Yesica Balderrama: According to the National Congress of American Indians, over 1900 schools in America use Native-themed mascots. More than 700 team names feature the word “Indians” followed by “warriors,” “braves,” “chiefs,” and “R*dskins.”
Recently, Washington passed a law banning the inappropriate use of Native American names, symbols, or images from their public schools. I spoke with state legislator Debra Lekanoff about the importance of bringing the bill to the Senate floor.
Rep. Debra Lekanoff: I am a Washington state legislator for the 40th legislative district, and I am very excited to be serving as the only Native American in the entire state legislature.
In my previous career, I served almost 20 years in public service for Indian Country. I was part of the leadership strategic team that worked on the Washington football team, and the Atlanta baseball team, and many other national Native American mascots in addressing removing them as a token on these professional teams.
I learned so much about how diverse the voice of Indian country is and understanding what being a Native American mascot was. Whether you are a professional team, whether you were a public school, whether you were a private school —but really, what was the intention of being a native mascot? But then, what does it mean within Indian country?
The Fryberg study showed the detrimental impact of what a derogatory usage of a Native American mascot does to Native American elders, adults, and youth.
Can you imagine being a young, Native American child, five or six years old, watching your mascot — which is a Native American in a headdress with braids, in a loincloth — being tackled by an animal mascot, and chants saying ‘kill the Braves,’ or ‘chop down the Braves.’ It’s detrimental for a little girl or a little boy. And then to sit next to another little kid and not understand why they’re not out there being treated in this way. And then going into the longhouse and seeing your paint, your drums, your regalia being used in an honored ceremony, and what the confusion is.
People don’t understand across this nation what that word “R*dskin” meant. They don’t understand when a Native American is being portrayed as a mascot, or a joke or cartoon. That we’re a people of color, that we’re people of equity, we’re people of diversity, but we’re also the first Americans. Our names, our color, our hair, our language, our prayers, our songs are all intertwined within the earth that every American has stepped upon. And to treat Native Americans as if they don’t matter — as if their culture, their spirit, their values are something of the past — is really a time of sadness. And I believe these reports help educate those around us — and our neighbors — of why this is so important.
Senator McCoy opened up this bill and began the dialogue of addressing the removal of Native American mascots within Washington State almost 10 years ago, and evolved after the work that he watched us in Indian country do with the Washington football team and other professional sports. The bill gently sat waiting for the Native Americans to have a successful overturn with the Washington football team and other professional sports. You may have seen the change in the Washington football team and started trending through different professional teams. It is within that year that I picked up that bill off of Senator McCoy’s desk and dusted it off.
The essence of this bill is to say please don’t treat us as a token. Please honor us. If you’re going to wear red paint, you should know where the red paint is on your face. Don’t use a loincloth or regalia, which comes from the very essence of who we are as a people. Don’t wear your hair in braids and mock the Native American people as if ‘it’s just braids.’ There’s a sacredness of the braids, our spirit, our hearts, and emotions are braided within our hair, and it’s held tight to us. Don’t chant and use a Native American drum as a cheering tool. Those Native American drums are brought out for sacred ceremony. If you’re going to use a drum, use the drum in the right way.
This is a time when communities, parents, youth, school districts can sit down and say ‘if there is going to be a Native American mascot being incorporated into that community, consult with a federally recognized tribe next to you.’ Who are those kids who are sitting within those classrooms, with the parents who are cheering at those sports events, at the debates when these children are on the debate team, or if they’re in a spelling bee? And for me, that’s what this bill is about, healing communities, opening the doors to the conversations, and opening the doors for tribal governments to really play their sovereign role out as the folks representing their tribal communities.
Today, we have brought awareness to the different communities. And we’re rising and saying, ‘you can’t judge the past.’ But you look to it and say, ‘What could we have done better?’ To be better parents, better communities, better school districts? How could these tribes educate those around them, so that little girl or that little boy sitting on the bench across Indian country can stand up and not be seeing themselves treated as a mockery, or an animal, or a joke, but be treated with honor, their drums being brought out with pride. The tribes and the Native Americans in the first Americans — we’re still here for a reason. We’ll be patient. We’ll educate those around us. We’ll bring all of those folks into our Native American communities, and we’ll teach them.
I go back to my own teachings at the Swinomish tribe building with the LaConner’s School District and the community — creating a curriculum and building that education within the high school. I admire the language classes and the drum-making and the carving classes that LaConner public school has incorporated and provided credits for — for young children of all colors — to be able to learn the rich history.
I believe Spokane was really one of the leading examples in the past. Over 10 years of addressing: if you’re going to honor Native Americans; how do we do this? You know, it was exciting to talk with the Spokane tribes and the Spokane (Minor League) Baseball team to understand how they consulted with the Spokane tribes and the communities. The Spokane baseball team is the only team that has — on their uniform — Salish language for the word ‘Indians,’ which is a recognition that is phenomenal across this nation.
In the next 10 years, you know, I’d love to see the involvement of these 30 school districts really incorporating their relationships with their tribally recognized tribes. We’re building the leaders of tomorrow. For me to be sitting in the state legislature with so many diverse faces and so many different cultures and values, it is extremely important for me to know that the legislator that’s making the decision next to me understands the sovereignty of a tribal government and understand how to make decisions that best represent them as the true sovereign partner.
As a Native American woman, myself, and as a mother, my hope is that this bill allows the conversation to evolve, allows the conversation to be had. If you’re going to honor us, then ask us how we should be honored appropriately. It is the choice of the tribes in that area. And I respect and honor the tribes as a sovereign nation to have that dialogue, along with the public school system, along with the community, and along with the state of Washington.
Yesica Balderrama: For iPondr, I’m Yesica Balderrama.
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