Maine became the first state to ban the use of Native American mascots in all of its public schools and universities on Thursday, setting a precedent in the nationwide debate over sports teams' use of imagery that some consider culturally offensive.
Surrounded by representatives of local tribal communities, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed the legislation, the Bangor Daily News reported.
“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 at the bill’s signing.
Lawmakers voted along party lines to support the proposal last month after hours of debate, according to the paper. Republican opponents of the measure argued that local boards should decide such issues.
“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,” said Rena Newell, a representative for the Passamaquoddy Tribe from Pleasant Point, according to the Daily News.
Skowhegan Area High School is the last school in the state to use a Native American mascot. The local school board voted to ditch it earlier this year.
Mills' office said California, Oregon and Wisconsin have similar restrictions, while New York, South Dakota and Michigan have called for an end to the use of mascots.
Thursday's signing comes two months after Mills signed another piece of legislation to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
In recent years, critics have raised objections with several sports clubs over the use of imagery and language seen as offensive to some minority groups.
The Washington Redskins, for instance, have endured criticism for years over the use of the “Redskins” name. Native Americans and others call it a racial slur. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and team owner Dan Synder have opposed efforts to change the name, though.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit last year vacated earlier rulings that had canceled the team’s federal trademark registrations.
In 2018, the Cleveland Indians retired their controversial mascot, Chief Wahoo, and removed the emblem from jerseys and caps amid pressure from critics. Other teams that have come under fire include the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, the Atlanta Braves and the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.