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“Maine remains only state to fully ban Native American mascots. Why haven’t others followed?” USA Today asked in a headline last week. It’s a good question.
In May 2019, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill to prohibit the use of Native American names and mascots at all public schools and public universities and colleges.
The law was largely symbolic because two months earlier, the school board that oversees Skowhegan High School voted to stop using the name “Indians” for its sports teams. It was the last school in Maine to use a name considered offensive to Native Americans.
The school’s teams will now be called River Hawks, a name approved by the school board in October.
“While Indian mascots were often originally chosen to recognize and honor a school’s unique connection to Native American communities in Maine, we have heard clearly and unequivocally from Maine tribes that they are a source of pain and anguish.” Mills said when signing the bill in March 2019.
Rena Newell, a tribal representative for the Passamaquoddy Tribe from Pleasant Point, said Mills’ historic gesture signified the “start of a higher trust of promoting cultural diversity and awareness.”
“Today and [from] now on, it is our collective responsibility to the next generations to promote each other as equals, as individuals, and most importantly, as neighbors,” Newell said.
Maine was the first state with such a ban. It remains the only one. That’s shameful for the rest of the country.
As Maine’s Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac people have made clear, calling teams Indians, Redskins or using them as mascots, does not honor their heritage. Such names and imagery are disrespectful and hurtful.
Yet, hundreds of schools throughout the United States continue to use Native Americans mascots and names.
According to The National Congress of American Indians, there are still nearly 2,000 U.S. schools that still use Native American mascots and nicknames. Their database lists five mascots as the most common: “Indians,” which is still used by 799 schools; “Warriors” at 417 schools; 208 schools use “Braves;” “Chiefs” is still the mascot of 181 schools; and the “Redskins” mascot is still in use at 95.
The good news is that schools are dropping these offensive names every month. Earlier this month, for example, the Cobre Consolidated School District decided to retire the Redskins mascot at Snell Middle Schools in Bayard, New Mexico.
This year, 63 schools changed their mascots, according to The National Congress of American Indians.
These are all moves in the right direction, but the progress is much too slow.
It has also been slow among professional sports teams, but there were big, important changes in 2020.
In July, the Washington Redskins finally dropped their offensive name and logo. For now, the team is simply called the Washington Football Team. The move came after pressure from sponsors, most notably FedEx, which paid more than $200 million for naming rights at the Maryland stadium where the NFL team plays.
In December, the Cleveland Indians announced that they would change their name. However, the team will continue to be called the Indians until a new name is chosen, in 2022 at the earliest, according to team officials. The team had stopped using Chief Wahoo, an offensive caricature of an Indian, on its uniforms in 2018.
“The name is no longer acceptable in our world,” team owner Paul Dolan told the Associated Press last month. He’s right and that’s why the team should drop the Indians name now, not some time in the future.
The Cleveland baseball team became the Indians in 1915 in recognition of one of its players, Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot from Indian Island. Sockalexis, the first Native American to play Major League Baseball, was routinely booed and insulted during games.
Today, as more than a century ago, there is a better way to honor Sockalexis and all Native Americans than by naming sports teams after them or caricaturing them in mascots.
It is well past time to end the long era of offensive team names and mascots. Maine has led the way. Others should follow.