Editor’s note: Part of a series looking at the debate surrounding some high school mascots as Washington’s NFL team and others have announced changes in 2020.
Pride and honor; history, too. Those are the reasons – flawed as they may be – people so often threw in the face of Maulian Dana.
And whenever that happened, she remembered something.
It was fall, shortly after 2005. A decades-long debate had often grown combative, but the board of Old Town High School in Old Town, Maine, voted unanimously to eliminate the use of “Indians” as its mascot. They later adopted “Coyotes.”
Less than a mile away from the school sits Penobscot Indian Island Reservation, an islet hugged on all sides by the Penobscot River. That’s where Dana has lived her entire life, alongside her family.
Dana’s little brother was playing a football game against Old Town. It was close, but the Coyotes eventually prevailed. Dana remembers the celebration, helmets tossed skyward, Gatorade coolers drained onto coaches, fans pouring onto the field.
Dana, watching in the stands with her family, turned to them.
Look how proud they are to be Coyotes.
“It’s important to reassure these people that none of that pride in their town, in themselves, in their kids, goes away,” Dana, the Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador, told USA TODAY Sports. “But by changing the mascots, they have a chance to have a new start without actually hurting anybody.”
To this day, the problem of Native American themed mascots at schools across the country persists. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) keeps a database that tracks them and, according to the list that was last updated Dec. 9, there are still 1,916 schools in 1,025 school districts that use such mascots. The database lists five mascots as the most common: “Indians” (799), “Warriors” (417), “Braves” (208), “Chiefs” (181) and “Redskins” (95).
In Maine, this problem has all but vanished. Skowhegan Area High School was the last public school to use a Native American mascot before its board voted in March 2019 to retire the “Indians” mascot. Two months later, a law was enacted that effectively banned the use of such mascots in public schools and colleges.
But Maine is one of 50, prompting an obvious question for the other 49 states: Why hasn’t similarly aggressive legislation been passed to eliminate this issue at public schools across the country?
Some other legislatures have implemented portions of a ban, but Maine remains alone in instituting a full one. For example, the Massachusetts legislature drafted a bill that would instruct the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to initiate regulations barring public schools from using a mascot, team name or logo that refers to or represents Native Americans. That bill has yet to pass.
The state of California passed legislation banning public schools from using “Redskins” as a team name. But like in other instances, in other states, the Racial Mascot Act includes several exceptions. The law that went into effect Jan. 1, 2017 but schools could use uniforms bearing the name if they had been purchased before that date.
Stephen Pevar, a senior staff counsel in the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program, said states enacting similar legislation to Maine’s would eradicate this issue “in one-fell swoop” but acknowledged that there were also other ways to make progress.
The alternatives, mainly outreach and advocacy at the local school district level, though, take far longer to produce results. The time and effort required to identify and visit local school boards is monumental. There’s also the fact that such efforts can trigger previous traumas for a people who have a lengthy history of them in America.
Furthermore, local school districts are often either unwilling to take on this issue or view it as less important than others facing public schools across the country. Legislation like Maine’s effectively takes the decision out of the hands of local school boards.
“Historically, not only have politicians been shy or reluctant to champion Indian issues, many of them have ridden into office because they felt it was politically expedient to criticize or belittle them,” Pevar told USA TODAY Sports. “Still today, it’s not uncommon for politicians to take advantage of and capitalize on anti-Indian sentiment, so it takes a lot of courage for politicians to speak out on these issues.”
Though the push to get the Maine legislation signed into law had been ongoing for years, the timeframe from bill to law actually came about rather quickly, in large part because of Democratic presence that aligned at the highest levels of state government. On Jan. 2, 2019, after eight years of a divided state government, Gov. Janet T. Mills was sworn in as the first Democratic governor in Maine since 2010. The Democrats also secured control over the state Senate and House of Representatives.
Dana understood she needed to act immediately. She reached out to Rep. Benjamin Collings, who has long been a champion of Indians-rights issues, and Collings invited Dana to address the Democratic caucus. Dana called upon other trial members to speak to other committee members. With the help of Collings, the bill was passed through the committee, then through the House and then through the Senate.
It landed on Mills’ desk and on May 16, 2019, she signed it into law, becoming the first and only state to enact such aggressive legislation.
Dana said constant communication with elected officials, identifying tribal leaders in each state and amplifying their voices are the recipe to similar legislation elsewhere. On the other end, however, receptive politicians are essential, even with this issue becoming a partisan one.
“We need a lot more collaboration,” Collings, who sponsored the bill and is a Democrat, told USA TODAY Sports. “The Democratic Party isn’t perfect. We need to speak out more on these issues. We’re often afraid of how this can impact our elections. We need everyone, Democrats, Republicans – elected officials need to step up and speak out. They can’t condone any of this.
“And it needs to go way beyond rules and laws. It needs to start with education. We need to have these uncomfortable conversations. White people are often afraid to talk about racism and prejudice because they can sometimes feel guilty about it. But until we do, we won’t get meaningful change.”
Dana has identified several other states as potential targets to adopt similar legislation and has scheduled regular conferences with tribal leaders and friends in Colorado, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Vermont, among others, as potential next targets.
In early November, Dana had a Zoom coffee appointment with Raven Payment, a native of Skowhegan and alumna of Skowhegan Area High School. Before the Maine legislation passed, it was Payment who put Dana in touch with tribal leaders as Dana sought to generate awareness.
Part Mohawk and part Ojibwe, Payment lived through the stigma of seeing her identity reduced to a caricature at Skowhegan. While she was a student there, she appealed for the mascot to be changed, but she said her efforts never attracted serious consideration.
“It was – how do I put this – disgusting,” she said. “I don’t talk to people I grew up with there now because of that mascot.”
Now Dana is the one assisting Payment, who has lived in Castle Rock, Colorado, a suburb 30 miles south of Denver, for the last 16 years. A member of the non-profit organization, Not Your Mascots, Payment is helping to spread the work of the organization and is using Maine’s legislation as a model to pursue a similar tract in Colorado.
Payment said there are still 12 schools in the state who use Native American themed mascots. She continues to speak at school board meetings, but has focused the majority of her efforts on pursuing legislation in the state.
Payment described the push for legislation as being “in very preliminary stages.” She also added, however, that “many of us were let down and felt misled” by a 2016 study issued by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper that recognized “local control” as the governing authority on these issues, as opposed to state direction.
What complicates this further is that these discussions with lawmakers are often seen as a negotiation within the catalogue of Native American policy issues, like land and water rights, the pursuit of equitable housing and healthcare, voting rights. Using Maine as an example, Payment said a stalemate over water rights issues helped lead to the resolution of the mascot bill in a search for compromise.
“We’ve never had the carrot to dangle to even get Colorado’s elected officials to the negotiating table,” Payment said. “But to be clear, this threatens our sovereignty. If we can’t be taken seriously over an issue like high school sports mascots, it’s really hard when we’re facing larger issues like the Dakota Access Pipeline or getting relief for COVID that isn’t body bags.”
Contributing: Associated Press