The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will vote next month on a statement that would condemn sports teams or mascots named after American Indians as violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
If adopted and widely accepted, the statement could eventually lead to a cutoff in federal funding for schools that cling to traditions like the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux or the University of Illinois' mascot Chief Illiniwek.
Commissioner Elsie M. Meeks, who herself is Native American, brought up the issue last week. She said such images are offensive to Native Americans everywhere.
"Lots of Indian folks told me it's important to them," Meeks said in an interview. "One thing white folks say is, 'We're just trying to honor Indian people.' But stereotypes don't honor anybody. We think it treads upon civil rights."
The statement as originally proposed says the images and team names may violate Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Department of Education's implementation rules for that act, which prohibits discrimination in any program that receives federal financial assistance.
Meeks statement also says such "culturally insensitive displays" may also violate Title II of the act, which provides that all people are entitled to "full and equal enjoyment" in public places.
Two committees' eight members objected to the statement, saying there isn't enough evidence that Native Americans across the board believe the sports teams' names and mascots are a problem. The commission decided to give Meeks 20 days to gather more information before voting as early as April 13.
The commission does not have the authority to make or pass laws, but the resolutions it issues influence legislators dealing with civil rights.
Meeks admits the organization is venturing into uncharted legal territory.
"It's a really gray area," she said. "It has to be tested as a legal theory. But I think there's an ethical issue here."
Some involved in the debate think it's extreme to suggest that names and mascots such as the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians or the Florida State Seminoles could violate someone's civil rights.
"That seems to be a stretch," said Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative Washington think tank dealing with civil rights issues. "Those mascots were chosen not to ridicule or denigrate American Indians, but because of admiration for them and their martial virtues like bravery and fierceness."
Those who denounce the mascots say they're unacceptable because they rely on insulting race-based caricatures and stereotypes.
"We see images that often times confirm what I believe to be misinformed, outdated, really horrible stereotypes," said JoAnn Chase, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.
Chase pointed to the image of the Cleveland Indians' mascot — Chief Wahoo, with a red face, a wide, silly grin and a feather — as a good example.
"It's affirming this stereotype we've worked so hard to overcome — this savage, warlike stereotype," she said. "It's a totally goofy-looking caricature that in no way represents all of native people."
Clegg questioned why athletic teams like the Boston Celtics, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Montreal Canadiennes, and the Minnesota Vikings don't seem to be offending the ethnic groups they're named after.
But Chase said none of those teams have mascots that could be considered racially insensitive.
"An African-American mascot with a spear and a shield and a bone in their nose would be understood as derogatory," she said. "We don't see African-Americans being used."
Clegg concedes that some American Indian symbols and names could indeed be construed as racially insulting. But he insists that to categorically condemn the use of all American Indian mascots is silly.
"The Civil Rights Commission apparently doesn't have enough to do," he said.