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Oregon Board of Education one step closer to potential Native American mascot ban

Board members seem supportive of pursing proposed ban of American Indian iconography in public schools
by: Courtesy photo The Scappoose Indians mascot is one of 15 in the state that could be banned if the Oregon Board of Education agrees with some who believe such icons are derogatory and disrespectful to Native Americans. The board met March 8 to discuss a proposed ban.

SALEM, Ore. - The Oregon Board of Education moved closer toward a ban of Native American mascots and symbols at public schools this week, which, if enacted, could take effect as early as May.

The Board of Education heard testimony March 8 from a number of passionate proponents of ending the longstanding practice in many state schools of branding sports teams as Indians, Braves, Chieftains or Warriors. Supporters of a ban believe the continued use of these icons - despite a 2007 state recommendation for schools like Scappoose High to find new mascots - is insensitive and creates a potentially harmful environment for Native American people.

Others believe these mascots to be community traditions meant to respect Native American culture. Instead of forcing public schools to make the potentially pricey change, some believe a better tactic is to teach communities the difference between acceptable, accurate representations of American Indians and those that can be construed as racist or oppressive.

Linn County Commissioner John Lindsey told the board he was 'irritated' this issue has arisen again. Lebanon High School's Warrior mascot - a Native American man riding a horse - represents what Lindsey considers a 'proud heritage,' something American Indians in his county should be appreciative of, he said.

'It is an honor to be named something like that,' Lindsey said.

But psychologist and Lewis and Clark College assistant professor Andraé Brown says it's immoral to force a questionable version of 'honor' on a historically repressed minority group. No matter the intentions, having a race-based mascot composed - as is often the case - of stereotypes is unquestionably racist, he said.

Brown sits on an advisory committee of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Minority Fellowship Program. In 2005, the APA cited dozens of academic studies on the harmful effects of Native American mascots when it drafted a resolution calling for an end to such representations.

'We do not want to let go of something that was never ours to begin with,' Brown said in testimony to the board.

Board members who spoke during the hearing, including Chair Brenda Frank, part of the Nez Perce tribe, were supportive of exploring avenues towards a ban, or at least, a deeper dialogue on the appropriateness of such symbols.

Jim Smith, principal of Banks High School - home of the Braves - made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the process following the hearing. He said the board's actions, including Frank stepping down in order to testify in favor of a ban, led him to believe the outcome of the deliberations have already been determined.

'It's B.S.,' Smith said emphatically. 'You can quote me on that.'

Scappoose school administrators are taking what seems to be a wait-and-see approach before stepping out with any strong opinions.

Athletic Director Robert Medley and outgoing Superintendent John Miner both expressed a desire to find a bridge between cultural sensitivity and local tradition.

Principal Eric Clendenin, who traveled to Salem for the education board meeting, said he preferred not to comment since the topic is 'to big to wrap my mind around at this point.'

Representations of Native American culture - some more authentic than others - are a part of life in Scappoose. The cover of the menu at popular diner Ichabod's features a cartoon caricature of an American Indian, while a totem pole at the entrance of town has an image carved into it of 18th century Chinook Tribe Chief Comcomly. The winner of a recent Scappoose High School art contest, whose work will be displayed at the local Fred Meyer, won for painting a totem pole topped with a feathered headdress.

Superintendent Miner said it is difficult to total the cost it would take to rebrand Scappoose High, but estimates it would be steep.

In 2007, the Roseburg School District superintendent told the Oregon Department of Education's Native American Mascot Advisory Committee it would take an estimated $345,650 to change its high school from the Indians. The Enterprise School District, a small district with under 400 students, spent somewhere between $15,000 to $20,000 when it changed its mascot from the Savages to the Outlaws in 2005, according to a report from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo.

In late 2006, then-Taft High School senior Che Butler and his sister Luhui Whitebear urged the Board of Education to ban Native American mascots. Butler said he took on the cause after his younger brother Buddha witnessed an upsetting halftime display at a Molalla Indians game featuring a Native American child with a target on his chest. That spurred a state discussion and, eventually, a 2007 advisory committee recommendation that public schools abandon their American Indian mascots and logos. No schools changed.

'It hasn't been addressed, it's been swept under the rug,' said Butler, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz. He's more hopeful this time around considering many on the board seem eager to enact a mandate.

Butler is now a student at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, which itself changed its Chiefs mascot to 'Storm' in 1998. There are no public universities or colleges in the state that still use Native American mascots.

Hearing his older brother be called the 'Oregon equivalent of Rosa Parks' by Board of Education Vice Chair Artemio Paz Jr., Buddha Butler, now a senior himself at Taft High, feels hopeful that change will soon come.

'It feels good,' he said.

The State Board of Education will meet again April 19 to further discuss the topic. The earliest the board can make a decision is at its May 17 meeting.