Oregon considers banning Native American mascots

Angry at a halftime show depicting a bare-chested Native American boy with a target painted on his skin, Che Butler set out to force the Molalla Indians and 14 other Oregon high schools to stop using mascots and nicknames that depict American Indians.

Oregon's Board of Education on Thursday took up Butler's plea for the second time, rejoining a longstanding national debate about racial tolerance and school traditions five years after issuing a nonbinding recommendation that schools stop using Native American regalia.

"We live off honor and respect. We're taught to respect all human beings and things on Earth, and live in harmony with them," said Butler, 22, a member of the Siletz tribe of western Oregon. "That's all I ask of this board and this state, show us the respect, us Native people."

The board's proposal has the support of Butler and his family, who were also traumatized by the halftime show about six years ago. It also has raised just as much passion from others -- some of them Native American -- who say logos and mascots honor Native Americans' heritage.

For every person like Butler, there's also someone like Jeff Williams, a fellow member of the Siletz tribe and a proud supporter of the Philomath Warriors.

"You want to get rid of the Native American mascots, you're saying Natives are a shameful part of American history," Williams told the education board.

Board members said that they'll consider adopting a rule outlawing depictions of American Indians in school athletics. The exact rules have yet to be written, but officials say they'll be released this month followed by public comment. The board could not formally enact a rule earlier than May.

The concept has the enthusiastic support of board Chair Brenda Frank, herself a member of the Nez Pierce tribe.

"This is just another block that we need to remove," Frank said.

Since the 1970s, more than 600 high school and college teams have dropped such nicknames, including 20 in Oregon, but no professional sports franchise has done so, according to a report by the Oregon Department of Education.

The Oregon Legislature voted in 2001 to eliminate the word "squaw" from geographic names because it is a derogatory term for Native women.

Many communities have resisted changes. For them, the Indians, the Braves, the Warriors or the Chieftains are a source of pride and a decades-old tradition familiar to thousands of alumni.

Some schools have worked with nearby tribes to change their practices without changing their nickname. Roseburg High School changed a logo depicting a Native American to a simple feather -- an approach that supporters suggest could work across the state.

"There is a way to do this without the heavy handed-ness" of a state mandate, said Larry Parsons, the superintendent in Roseburg. "I think Roseburg has done it the way it needs to be done. I'm proud of the way they've done it."

Butler, a varsity basketball player for the Taft Tigers of Lincoln City, was in the locker room and didn't see the halftime show that prompted him to first push the state board to ban American Indian mascots. But the show was distressing to his mother and his brother, he said.

Halftime cheers were never intentionally offensive, but the Molalla Indians no longer have a mascot dressed like a Native American, said superintendent Wayne Kostur. And as uniforms wear out, the school has tried to replace them with new ones that say "Molalla" instead of "Indians."

In 2006, the board issued a recommendation that schools eliminate mascots and nicknames with Native American themes, educate all students about Native stereotyping and use culturally accurate curriculum. The board stopped short of imposing any requirements.

State officials say 15 high schools have Native-related mascots and nicknames, along with an unknown number of elementary and middle schools. The Wisconsin Legislature outlawed such names in 2010, and the NCAA limits the use of imagery and names considered hostile and abusive.

A debate still rages over University of North Dakota's "Fighting Sioux" nickname and a logo with the profile of an American Indian warrior.

American Indian mascots are a form of oppression that helps contribute to isolation among Natives and its social consequences, said Tom Ball, a University of Oregon assistant vice president who works in the school's equity office. Those include high rates of suicide, incarceration and school dropout, he added.

"Those logos say, `You're less than and we're superior,"' said Tom Ball, a member of the Klamath tribe. He added: "They're taking control of our image, saying, `This is what an Indian looks like, you should be proud."'