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In Oregon, a familiar debate over Indian nicknames

Scappoose School District photo

BISMARCK -- The emotional issue before a state education board last week was the use of an American Indian name and logo for a school's athletic teams.

Some, including American Indians, fervently support the tradition. Others, including American Indians, just as passionately oppose it.

No, not here. This was in Oregon, where Scapoose High School athletes are known as the Indians and their logo is a fiercely determined American Indian in full headdress. That image may be banned, along with more than a dozen others in Oregon, within a few weeks.

As attorneys gather at the North Dakota Supreme Court today for another showdown over UND's Fighting Sioux nickname, it may seem to people weary of the drawn-out struggle that the last bitter fight over American Indian iconography in sport is happening here on the northern Great Plains.

But people in Oregon are debating a proposed ban on all Indian-based names and symbols by high schools, 15 of which have ignored a 2007 state recommendation that all should go.

Some of the dialogue there, including talk of honor and honoring, of acts hostile and abusive, would ring familiar to people involved in the North Dakota dispute.

"We live off honor and respect," Che Butler, a member of the Siletz tribe of western Oregon, told the state's Board of Education last week, the Associated Press reported. "We're taught to respect all human beings and things on Earth, and live in harmony with them. That's all I ask of this board and this state. Show us the respect, us Native people."

But just as in North Dakota, where opinion among Indians is divided, Butler's testimony was countered by other Indians, including Jeff Williams, also a member of the Siletz tribe. His argument, that the nicknames, logos and even mascots provide tribes with valuable visibility, would draw appreciative nods from some at North Dakota's Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux reservations, but negative shakes of the head from others.

"You want to get rid of the Native American mascots, you're saying Natives are a shameful part of American history," Williams told the board.

'Harmful effects'

Since 2005, when the American Psychological Association cited dozens of scholarly studies on the alleged harmful effects of such usages and called for an end to them, hundreds of high schools and scores of colleges have dropped Indian-based names, mascots and logos.

Wisconsin, where Indian nicknames and logos were widespread, outlawed them in 2010 after years of protests and campaigns.

At the collegiate level, the APA resolution was a major influence in the NCAA's adoption of its policy against the use of Indian names and imagery. UND is the last listed school to resist, its resistance compelled now by legislative and legal action.

The issue before the Supreme Court today is whether a state law adopted last year requiring UND to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname is constitutional and whether a referendum on the name should be placed on the June primary election ballot.

Tradition, honor

In Oregon, the state Board of Education heard testimony March 8 from several people who argued that continued use of such names and imagery "is insensitive and creates a potentially harmful environment" for Indian people, the AP reported.

But others noted that the names and mascots are venerable community traditions meant to honor Indian culture.

John Lindsey, a county commissioner, defended the Lebanon (Ore.) High School Warriors' mascot, an Indian on horseback. It represents "a proud heritage," he said. "It is an honor to be named something like that."

Andrae Brown, a psychologist and professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., challenged that, testifying that intentions don't matter. Race-based mascots, often based on inaccurate stereotypes, are racist, he said.

In an email summary of his testimony, Brown said the APA recognizes that the continued use of American Indian mascots and images "undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities" and often establishes a hostile environment for American Indian students.

The use of such names and imagery by school systems "in particular appears to have a negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children," he said. It also "undermines the ability of American Indian nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality and traditions."

He said he understands the passions involved but suggested they were misplaced. "We do not want to let go of something that was never ours to begin with."

Administrators at Scappoose High said they hoped the board could reach a compromise that respected both tradition and cultural sensitivity.

Butler, the Siletz Indian who testified for a ban, had gone to the board with the same message in 2006, according to an account distributed last week by the Portland Tribune.

"Butler said he took on the cause after his younger brother Buddha witnessed an upsetting halftime display at a Molalla (Ore.) Indians game featuring a Native American child with a target on his chest," according to the report.

That hearing led to the 2007 advisory that schools still with Indian-based names should change. None did, however.

Kept in the past?

But several members of the state board -- including Chairwoman Brenda Frank, a member of the Klamath tribe -- are ready for a ban.

"There needs to be a ban," she said in a telephone interview this week.

Frank recalled a push to get rid of race-based nicknames in Oregon in the mid-1970s, and about half of the 40 or so did drop them. But the remaining schools have hung on.

"To move closer to 'I'm the same as you,' we need to remove this rock from the path so the path will become smoother," she said. "We may live differently and we may have different traditions, but I believe in racial equality, and we need to remove as much stereotyping as we can.

"I understand honoring. I understand all their words. But why is it so important for them to keep us in the past? Why can't they see us as doctors, attorneys, engineers, artists or ballerinas?"

Frank said she expects the board to post a proposed rule later this month, schedule a public hearing in April and be ready to adopt a ban as early as May.

"I'm confident the board will do the right thing," she said.

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to