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Nebraska schools could see new debate over Indian mascots

Posted at 1:23 PM, Jul 14, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — Nebraska schools with Native American mascots could see a new debate over their team names and logos if some state officials have their way, but quick action on the issue seems unlikely.

Members of the Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee are looking into whether Nebraska should require schools to replace such mascots and may hold a hearing later this year. Some committee members said they don’t see the need for statewide changes but would like school officials to discuss the issue.

Any proposed ban on Native American mascots would only apply to nontribal public schools, and the idea is certain to generate debate among the dozens that call themselves “Braves,” ″Warriors,” ″Indians” and “Chiefs.” The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs is looking into the issue, and the chairman of one of Nebraska’s four recognized tribes said he’d support a state mandate.

“As much as people say it’s meant as an honor, a lot of Native people see no honor in it,” said Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. “They’re stereotypes. If you put other races of people into a mascot caricature, it wouldn’t be acceptable.”

Several lawmakers on the State-Tribal Relations Committee said they would oppose any state mandate but want to encourage schools to talk about it. Sen. Anna Wishart, of Lincoln, said she’d support state assistance for schools that change their mascots to help cover the cost of new logos and letterhead.

“I think this is an issue best addressed in a grassroots way,” Wishart said. “I think it’s important to make sure Nebraska is a welcoming place for everybody, especially in our schools.”

Sen. Robert Hilkemann, chairman of the State-Tribal Relations Committee, said he wouldn’t mind a public debate but would rather leave the decision to individual schools, in part because the issue can divide people.

“If communities want to change their mascots, then that’s fine. Let them do it,” said Hilkemann, of Omaha. “I don’t want us a state to go in and start ordering schools to change the names.”

Matt Belka, a spokesman for the Nebraska Association of School Boards, also said name changes should be left to local districts.

Nebraska has more than 40 schools with Native American mascots. Although a few have retired them, none have done so recently. Omaha’s Millard South High School switched from the Indians to the Patriots in 2000. In 1971, the University of Nebraska at Omaha changed its mascot from the Indians to the Mavericks.

In May, Maine became the first state to ban the use of Native American mascots in its public schools and colleges. The measure passed unanimously in the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills, but the debate was mostly moot because the last public school with a Native American mascot had already retired it a few months earlier.

Advocates who want to replace Nebraska’s mascots say they perpetuate stereotypes about Native Americans and can hurt the self-esteem and academic performance of Native children.

“They weren’t created to make Native Americans feel bad,” said Jose Soto, a Lincoln activist and vice president for access, equity and diversity at Southeast Community College. “I agree with that and would never argue that point. However, the important focus for me is the impact it has on those who are targeted. It’s like, ‘You didn’t mean to insult me, but you did.’”

Soto, who is Puerto Rican, said minorities who protest such depictions are often criticized for being too sensitive. Soto plans to present the issue Thursday to the Nebraska State Education Association, which represents public school teachers.

Left unchallenged, Soto said the stereotypes can lead to other actions, such as face-painting or wearing feathers and war whoops that Native Americans might view as mocking.

“It starts to feel very uncomfortable,” he said.

But not all Native Americans agree.

Sen. Tom Brewer, of Gordon, the state’s only Native American lawmaker, said none of Nebraska’s school mascots offended him and he considered the issue a waste of time.

“When we go down rabbit holes on these little issues, we miss the opportunity to do things that could really help the Native population,” said Brewer, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. “A lot of the mascots in Nebraska represent a way of honoring the warrior spirit. If you’re a school and you want a good mascot, you want to be the chiefs or the warriors. You don’t want to be the fighting turtles.”