Kansas could push schools to ditch Native American mascots increasingly seen as racist | KCUR 89.3

ANDALE, Kansas – In this small town west of Wichita, families pack into the stands on Friday nights to cheer on their Andale Indians.

The Andale High School football team has won three straight state championships. Fans wear shirts emblazoned with a stylized Indian head logo — the same logo that adorns the city’s water tower. The students call themselves “The Tribe” and when their team is doing well, they move their hands in unison to chop with a tomahawk.

What comes across as healthy hometown pride in Andal can also come across as racist.

“They have no idea what it is to be an Indian,” said Joseph Rupnick, chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas. “Our kids, when we go to these different athletic events, they’re the ones who are the brunt of prejudice and bigotry.”

About two dozen Kansas schools still use Native American-themed mascots, with names like Indians, Braves or Red Raiders. An advisory group created by the Kansas Board of Education wants the board to recommend doing away with the mascots statewide — a move sure to spark anger and defensiveness in communities long associated with the school’s traditions.

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Andale High School’s stadium apparel and merchandise features the Indians logo and other Native American-themed imagery.

A mere recommendation, even from a state school board, is unlikely to overcome decades of tradition and identity invested in mascots, which communities often see as American Indian worship rather than symbols of racist stereotypes. Incorporating mascots into school accreditation would raise the stakes.

Alex Red Corn, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Kansas State University, says mascots that depict Native Americans as savages hurt not only the students at those schools, but anyone who competes with them.

“I was sitting at Applebee’s and the Liberal Redskins came to town,” said Red Corn, a member of the Osage Nation. “There was a whole bus full of Liberal Redskins-themed stuff surrounding us in the restaurant, and my kids were there, and there was some discomfort.

“When people go to other communities, this discomfort and what happens because of these branding practices,” he said, “it ripples out.”

An advisory group chaired by Red Corn wants the state school board to review its policies on how school mascots could harm students.

The group includes representatives of four federally recognized tribes in Kansas – the Kickapoo, Sac & Fox, Iowa and Prairie Band Potawatomi. They are urging schools to remove Native American-themed mascots within five years.

The Kansas Board of Education is expected to vote on the recommendation at its next meeting. Several board members have already expressed support for the move.

“There are so many people who haven’t stopped to think about what it’s saying to somebody else, how it’s hurting somebody else,” said Betty Arnold, a state council member from Wichita. “And ignorance is no excuse.

Nationally, more states are moving to ban or restrict Native mascots in schools. Oregon banned Native American mascots in public schools in 2012 by resolution of the State Council for Education. At least six other states have some kind of ban on mascots. California lawmakers voted in favor in 2015 ban the use of “Redskins” in public schools.

The Kansas school board could urge schools to get rid of derogatory or racist mascots, but it’s unclear whether it has any real influence on the issue. Local schools and districts decide that.

But those pushing for the change say offensive mascots create a hostile learning environment that violates state guidelines for student well-being. The Kansas Department of Education could even use the accreditation to pressure schools to remove racist images.

The Andale school mascot was meant to pay tribute to the Native Americans who once lived and hunted on the property where the high school is located.

Superintendent Mindy Bruce recalled one or two complaints from residents about the mascot over the past 30 years.

“But it was never taken up for board action,” she said. “And my Board of Education never directed me to pursue it.

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More than 20 Kansas school districts still use Native American-themed mascots or images.

It’s a similar story in more than 20 other Kansas communities, including Council Grove, Clearwater, Hays and Tonganoxie.

In 2017, the Manhattan school board voted to change its mascot from Native Americans to wolves, but the plan was scrapped after fierce opposition. Manhattan High School removed Native American imagery from athletic uniforms and its football field, but kept the mascot nickname and several large depictions of the Native American chief on campus.

The debate continues this fall in Manhattan. Opponents of the mascot launched a petition change.org which received more than 6,500 signatures; supporters started a competing petitionswhich has almost 6000 signatures.

In Wichita, critics have tried for decades to convince North High School to change its mascot. Last year the local council they voted unanimously to abolish it.

Shawnee Mission School District in Northeast Kansas changed four school mascots were said to be offensive, including the one at Shawnee Mission North High, which is now Home of the bison.

Olivia Brien, an Iowa tribe member from Kansas and Nebraska who serves on the state advisory group, told state board members that racist mascots affect students’ self-esteem and can worsen depression. She pointed to a University of Michigan studywhich found that two-thirds of people who strongly identify as Native American are offended by Native American mascots and team war chants like the tomahawk chop.

“I find these things sad and terrible, and I experience them as sad and terrible,” Brien said. “What we have the opportunity to … do is change that for all of us and really be leaders.”

The advisory committee called on state leaders to create a support network for schools looking to change mascots. Representatives of Native American tribes said they were willing to work with the counties or speak at community meetings.

“It probably should have happened a long time ago,” said Red Corn. “But we understand that some communities are going to have to engage in some dialogue and learn something about this issue in order for it to be successful.”

The group says state officials should also explore funding that could offset the cost of changing mascots and branding, such as grants. At North High in Wichita, the first phase of replacing athletic uniforms, repainting the gym floor and retrofitting the marching band cost more than $400,000.

Aaric Davis, superintendent of the Royal Valley School District near Topeka, said many students in his district are Native American and deserve to be treated with respect. The neighborhood is located next to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation.

“These students should not be viewed as caricatures to be mocked or mocked,” Davis said. “These students have the right to attend school or a school activity without having to see these images.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focusing on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media free of charge with proper attribution and attribution to ksnewsservice.org.

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