US high schools continue to drop ‘Redskins’ mascot
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — At Cooperstown Junior/Senior High School in New York, in the midst of a divisive community debate among students, faculty and alumni, the school board voted in 2013 to retire its longtime mascot, the Redskins.
At Chowchilla High School and three other high schools in California, the decision on whether to keep using Redskins was taken out of their hands when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Racial Mascots Act into law in 2015.
And at Belding High School in Michigan, parents voiced concerns about a student T-shirt they viewed as inappropriate, starting a process that led to a unanimous school board vote a little more than a year ago to make Belding one of the latest schools to shed its use of the nickname.
“It was a skull with a headdress on,” Belding Principal Michael Ostrander said of the T-shirt. “Rather offensive.”
At least thirteen U.S. high schools have stopped using Redskins as their mascot since 2013, a 20 percent drop since Capital News Service first reported on the trend of high schools replacing the controversial moniker.
At the end of 2017, at least 49 high schools in 20 states still used the nickname that some people consider a racist slur against Native Americans, Capital News Service found, down from at least 93 before 1990. A total of 41 high schools had dropped the name, while another three closed or merged with another school that used a different mascot.
In some of those communities where the name is still used, like La Veta High School in Colorado, there are active conversations about changing it. In others, like Loudon High School in Tennessee, the name is a point of pride with little discussion about changing it, Capital News Service found.
″(People in the community) feel that it’s not necessarily derogatory or a negative impression,” Loudon Director of Schools Jason Vance said.
While the debate over the name of the Washington Redskins has subsided at the national level since 2013, conversations continue in many communities that use the name at local high schools. Capital News Service’s review, which ended in December 2017, found:
--All four schools affected by the California Racial Mascots Act have shed the name, but students and faculty lobbied against the bill before it passed and have kept the name alive in their communities since.
--The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s legal division was seeking to block the use of the name at Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania, the site of a battle over the use of the name in the school’s student newspaper.
--Native American groups around the country have been influential in sparking change at a handful of schools, including Red Lodge High School in Montana and Goshen High School in Indiana.
--When the superintendent of Teton High School in Idaho announced unilaterally in 2013 he would change the school’s name, he withdrew the plan in the face of a community backlash.
--At some schools that have retired the mascot, like Port Townsend High School in Washington and Belding High School in Michigan, changing scoreboards, gym floors and athletic uniforms cost tens of thousands of dollars.
As the NFL team found its continued use of the name under attack in 2013, it ignited a public relations effort in which it promoted high schools that also used the name. In 2014, team owner Dan Snyder launched the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, a private charity that supports Native American groups. One of the beneficiaries is Red Mesa High School, a school on an Arizona Navajo reservation that uses the name and has been featured on the foundation’s website.
The franchise has spent at least half a million dollars on a lobbying firm promoting the foundation’s work to Congress since 2014, Capital News Service found. The lobbying effort began around the same time that 50 Democratic U.S. senators signed a letter urging the National Football League to encourage Snyder to change the team’s name.
The NFL team also posted press releases on its website promoting high schools that continued to use the name. One article in February 2013, focusing on Lamar High School in Houston, was titled “Lamar: ‘Once A Redskin, Always A Redskin’” and quoted the school’s football coach as saying, “For this school to be called anything else would seem extremely strange.”
Ironically, at the end of that year, the Houston Independent School District voted to ban schools from using Native American nicknames and mascots. In 2014, Lamar became the Texans.
Tony Wyllie, a senior vice president and the chief spokesman for the NFL team, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the trend of schools dropping the name, the team’s lobbying activities or the work of the Original Americans foundation.
The franchise’s efforts seem to have worked. Since 2013, calls for the NFL team to change its name and national media coverage of the debate have subsided — even as other racially charged issues have moved to the front of national consciousness.
The removal of the nickname at the high school level is just as important to Native American activists as the NFL team’s name, said Suzan Shown Harjo, president of The Morning Star Institute, a native rights advocacy organization.
“With the dreadful name of the Washington NFL franchise that has been shared by many, many schools too, what they’re doing is picking up the very worst thing we can be called in the English language,” Harjo said.
One school that hasn’t changed is Red Mesa, an Arizona school with an overwhelmingly Native American student body and a beneficiary of more than $200,000 in donations from the Original Americans Foundation.
Red Mesa is one of three U.S. schools with majority-Native American student bodies that use the name, Capital News Service found.
The foundation set up a recurring summer football camp for the school beginning in 2015. Retired Washington Redskin players, including kicker Mark Moseley and linebacker Ravin Caldwell, were among “legend” players to serve as instructors at the camps, according to a press release. The foundation held 10 youth football camps across “Indian country” in the summer of 2017, according to its website.
In October 2014, the Washington NFL team played an away game against the Arizona Cardinals. Washington invited local Native Americans to the game as their guests, including students and faculty from Red Mesa High School.
In 2013, Red Mesa’s then-superintendent Tommie Yazzie told Capital News Service that he believed Native American schools like Red Mesa could use the name, but it would be “inappropriate” in an area “where the population is basically white, unless there is a cultural connection.”
But Yazzie, a Navajo, made clear that people on his reservation had greater concerns than white-majority schools using the name.
Yazzie left the job a year and a half ago and Kim Pearce succeeded him as superintendent.
In an interview with Capital News Service in November, Pearce described the relationship between the NFL team and Red Mesa as “friendly,” adding that he didn’t know the full extent of the team’s support for the school.
To his knowledge, the team did not require Red Mesa to keep the name as a condition of support, he said.
The donations Red Mesa received were part of the foundation’s multi-million dollar effort to support Native American groups. The Original Americans Foundation spent $3.7 million in fiscal year 2014, but contributions to groups declined to $1.6 million in fiscal 2015, according to IRS records. (Records for fiscal year 2016 were not available at time of publication.)
Though total donations declined, Red Mesa High School’s share of the pie grew between 2014 and 2015. The school accepted more than $215,000 from the foundation in 2015 after receiving just $10,000 the year before.
Foundation representatives did not return several phone calls and emails requesting comment on the decline in contributions between 2014 and 2015, nor did they respond to a request for information about 2016 donations.
“The foundation gave $1.6 million in products and services to Indian lands where the most people can be accommodated,” a foundation spokesman told the Washington Post in April. “As we hone the mission of the foundation, we will continue to try to find areas that have the highest impacts. .?.?. Sometimes it’s how you give and not how much.”
The foundation promotes its relationship with Red Mesa on its website. The school is the only beneficiary that appears to use the word “Redskins” in an official capacity.
The other Navajo-majority high school the foundation supported, Monument Valley in Utah, goes by the Cougars. The school upgraded its football equipment with the foundation’s grant. A number of tribes and nations, as well as the Utah Division of Indian Affairs and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also accepted donations.
Team owner Dan Snyder created the Original Americans Foundation in March 2014, as the controversy over his team’s use of the name peaked. The foundation works to “provide resources that offer genuine opportunities for Tribal communities,” according to its website.
At its inception, Snyder wrote a letter to the team’s fans saying he had visited 26 Tribal reservations in 20 states and became convinced of the need for the foundation.
“The more I heard, the more I’ve learned, and the more I saw, the more resolved I became about helping to address the challenges that plague the Native American community,” Snyder said in his letter. “In speaking face-to-face with Native American leaders and community members, it’s plain to see they need action, not words.”
The creation of the Original Americans Foundation did not quiet detractors of the team’s name. Many Native groups have said they refused to accept money from the foundation, according to the Washington Post. Some groups suggested Snyder’s motives were disingenuous.
“We’re glad that after a decade of owning the Washington team, Mr. Snyder is finally interested in Native American heritage, and we are hopeful that when his team finally stands on the right side of history and changes its name, he will honor the commitments to Native Americans that he is making,” Oneida Indian Nation spokesman Ray Halbritter said in a 2014 statement.
In May 2014, two months after the foundation’s creation, 50 U.S. senators signed a letter to the NFL urging the league to encourage Snyder to change the team’s name.
“The National Football League can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of the name as anything but what it is: racial slur,” the letter from the senators said. “It is time for the National Football League to formally support and push for a name change for the Washington football team.”
The team combated that sentiment on Capitol Hill with a lobbying campaign to promote the foundation’s work. Since 2014, the firm McGuireWoods Consulting has lobbied both the Senate and U.S. House of Representatives on the team’s behalf, focusing on “discussions of team origins, history and traditions,” ″Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation and youth sports” and “activities of Original Americans Foundation.”
The team spent at least $560,000 on this effort between 2014 and December 2017, according to the congressional lobbying disclosure database.
