search
top

Is Banning Native American Team Names Discriminatory?

For the past decade or so, there has been a concerted effort to remove team names from schools, clubs and other sports teams that are based upon Native Americans.

In some ways, changing the logos and imagery is a good thing. We have always been troubled by cartoon-ish logos and depictions that include imagery such as the retired “Chief Noc-A-Homa” the Atlanta Braves used.

Yet in many ways, the history of Native Americans / American Indians is one that should be revered and honored. There can be much learned when a school decides to take on the that responsibility while naming a school after a tribe or individual.

You don’t hear much about other groups being “offended” by team names and depictions. The Notre Dame “Fighting Irish” don’t seem to have an issue with being known as brawlers. No one seems to have a problem with the Minnesota Vikings being portrayed as vicious plunders of the land. (Which is very much a caricature of the Viking heritage.) When someone complains about the “Evergreen State Geoducks,” they are simply told to “clam up and go away.” Even the New York Yankees are based on derision as the name comes from the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which was a song sung by the British during the American Revolution to deride and denigrate the American people as simpletons and “uncouth.”

In 2021, the state of Colorado legislature banned the names, teams and mascots that were based on Native Americans.

While some would say, “’bout time,” one group is not saying that – a group of Native Americans. The group is suing to stop the legislation based on the idea that it is discrimination.

Marez, et al. v. Polis, et al.

This is a civil-rights action, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, challenging the constitutionality of SB 21-116. SB 21-116 is a bill passed by the Colorado State legislature in 2021 which purports to prohibit the use of American Indian “mascots” by public schools and public institutions of higher education, as of June 1, 2022. Schools that don’t comply with the law face a $25,000 per month fine, for each month that the school continues to use a prohibited image or name after that date. The Native American Guardians Association and its members believe the law violates their First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as Colorado Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause and Colorado Constitution’s Free Speech Clause, the Civil Rights Act, Title VI and Title IV.

The website also lays out the reasoning:

Colorado lawmakers in 2021 banned public schools from using Native American names or imagery for sports team names or “mascots,” based on the presumption that all such representations are demeaning and derogatory, if not blatantly racist, and must therefore be retroactively erased or banned from future use….

As it turns out, not all Native Americans support the law as written. The Native American Guardians Association supports the respectful use of Native American names and imagery in certain instances, and it fears that erasing all such imagery and iconography could also erase Native American history from school grounds. The group is troubled enough by the law’s free speech and equal protection implications, and they are challenging its Constitutionality on those grounds.

There’s no question that many American Indian-themed “mascots” and team names can be demeaning. But not all of them are or were. The Guardians agree with most Americans that no person or nation of people should be a “mascot.” That is why they oppose the use of American Indian mascot performers and caricatures that mock Native American heritage — such as Lamar (Colorado) High School’s former mascot, Chief Ugh-Lee or the Atlanta Braves’ former Native American caricature Chief Noc-A-Homa — in sports and other public venues.

But The Guardians also believe that culturally appropriate Native American names, logos, and imagery can be an important and educational way to honor Native Americans, and to help public schools neutralize offensive and stereotypical Native American caricatures and iconography while teaching students and the general public about American Indian history, a history shared by all Americans. The law doesn’t attempt to differentiate between the two, sweeping the potentially good away with the bad.

The law reportedly would require at least 25 Colorado schools to change their school team names, and possibly more to change the name of the school itself. But in reality, because the law is poorly worded, it probably sweeps in numerous other schools that have Indian terms in their names, like the Cherokee Trail Cougars.

The complaint goes further:

1. Imagine a state law that barred schools from using the name or image of an African-American individual on its logos or letterhead. That would be the end of school names honoring Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama, or Justices Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas…. [image in Complaint]

2. Or imagine a law banning school names and letterhead honoring Latin Americans like Cesar Chavez or Justice Sonya Sotomayor. [Image in Complaint] ….

4. Plaintiffs oppose the use of American Indian mascot performers and caricatures that mock Native American heritage—such as Lamar High School’s former mascot Chief Ugh-Lee or the Atlanta Braves’ former Native American caricature Chief Noc-A-Homa—in sports and other public venues.

5. Nevertheless, culturally appropriate Native American names, logos, and imagery serve to honor Native Americans, and to help public schools neutralize offensive and stereotypical Native American caricatures and iconography, while teaching students and the general public about American Indian history.

6. SB 21-116 sweeps derisive, neutral, and honorific uses of Native American names and imagery together into the universal term “American Indian mascot.” See, e.g., Colo. Rev. Stat. § 22-1-133(1)(a) (“‘American Indian mascot’ means a name, symbol, or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian tribe, individual, custom, or tradition that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead, or team name for the school.”) (emphasis added).

7. Defining even honorific uses of Native American names or imagery as merely “mascots” is offensive to our sensibilities as a nation, which do not generally permit racial discrimination.

8. “[I]n a society in which [racial] lines are becoming more blurred, the attempt to define race-based categories also raises serious questions of its own. Government action that classifies individuals on the basis of race is inherently suspect and carries the danger of perpetuating the very racial divisions the polity seeks to transcend.” Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, 572 U.S. 291, 308 (2014).

9. Erasing Native American names and images from the public square and from public discussions echoes a maneuver that Plaintiffs have previously seen used by the eradicators of Native American heritage. Colorado repeats the same mistake in its paternalistic assumption that it must protect Native Americans by erasing cultural references to them and to their heritage.

10. SB 21-116 unlawfully enacts state-sanctioned race discrimination against Plaintiffs.

11. Because the eradication of Native American names, iconography and images poses serious harm to the cultural identities and heritage of Native Americans, Plaintiffs regularly engage in efforts of “reappropriation,” so as to render emotionally charged Native American names, logos, and imagery nondisparaging, and to educate others as to what it means to be a Native American in American culture.

Much of this has to do with the legislation being so broadly based that even names to honor people would be banned.

People like the 31st vice president of the United States Charles Curtis could not have a school named after him. Chief Pontiac protected the US from an invasion by the British. Maria Tallchief was born to a Native American father and is known as America’s first major prima ballerina. American stage and film actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator Will Rogers was Native American. The group of Navajo code talkers during World War ӏӏ collectively known as the “Wind Talkers.” Even one of the flag raisers at Iwo Jima, Ira Hayes, was a American Indian.

The list of famous American Indians is too long for us to list here, but their proud heritage and contribution to the history of this country should not be swept under the rug by not allowing schools to be named after them. Children and teams should not be denied the ability to display the fierce pride and loyalty Native Americans have displayed in their day to day lives.

When done respectfully, no group should object to a school name or “mascot.” To ban them from the rich history of the United States by not allowing them and their actions to be honored may be the worst kind of discrimination as it seeks to wipe them from the history books.


EDITOR’S NOTE: While doing research for this post, we came across many quotes and statements from “Native Americans” that they found the term “Native Americans” offensive. The proper term, they claim, is “American Indian.” We aren’t going to wade into the middle of that controversy and our interchangeable use of the two terms is meant to honor both identifications.

(h/t Legal Insurrection)



No Responses to “Is Banning Native American Team Names Discriminatory?”

  1. […] Raised On Hoecakes wonders if banning Native American names is discriminatory […]

Leave a Reply

top