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Native American mascots in schools harmful, should be dropped, Utah legislative panel says

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The marquee at Bountiful High School in Bountiful is pictured on Monday, July 13, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A resolution that acknowledges the harms of using Native American mascots in Utah public schools and encourages their retirement will be debated by the House of Representatives.

The House Education Committee voted 6-5 late Monday to give HCR3 a favorable recommendation, although some committee members who voted “no” said they wanted the bill to move forward to the full House of Representatives with changes.

The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, also encourages the Utah State Board of Education, school districts and charter schools to provide instruction in Native American culture and history.

“Native American mascots and the lack of education are hurtful to all of our students,” said Weight, a retired schoolteacher.

“I have known and know today Native students who do not attend school events because they literally cannot face the portrayals of their Native peoples by the mascots in schools, so they don’t attend. It actually hurts their academic success, according to American Psychological Association, and it’s because of the damaging messages to all students, and the damaging effects on self-esteem and the heritage of Native American youth,” she said.

Weight is an alumnus of Bountiful High School, which last fall launched a process to retire its Braves mascot, which has been in place for 50 years.

The nonbinding resolution applies only to K-12 public schools, not colleges or universities, Weight said.

James Courage Singer, an assistant professor of sociology and ethnic studies at Salt Lake Community College and a tribal citizen of the Navajo Nation, said a lack of state oversight “has allowed scores of public schools to misrepresent indigenous Americans. In place of accurate portrayal, we see counterfeits based on a reimagined identity popularized in old Hollywood films. The repercussions have been psychologically harmful to Native American student and perpetuated stereotypes among their non-indigenous peers.”

Mallory Rogers, a 2013 graduate of Bountiful High School, who petitioned the Davis School District and her alma mater to change its mascot, said her yearbooks are “littered with depictions of white students wearing red face and caricatures of Native people. Our mascot gave students at rival schools the license to mock indigenous culture and dehumanize Native Americans under the guise of high school rivalry.”

Meanwhile, “the Braves mascot gave me and my fellow students license to mimic religious ceremonies and regalia and perpetuate stereotypes in the name of school spirit.” she said.

“It is important to end cultural appropriation now,” she said.

No one testified against the bill, although some committee member urged Weight to amend it to encourage community conversations about the mascots rather than calling for them to establish processes for their retirement.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, spoke in support of the resolution, explaining she is of “Cherokee descent and a lot of people claim that, but I really am.”

Birkeland said Native American youth are at particularly high risk of suicide and their mental health needs should be taken into consideration.

“They’re at a high, high risk of suicide, more so than most other children in our state. I don’t say that lightly. I say that because we need to recognize who they are, what they’ve been through and where they are today,” she said.

Birkeland said she particularly appreciated the education component of the resolution but she questioned language to encouraging communities to establish processes to retire Native American mascots, indicating she preferred asking communities to consider retiring them.

Weight said she will continue to work with drafting attorneys to further refine the resolution before it is debated in the Utah House.

Voting for the resolution were: Weight; Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray; Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay; Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan; Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden; and Craig Hall, R-West Valley City. Those opposed: Birkeland; Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake; Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan; Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo; and Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara.