The Washington NFL team’s recent decision to drop its nickname, a move generally considered long overdue, was nonetheless welcomed. Even the most ardent defenders of Native American imagery and mascots associated with sports teams have admitted that the team's former nickname was unambiguously a racial slur.
It might come as a surprise, then, to learn that nearly 100 high school and middle school athletic programs around the country still use that nickname.
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has compiled a nationwide database of K-12 schools with Native American mascots or nicknames. The NCAI’s list shows 98 schools still use the Washington Football Team's former name.
“That word in particular, that’s the biggest domino we’ve been focused on toppling,” says Ian Record, a vice president at NCAI. “Way back in 1968 we launch the initiative to end Native American nicknames. From the beginning of that, we wanted to uproot that one, just because of the fact that it is a slur. It has its origins in genocidal policies toward native peoples.”
Washington Football Team QB Dwayne Haskins hands the ball off to Adrian Peterson during training camp last week. (Photo: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY Sports)
The moniker has become less prevalent at the scholastic level, and Record is hopeful that Washington’s decision can now accelerate the organization’s effort to get rid of the nickname altogether. A couple of high schools, Clinton (Michigan) and Anderson (Ohio), already did so in July, roughly coinciding with the time period the NFL team was considering its decision.
“The fact that it’s a brand that virtually every American is familiar with in some ways frames the discussion,” he says. “It removes a major excuse, the fact that a professional team was still using it. Now that excuse is no longer an option.”
While that particular nickname is the most egregious of controversial names, the NCAI database tracks schools that use other names evoking Native American imagery. The most common of these are Indians, Braves, Chiefs and Warriors. In all, the NCAI identifies 1,942 schools with native-themed mascots. The project's aim is to engage school boards and administrators directly in the ongoing effort to retire these names.
A resolution passed by the NCAI in 2005 reads in part: “The use of ‘Native American’ sports mascots, logos, or symbols perpetuates stereotypes of American Indians that are very harmful. The ‘warrior savage’ myth has plagued this country’s relationships with the Indian people, as it reinforces the racist view that Indians are uncivilized and uneducated, and it has been used to justify policies of forced assimilation and destruction of Indian culture.”
Record says this approach of engagement has resulted in more productive dialogue.
“I’ve been struck by how open some school board members are,” he says. “They’re really open to learning, while acknowledging they don’t really have a handle on the issue.”
Over the last two months, the NCAI lists 18 schools that have either changed their nicknames or voted to remove all native imagery.
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