‘They’re promoting a stereotype’: Illinois schools pressured to retire native mascots

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On a spring night in 2021, the Friday night lights shine in Morris. A massive banner on the school right next to the football stadium reads “Morris Football: Pride, Integrity, Tradition”.

Right next to the sign, fans flock through a door adorned with a cartoon depicting a native’s face above a name. It is the same as the former name of Washington’s professional football team. Because it is considered offensive, we will call it “R-skins”. The cars in the parking lot have stickers with bold letters saying “R-skin Country”.

Just before the football game, the Morris “R-skins” marching band takes to the field, led by a teenage girl wearing face paint and what is believed to be a native headdress and costume. Girls the parents are the mayor of Morris and a member of the school board.

In January, this school board voted to remove the multi-year “R-skins” mascot. Ted Trujillo was the only Indigenous person on the recent Morris Mascot Committee to recommend action. The Morris resident is a registered member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. He says he has been trying to get the school renamed since he went there in the 1980s.

The committee was tasked with providing the school board with a report on whether to change the nickname. They brought research from the American Psychological Association on damage caused by native mascots.

“These mascots create a hostile learning environment for Aboriginal youth. It instills prejudice against Indigenous people in non-Indigenous youth,” Trujillo said. “It’s also linked to other issues with native people, like the high suicide rate. It lowers self-esteem when young indigenous people see their traditions and customs that they have always held sacred being mocked and used for entertainment.

The committee dug into the history of the word “r-skin”. It has been used to refer to native skin color and native scalps traded for bounties. They came to the conclusion that the word is a racial slur and that its use should not only be removed from school, but also that the use of the word is a violation of the student manual which prohibits derogatory slurs.

Even though the council voted to change the mascot by 2025, Trujillo says he fears future council members will reverse the decision.

Only 15 minutes from Morris, the Minooka Indians also see their native mascot again.

Julie Dye is a Potawatomi activist and educator. She says when schools have Indigenous mascots, it’s not just harmful to their students. It spreads to other schools they interact with. At a recent Minooka sports game, opposing fans held up “scalp the ‘r-skins'” signs.

John Kane, a member of the Mohawk tribe, is a radio host and Indigenous educator. He was invited by Minooka to make a presentation to their board committee and answer questions.

For Kane, it’s pretty simple,”We are not your mascots.” The most common defense Kane hears from schools seeking to preserve their mascot is that it is meant to honor native people.

“It’s not just wrong because we’re not honored. But the reality is that we were never considered a people when they chose these mascots. They created these images,” he said. “They recreate characteristics not because they represent us, but because they want those characteristics to represent them, likening football to a kind of battlefield.”

Kane points out that hundreds of indigenous tribal nations passed resolutions opposing Aboriginal mascots. Hundreds of schools have chosen to move away from these mascots.

One thing that confuses Kane the most is that these are schools, places of education.

“You would think that a school’s responsibility should be to teach fairness and break down those stereotypical images that are projected onto people. But that’s not what these schools do. They promote a stereotype,” Kane said.

He says you don’t see mascots of other ethnic groups used as Friday night entertainment.

Minooka has yet to decide whether or not to retire the Indian mascot. They changed the name of their school’s newspaper from “Peace Pipe Chatter” to “Nook News” and say they are considering changing the name of their at-risk student program now called “Project Indian.”

In 2019, Maine became the first state prohibit the use native mascots. In Illinois, State Rep. Maurice West of Rockford introduced legislation that reportedly required schools to get permission from a tribe within 500 miles use an Aboriginal mascot. They should also offer a course on “Native American Contributions to Society.”

West says this bill has been shelved for now in favor of a proposing a Native American Curriculumm for state schools.

That plan was shelved in committee this spring, but West said this summer he was setting up a task force of advocates — including members of federally recognized tribes — to help shape the draft. law.

“Our name alone comes from a Native American tribe,” the Rockford Democrat said. “So if any state in this union was to truly appreciate and celebrate our Native American brothers and sisters, it should be Illinois.”

Indigenous educators like Julie Dye and John Kane say more education could be good, but they are skeptical. They hope the program won’t just glorify or justify native assimilation, or become a way for schools to continue using offensive native mascots.

Copyright 2022 Northern Public Radio WNIJ. To see more, visit Northern Public Radio WNIJ.

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