In the center of Ivy Pete’s high school’s office sits a glass case caging two Native American mascots in tribal dress. To her, they do not represent a real group of humans or a culture. They symbolize “the defeated and extinct Native American, akin to animals in a zoo,” she said.
Pete, a 16-year-old student from Spokane and member of the Paiute tribe, spoke in support of a bill introduced in the Washington Legislature to prohibit such displays in public schools, along with other Native American symbols considered by many to be insulting.
House Bill 1356 would ban the use of Native American names, symbols or images as public school mascots, logos or team names. Sponsors say such representation singles out the Native American community for derision and cultural appropriation.
“It makes it extremely difficult to validate my own identity when I’m constantly shown images of what I should look like or how I should act,” Pete said.
The ban would not apply to schools on tribal lands, schools that have enrollment boundaries that include tribal land, or schools in counties that contain a reservation or tribal trust land. However, such schools would need to seek the approval of the residing tribe, of which there are 29 federally recognized in the state.
If passed, the bill would not affect the names of the schools themselves, only their team names and symbols. The bill was brought forward by the only Native American person in the state Legislature, Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow.
Lekanoff said she was motivated to draft the bill from the momentum that grew over the Washington, D.C., National Football League team abandoning their “Redskins” name in July after pressure from investors and protesters.
The NFL name change was a win in a long nationwide fight led by Native American activists and leaders. In Washington state, it reinvigorated the controversy over Native-related names and symbols in high schools that goes back years.
In 1993, a resolution by the Washington Board of Education asked schools to review their names, logos, use of caricatures and behaviors to ensure they did not have biased or derogatory connotations. Another resolution in 2012 encouraged school districts to discontinue the use of Native American mascots specifically.
Change has been slow because, unlike most states, local school districts in Washington have the power to determine their own policies toward mascots, logos, and team names, leaving the Board of Education mostly powerless.
The Oregon Board of Education formally banned Native American mascots in 2012.
In a public hearing for the Washington bill on Friday, Lekanoff explained to the education committee the significance behind the cultural items she was wearing.
“The beadwork and patterns on my regalia are sacred, they are the patterns that describe who I am and where I come from,” Lekanoff said. “The regalia that Native Americans wear… is a generational, cultural teaching that runs through our bloodlines. Our regalia is the very essence of who we are.”
Though she knows some schools believe they are honoring Native Americans, the offensive symbols — often regionally inaccurate stereotypes — are “not a way in which we believe we are being honored,” Lekanoff said during the hearing held remotely.
Republican Rep. Joel McEntire questioned whether there was consensus among the Indigenous community, citing a 2016 Washington Post poll that showed the majority of Native Americans surveyed said they were not offended by the former Washington, D.C., NFL team name.
Lekanoff said attitudes were different when the poll was taken and public opinion has shifted since the NFL name replacement.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the “immediate retirement” of Native mascots and symbols based on scientific findings that the symbols cause harm to Native children and perpetuate stereotypes.
Lekanoff said at least 31 schools in Washington are still using Native-related nicknames such as Braves, Warriors or Indians. She hopes that jeopardizing funding for those schools will enact the change she wants to see.
“Native Americans are not animals, they are not symbols. They are people, communities and nations that deserve their respect and dignity.”