the pandemic when the country experienced an economic downfall, loss of jobs and rise in racism, she said.
“If we’re going to overcome racism, if we’re going to be a resilient America... we have to first honor the first Americans,” Lekanoff said. “And that’s raising them up and acknowledging that they are a people. They are not an animal or a character.”
But some still say the mascots and team names are an honor, citing tribes’ involvement with the schools. In the 1990s, North Central High School considered changing its mascot, but through consultation with the Spokane Tribe of Indians the school kept it, according to a North Central alumni newsletter. As the mannequins in the hall of North Central were donated by the Spokane tribe, some alumni had hoped to consult with the tribe again to keep the mascot under an exemption in the law. But the new mascot is decided and the tribe’s preservation program will take possession of the mannequins.
“It’s OK to not look like the mannequin in the case. That mannequin in the case does not represent us. All tribes are different,” Pete said.
When the bill was first introduced earlier this year, 35 of Washington’s 420 schools had Native mascots and seven were considering changes, according to the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association.
As part of the National Congress of American Indians’ “Ending ‘Indian’ Mascots Initiative,” the organization keeps a database of schools with these mascots, reporting 1,874 Native mascots in schools nationwide.
When the Washington state bill passed April, the group created a tracker specifically for state schools. Four school districts in the state — in Spokane, Renton, Marysville and South Bend — have formally retired their Native “themed” mascots since April.
Like these four schools, many others elected to change mascots before the bill even passed. But as of July 27, 24 Washington schools — one being a private school, which are not explicitly required to change their mascots under the bill — representing 19 districts still employ Native mascots. Of those remaining, three are located on tribal land, a National Congress of American Indians representative said in an email.
In Spokane, the school district is removing two mascots and the name of an elementary school named for General Phil Sheridan, who once said “the only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” The Renton High School Indians, whose mascot was adopted in honor of Duwamish Chief Henry Moses, announced its move to become the Redhawks. After consulting with the Tulalip Tribes, Marysville Pilchuck High School is moving on from its Tomahawks mascot and Totem Middle School will keep its name, but do away with the Thunderbirds mascot. And in South Bend, where the school board described support for changing the South Bend Junior/Senior High School mascot from the Indians as “underwhelming,” the change is moving forward.
Other schools are working to remove their mascots in accordance with the law. Bethel High School in Tacoma, will be removing its long-standing Braves mascot. The school has formed a committee that will get started after summer break, a Bethel School District representative wrote in an email.
Clover Park High School, home of the Warriors, is in the process of reviewing the bill’s requirements and has reached out to the Puyallup, Nisqually and Steilacoom tribes. The school located in Lakewood is reviewing information from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians received July 20.
“We are fully committed to ensuring our school mascots are culturally sensitive and honor the rich diversity of our community,” a Clover Park School District representative wrote in an email.
Before the Washington state measure, Bellingham High School was reconsidering its mascot with a task force formed in January. The school was known as the Red Raiders since it opened in 1938, but removed a Native American image from the school’s logo in 1998, according to earlier reporting in The Bellingham Herald. In May families, alumni and others with past, current or future ties to the school voted, with the final recommendation being a name change to the Bayhawks.
House Bill 1356 prohibits the inappropriate use of Native American icons effective July 25, but schools have until Dec. 31 to make their new selections. Uniforms or materials with the previous mascot, logo or name are allowed if purchased before Jan. 1, 2022.
But not all schools are required to change their traditions. The prohibition does not apply to public schools located on all or part of a tribal reservation or tribal trust lands. Public schools not located on or within tribal land that wish to keep their mascots must consult with their local federally recognized tribe to authorize the use. Some schools are exploring this option.
The Tumwater High School Thunderbirds in Tumwater are consulting with the Nisqually Indian Tribe, said Washington State Board of Education member Bill Kallappa, who is also the tribe’s education liaison.
“Agencies consult around fishing, hunting, water, land and environmental issues, why not education? Schools should really consult with us if they want to honor us in that way,” Kallappa said.
Rep. Lekanoff said tribal consultation is an integral part of the bill.
“To do otherwise is very paternalistic. It’s saying, ‘We know what’s best and we’re going to do it without even asking,’” Lekanoff said. “This little bill says reach across the table to the Native American and shake their hand. Get to know them, understand them, teach their culture in your school, invite them to the table and build a relationship. But treat them with the respect that they should be treated with.”
Though some Native Americans believe that no Native mascots should be used whatsoever, the bill aims for a happy medium, allowing tribes to make decisions about their local schools. Some schools have already proved successful in consultation, Lekanoff noted.
The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Senate gave permission to the La Conner School District to keep their mascot of the Braves earlier this month. The district voted to approve the tribe’s requirement of changing the imagery to better represent Coast Salish people on Monday, July 26. Updated uniforms were paid for by the tribe, said Lekanoff, who worked on the consultation.
The move is similar to the Spokane Indians, a Minor League Baseball team that consulted with the Spokane Tribe to update its iconography to be more appropriate last year.
Other consulting schools have been asked to make changes, like the two Marysville schools that will change their mascots. Additionally, school districts in Toledo and Kennewick are seeking approval to keep their mascots from the Cowlitz and Yakama tribes respectively, a National Congress of American Indians representative said.
Another important facet of the mandate is the funding it provides as many schools and naysayers cite costs as a reason not to make the changes. Though some tribes, like the Swinomish, helped pay for the transition in part, the financial burden should not be on tribes, Lekanoff said.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction will create and administer a grant program to provide transitional support to school districts.
Nearly half the states in the country have introduced or passed bills prohibiting the use of Native mascots or other race-based names for schools. Before last year, Maine was the only state to have a comprehensive ban against Native mascots. Colorado and Nevada recently passed bans of their own along with pending legislation in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“We’re proud that there are other states doing the same and becoming part of this conversation of recognizing, honoring and building relationships with federally recognized tribes, but also urban Native tribal communities,” Rep. Lekanoff said.
In 2013, the National Congress of American Indians published that over 2,000 schools had Native mascots, compared to the over 3,000 mascots fifty years prior.
In Washington, former Sen. John McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribes, first introduced the bill years ago, but it didn’t get through. Along with other Native American leaders, Rep. Lekanoff and Sen. McCoy worked to update the legislation.
“It really was a monumental moment within the Washington State Legislature on a bipartisan decision that said both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House thought this was a reflection of who we are as Washington state. That we are going to change, that we’re going to educate, that we’re going to honor the first Washingtonians,” Rep. Lekanoff said.
The Washington State Board of Education twice adopted resolutions, once in 1993 and again in 2012 following Oregon’s ban on Native American mascots, encouraging school districts to re-examine their policies and discontinue the use of Native American mascots. But the school board does not have the statutory authority to make such mandates, Kallappa said.
The new bill now passes that control on to the tribes.