Washington’s public schools should abandon the use of Native American mascots. A bill moving in the Legislature would finally force the issue.

Reducing the images of diverse Indigenous peoples to mere mascots is wrong. Full stop. That’s why in 1993 and 2012, the Washington Board of Education passed resolutions suggesting school districts review their names and not use Native American terms like “Indians,” “Warriors” and “Red Raiders.”

Some schools heeded that advice. Port Townsend High School abandoned arguably the most racist of names, “Redskins,” in 2013. Some did not. Resolutions don’t have the force of law, and more than two dozen schools still have mascots linked to Native Americans.

At this time of national reckoning on race, when even longtime holdouts like the Washington Football Team and Cleveland Indians are changing, the state needs more than resolutions.

House Bill 1356 would ban Native American names, symbols or images as public-school mascots, logos or team names unless a local tribe authorizes the use and a school handles the branding respectfully.

Call it the “Spokane Exception” in honor of the Spokane Indians minor league baseball team. In 2006, the team considered abandoning its name. It consulted with the Spokane Tribe. Everything was on the table, including a new name, according to Andy Billig, who was the team’s president at the time and remains a co-owner. A unique relationship emerged.

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“Our approach is that the name ‘Spokane Indians’ belongs to the Tribe. We use it only with their permission, support and collaboration,” Billig said.

Today, the team’s jersey features “Spokane” written in the Salish language of the tribe, and Native culture is highlighted throughout the ballpark.

Honor Song performed by the Spokane Tribe of Indians prior to the NWL All-Star Game in 2015. (Courtesy of Spokane Indians)
Honor Song performed by the Spokane Tribe of Indians prior to the NWL All-Star Game in 2015. (Courtesy of Spokane Indians)

If schools can develop similarly strong relationships with local tribes that embrace their culture rather than co-opt it, Native mascots cease to be a symbol of white privilege and become an educational tool for deeper understanding.

The state House passed the Native mascot ban with overwhelming bipartisan support. It’s prospects in the Senate are strong. Billig, the co-owner in Spokane, also happens to be Senate Majority Leader Billig, and he supports HB 1356.

When schools change mascots, resentment and vitriol tend to come from alumni who feel that their team and their legacy is being taken from them. If one’s legacy is so tightly wound up in appropriating Indigenous culture and simplifying it to caricature, perhaps it’s time to reassess whether that’s a legacy worth fighting for.

New students who never attended a school with an Indian mascot will forge their own memories and legacy as Bruins, Spartans or whatever new mascot a school chooses.