By Dan Levy/ Michigan Department of Civil Rights
When the Michigan Department of Civil Rights asked the U.S. Department of Education to end the use of American Indian mascots, we expected that many people’s first reaction would be to defend the traditions they represent. Pride runs deep in our state and nowhere is that pride more evident than in our local public schools.
But people who’ve gotten past their initial reaction and read our supporting argument know that we are not saying that every school with an American Indian mascot should be ashamed of it. (Read it.) In fact, we acknowledge that the opposite is true. Mascots were often chosen with the intent of paying tribute to American Indians, providing a unifying symbol under all could gather in shared spirit.
But good intentions only go so far.
New studies establish that harm is caused to students even when the mascots are limited only to positive images. These harms include decreased academic performance and lower feelings of self-esteem, self-worth and achievement. When we know an action (or in this case, a symbol) causes harm to the very students we are called upon to protect and nurture, change is needed.
We believe schools that recognize this new body of research and act in the interests of students can always be proud of their mascots — past, present and future. We also believe that if a school insists on keeping its mascot after discovering doing so harms students, it is that school and not this department who tarnishes the mascot.
Many have questioned why we took our complaint to the federal government. We view this as the next step in a conversation that started decades ago. In 1988, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission issued a report calling for an end to American Indian mascots; then passed a similar resolution in 2002. The State Board of Education did likewise in 2003, 2006 and 2010.
Asking for the creation of a national standard allows the decision to be made by experts, removed from the community strife these discussions cause. We seek a remedy that acknowledges the information requiring change is new, and thus does not order schools to change everything overnight. We would like to see name changes as soon as possible, but gym floors and various uniforms changed only when otherwise replaced.
What about the Fighting Irish, others ask? First, the schools Irish founders chose the name and non-Irish fans don’t wear Irish face-paint and costumes to “play” Irish.
Additionally, whereas images of Irish people are not presented everywhere, from sports to television and movies, as a singular savage/warrior stereotype, limited depiction of American Indians as anything other than mascots gives inordinate power to those images. But most important, America never paid bounties for the scalps of dead Irishmen (yes we scalped the Indians, it’s where the term “Redskins” comes from); we did not round the Irish up for forced death marches; we did not make the Irish sign treaties we’ve failed to honor; and schools using an Irish mascot are not built on land forcibly taken from the Irish people who once called it home.
As we wrote to the Department of Education, “this complaint is not based upon whether the use of American Indian imagery, or even of the team name ‘Redskins,’ is offensive. It is instead based on evidence that the use of American Indian imagery promotes stereotypes that, whether offensive or positive, disadvantage a group of minority students by denying them the advantages and privileges received by others … This is an issue on which guidance from a single, authoritative, national entity is required.”
School names listed in a document from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights’ complaint to the federal government over American Indian mascots:
|Athens Indians||Gladstone Braves||Remus Chippewa Hills Warriors|
|Bay City Western Warriors||Grass Lake Warriors||Sandusky Redskins|
|Belding Redskins||Hartford Indians||Saranac Redskins|
|Birmingham Brother Rice Warriors||Kinde-North Huron Warriors||Saugatuck Indians|
|Brownstown Woodhaven Warriors||Lansing Sexton Big Reds||Tawas (City) Area Braves|
|Camden-Frontier Redskins||Marquette Redmen/Redettes||Tecumseh Indians|
|Capac Chiefs||Morley-Stanwood Mohawks||Tekonsha Indians|
|Cheboygan Chiefs||New Boston Huron Chiefs||Utica Chieftains|
|Chesaning Indians||Newberry Indians||Walled Lake Western Warriors|
|Chippewa Valley Big Reds||Paw Paw Redskins||White Cloud Indians|
|Clinton Redskins||Plymouth Canton Chiefs||White Pigeon Chiefs|
|Dowagiac Chieftains||Port Huron Big Reds|