Wyllie did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the team’s lobbying strategy. McGuireWoods Consulting also could not be reached for comment.
The NFL team also defended the name by dedicating part of the team website — not the foundation’s site — to promoting positive coverage about the use of the name by both the Washington team and by high schools. The section is called “Redskins Pride.”
The home page links to favorable public opinion polls on the topic as well as news articles and op-eds with headlines like “Government Decided that ‘Redskins’ Bothers You” and “Why ‘Redskins’ Is Not a Bad Word.”
The web page’s content does not appear to have been updated since 2014. But when a 2016 Washington Post poll found that nine in 10 Native Americans weren’t offended by the word, Snyder said in a statement that the team was “gratified by this overwhelming support from the Native American community.”
Some Native Americans, like Harjo, question the validity of the Post poll, though. Either way, its results have played a role in quieting down the national discussion, Harjo said.
Snyder also defended the name in court. In response to a complaint lodged by Amanda Blackhorse and four other Native Americans, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the NFL team’s trademark of “Redskins” in 2014 under the Lanham Act, which prohibited trademarks that could be viewed as disparaging to any “persons, living or dead.” The team appealed the decision in federal court.
Last June, the Slants, an Asian-American rock band, won a Supreme Court case that overturned the Lanham Act as an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech. The five Native Americans challenging Snyder dropped its case later that month.
The public debate over the NFL team’s name has diminished since 2013, just as discussion of other racial issues have become more prominent in national cultural conversations, from debates over removing statues of Confederate generals to African-American athletes kneeling in protest of police violence to the reenergized white supremacist movement.
This new focus may have taken some of the spotlight away from Native topics like the Washington NFL team’s name, said Joe Watkins, a tribal liaison and anthropologist for the National Park Service, who said he was speaking on his own behalf, not his employer.
“I think American Indian issues have, in many ways, again fallen to the background because of it,” said Watkins, a member of the Choctaw Nation who previously directed the University of Oklahoma’s Native American Studies program.
However, the renewed focus on racism in American life has only helped groups pushing for the NFL team and high schools to drop the name, said Joel Barkin, a spokesman for Change the Mascot, a Native American coalition.
“We are in different times than we were five years ago,” said Barkin, also the vice president of communications of the Oneida Indian Nation. “You have to answer the question, which (the team) was never able to do, mind you: Would you call a Native person a Redskin to their face? It’s a very simple question, right? I’ve yet to hear anyone answer that question and answer ‘yes,’ publicly.”
As the once-national debate roils in local communities across the U.S., Native American activists like Harjo are not giving up their fight.
“The vast majority of our people care about this mightily and want an end to not only the Washington team name, but all of these references, because they’re just a target and a magnet for racism that turns against us as peoples,” Harjo said.
To determine the number of U.S. high schools that use -- or once used -- the mascot, Capital News Service used as a starting point the data set we compiled in 2013 from our original story on this topic: “The Other Redskins.”
We also reviewed mascot information in several Internet databases, including MaxPreps.com, a high school sports statistics website, and MascotDB.com. We conducted targeted searches in a database of news stories from national and local outlets. And we scoured social platforms -- including Facebook and Twitter -- to find schools we might have missed.
For each school, we made contact with one or more school representatives to determine the accuracy of our information. We usually conducted these interviews by phone, but some were done by email. In the course of reporting these stories, we conducted more than 100 interviews with people in communities across the U.S. -- students, principals, superintendents, teachers, athletic directors, alumni, Native American leaders, newspaper editors and others. We reached out to hundreds more. We conducted our research between September and December 2017.
Our best educated guess is that there are 49 high schools in 20 states that still use the nickname, down from at least 93 before 1990. A total of 41 high schools used to use the name, but have stopped. And another three were using the name when they closed or merged with another school that used a different mascot.
We only included schools on our list that we were able to confirm by speaking with people in a position to know.
But we cannot say with certainty that we found every single high school that uses -- or once used -- the mascot.
Capital News Service reporters Chris Rogers-Spatuzzi, Julia Karron, Chase Pyke, Daniel Chavkin, Lindsey Feingold, Josh Schmidt, Mollie Higgins, Gillian Vesely, Jake Gluck, Ana Hurler, India Hamilton, Zach Shapiro, Michael Brice-Saddler and Conner Hoyt contributed to this project.