A bill to prohibit “the inappropriate use” of Native American imagery in public schools — including as mascots — was passed out of state legislative committee Friday, with Rep. Joel McEntire, R-Cathlamet, representing one of only two “no” votes.
In a conversation with The Chronicle, McEntire argued that what qualifies as offensive could be “subjective.” What if a school wanted to use a feather or an arrowhead as its logo, McEntire speculated. Who would determine if the imagery adds up to cultural appropriation?
But those aren’t the issues making headlines in Washington state. Instead, it’s things like the logo used by Kalama School District — in McEntire’s district — whose over-the-top illustrated “Charlie Chinook” mascot featured a cartoonishly-large nose and buck teeth. In 2016, after two decades of requests from the Chinook tribe, the school agreed to rebrand, although that process initially led to a caricature with the same teeth and nose, only with whiter skin and no tomahawk.
In Lewis County, the bill would have addressed things like the Toledo Indians’ mascot costume, which was discontinued in 2019, and “Chief Wahoo” — the Cleveland Indians’ logo, featuring bright red skin — that was plastered around some of Toledo’s baseball fields up until last summer.
Superintendent Chris Rust also brought up the school’s totem pole in a recent interview with The Chronicle, calling it “cultural appropriation to the nth degree,” considering totem poles aren’t used by local tribes. The totem pole was recently taken down.
These examples — especially Kalama High School’s old logo — helped sway McEntire’s Republican counterpart, Rep. Jim Walsh, of Aberdeen, to vote in favor of the legislation. It was an uncommon split between the two staunch conservatives who share a district.
Walsh said it was a “tough call,” echoing McEntire’s concern that things like arrowheads could be considered appropriation. He called it an indirect first amendment issue, where an entity’s right to use imagery also needs to be considered. But Kalama’s old mascot, Walsh said, is a great example of the “kind of stuff you’d like to see discouraged.”
“I don’t want to disparage Kalama High School, but it’s a pretty rough image,” Walsh said.
Dozens of schools across the state still have Native-themed names, mascots or imagery.
Kalama School District has since moved to simple “KC” logos, although its whitened caricature appeared on the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association website as recently as September.
Over in Toledo, Rust said the issue has been “pretty divisive.” Although many current students agree that the school’s imagery and name is offensive and needs to change, Rust said that hasn’t stopped alumni from balking at the idea on Facebook.
“We feel we’re doing a good job of being responsible,” Rust said, citing the district’s relationship with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, which requested the school’s 2019 rebranding, including the discontinuation of the “tomahawk chop” cheer. “We have a heightened level of responsibility because we’re using a group of people as our mascot … My biggest concern is that this would be an unfunded mandate.”
In its public hearing, the bill received support from tribal members from across the state, as well as from the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). OSPI’s Office of Native Education Executive Director Jon Claymore, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told lawmakers about his experience as a sports coach in public schools.
“I can give you first-hand accounts of how careless and often ugly misrepresentations of Native peoples harms students, their families and community,” Claymore said. “And not just Native students, but all students who are set up to perpetuate this harm without knowing what they are doing.”
Others who gave testimony in support of the bill included several public school students, as well as Nisqually Tribal Council member Willie Frank III, the son of celebrated environmentalist and treaty rights activist Billy Frank Jr.
The bill’s prime sponsor, District 40’s Rep. Debra Lekanoff, is the state Legislature’s only Native American member. A member of the Tlingit tribe, she also served as the governmental affairs director for the Swinomish tribe.
“When we see others in a mascot form, using our regalia, using our deer hide, using the salmon skin, using the feathers, using them in mockery, this is not a way in which we believe we’re being honored as the first Washingtonians, as the first Americans of this great country,” she told lawmakers after explaining the meaning behind the regalia she wore to the hearing.
The substitute bill that passed out of committee Friday said “the use of racially derogatory or discriminatory school mascots, logos, or team names in public schools is antithetical to their mission of providing an equal education to all, and contrary to the goal of making schools safe and respectful learning environments.”
The bill also cites groups like the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which “concluded that the use of Native American images and names in school sports is a barrier to equality and understanding, and that all residents of the United States would benefit from the discontinuance of their use.”
The bill offers an exception to schools whose enrollment boundaries cover parts of tribal reservations or trust lands. In that case, school districts can consult with relevant tribes to get approval of their use of Native American imagery. That provision was heralded as encouraging productive conversations between schools and tribes. Committee chair Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, said the provision would address concerns voiced by Reardan-Edwall School District’s superintendent, who said the bill may undercut ongoing conversations with local tribes.
Walsh also cited the provision as something that convinced him to vote for the bill.