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The Battle to Drop Native American Mascots Goes On, as Some Communities Reinstate Them

It was a passionate student letter in 2020 that caused the Southern York County school board to reconsider its logo: a Native American man, representing the “Warriors.”

Though the conversation had come up before in the suburban district located in southern Pennsylvania, 2020 was a turning point of racial reckoning after death of George Floyd. Less than a year later, the school board voted to retire the warrior logo after it considered research that depicted what impact the reductive imagery had on Native and non-Native students.

“I understand the attachment people have to that at the school,” said said Deborah Kalina, who served on the school board at the time. “But it’s more than that. And I think we did the right thing.”

Three years later, however, the logo — a Native American man with feathers, a tomahawk and pipe — is back after a newly-elected conservative bloc acted on their campaign promise and reinstated it earlier this month. It’s shaken the Native communities across the country who work to challenge such logos, said Donna Fann-Boyle, co-founder of the Coalition of Natives and Allies. When one school district does it, they worry others will try, too.

“Everything could just go backward,” said Fann-Boyle, who says she has Choctaw and Cherokee heritage.

It’s a marked departure from the larger tide of communities deciding to change their mascots, a trajectory that has been underway for decades, but ramped up in 2020.

The battle to change the use of Native Americans in logos, team names and fan-driven behavior has often been in the bright spotlight due to major sports teams. The NFL’s Washington Commanders changed their decades-old name in 2019, while Cleveland’s baseball team became the Guardians in 2021. Protests are being planned at the Super Bowl once more in response to the Kansas City Chiefs.

But beyond the high-profile fights to change names, mascots and team identities, there are battles going on in local communities. It’s a rare move for the Pennsylvania district to reverse course, but it’s not the first time. At least two other school districts in Massachusetts and Connecticut reverted to logos that many Native Americans have called offensive.

A number of states have passed legislation to prohibit the mascots in the years since. Nationally, the largest nonprofit dedicated to representing Native nations, the National Congress of American Indians, has worked to challenge the use of Native imagery in logos and mascots. The organization maintains a database tracking Native mascots, and has found that nearly 2,000 schools still use them. At least 16 dropped their use of Native imagery or names between March 2022 and April 2023.

Numerous studies have found that mascots are harmful to the mental health of Native students, and increase negative stereotyping of Native people in non-Native students, said Laurel Davis-Delano, a professor of sociology at Springfield College.

The mascots are all historic — and often inaccurate — depictions, erasing the fact Native people exist today, she said. And though to some the mascots can seem like positive representation on the surface, they’re adapted from a “bloodthirsty warrior” stereotype, which was historically used in a genocidal way, Davis-Delano said.

“It’s hostile when the mascot exists, it’s hostile during the change and hostile afterwards because even when they eliminate Native mascots successfully, there’s still a backlash,” she said. “There’s still people holding on to it and purposefully displaying it. And that lasts for some years. Most of the time, people shift over and are good to go, but there are people who hang on.”

Maulian Bryant, Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador, remembers having a visceral reaction to seeing the mascots as she was growing up. Mentors in her life helped her speak out about it, and her work resulted in a 2019 law in Maine to prohibit them in public schools and colleges.

School has its pressure of homework, socializing and sports, Bryant said. Seeing non-Native peers act out stereotypes, dressed up with feathers and warpaint, adds another layer for Native students: “an assault on something core to who they are,” she said.

“Adults put their pride and their resistance to progress above what students really need,” she said. “The students and teams and towns are just as proud of the new mascots.”

Some schools — like the University of Utah and Florida State University — have agreements with local tribes to use their names and imagery. The Seneca Nation approved the use of Native imagery in the Salamanca School District, due to its location on the nation’s Allegany Territory, and large percentages of Native American students and staff.

One group, Native American Guardians Association, which has Native American membership, has pushed for the continued use of the mascots across the country. Speaking at Southern York County’s school board meeting on Jan. 18, members argued removing the logo would be erasure.

Supporters agreed, and said use of the warrior head image denoted positive features and didn’t erase history. They sent droves of emails pushing for reinstatement, board member Jen Henkel said during the meeting.

But opponents — who vastly outnumbered supporters speaking at the board meeting — criticized reopening an issue that was decided years ago.

“Every single board member has voted to retire the logo, but one, has either lost their election or chose not to run for reelection,” said Jen Henkel. “Every single candidate not previously on the board who ran opposing the warriorhead logo’s return has lost. The majority community has spoken on this issue loud and clear. You might not like the results, but here we are.”

After a lengthy presentation, debate and public comment, the school board ultimately voted to reinstate it, 7-2. Board President Nathan Henkel did not return a message seeking comment.

The board’s decision and Native American Guardians Association’s push, though, is in direct contrast to the Native family in the community in southern Pennsylvania, and descendants of the local Conestoga-Susquehannock tribe who sent a letter decrying the decision. Today, their tribe — which is not federally or state recognized — has about 50 members.

“We give more energy to an inanimate object than we do to actual human beings,” said Chesterfield Hall, a member of the tribe.

Andrea Ligon, a tribal elder, said the mascot is a misrepresentation of their identity.

“This is fundamentally disrespectful and offensive. We are undermined by images of the mascot that disrespects historical and personal experiences of our tribe with a one-dimensional representation,” she said. “We are opposed to this mascot because they are playing an Indian with no understanding of the deeper meaning of feathers, face paint, chants and dancing, which are all part of our culture.”

Katy Isennock, who is a Sicangu Lakota citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, grew up in the district, going to school with the warhead mascot. As a teenager, she never felt she had the power to speak out about it, or the support of the community. Then she watched her children go through the renewed discussion of the mascot.

Her son — who is a Sicangu Lakota, Oglala Lakota and Seneca citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe — wears his long hair in a braid and has been made fun of for his hair. He has started to hide it, she said. It’s something that is so normal when they’re among other Native people, but has been scrutinized in a predominantly white community, making him feel embarrassed rather than proud, she said.

“He goes through so much, having hair like that, and he shouldn’t have to and it’s like — you guys have a Native mascot and you don’t know that?” she said.

Speaking to the board, she asked them to drop the politics.

“To put the mascot away is respect,” she told them. “Retiring it is respect — for the past, for the present and for the future. It is respect for my Native kids in the district and Native kids that may pass through here in the future.”

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