Native mascots still a sticking point in high school sports

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Lemiley Lane, a Bountiful junior who grew up in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, poses for a photograph at Bountiful High School, July 21, 2020, in Bountiful, Utah. While advocates have made strides in getting Native American symbols and names changed in sports, they say there's still work to do mainly at the high school level, where mascots like Braves, Indians, Warriors, Chiefs and Redskins persist. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

BOUNTIFUL, Utah – At a mostly white high school near Salt Lake City, the steps leading to the football field are covered in red handprints, arrows and drawings of Native American men in headdresses meant to represent the mascot, the Braves. “Welcome to the Dark Side” and “Fight like a Brave” are scrawled next to images of teepees, a tomahawk and a dream catcher.

While advocates have made strides in getting Native American symbols and names changed in sports, they say there's still work to do mainly at the high school level, where mascots like Braves, Indians, Warriors, Chiefs and Redskins persist. Momentum is building during a nationwide push for racial justice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the NFL team in Washington dropping the Redskins name.

At Bountiful High School, there's nostalgia for the Braves name that's been used for nearly 70 years and comes with an informal mascot — a student dressed up in feathers. Fans point to tradition when rhythmically extending their forearms for the tomahawk chop, wearing face paint and chanting at football games.

It's an honor, they say, but not to many Native Americans who see the portrayals throughout high school, collegiate and professional sports. The depictions can affect the psyches of younger Native Americans and create the image of a monolith that doesn't exist, advocates say.

“There is no tribe that can make a claim to it,” said James Singer, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters. “Nevertheless, many tribal governments, using their tribal sovereignty, have issued statements saying they don't want these kinds of mascots for school teams.”

It's not clear how many high schools have built their sports team imagery around Native Americans, but advocates say it's in the hundreds — down significantly from decades ago.

Schools in Ohio, Michigan, Idaho, New York, Massachusetts and California are changing names, often at the urging of Native Americans. Schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Red Mesa on the Navajo Nation are discussing their Redskins mascots.

“I understand the issue, and then at the same time, you just have to listen to the students who take pride in this but give them the information about why the other side is concerned, too," said Timothy Benally, who's on the Red Mesa Unified School District board in Arizona and is Navajo.