Well before high schools existed in Michigan, and before the French sailed the Great Lakes, the state was inhabited by Native Americans.
As the United States expanded in the 19th century, the government used its power to push many Native Americans off of their land. Uprooted tribes left their homes and left behind their way of life, which consisted of survival through hunting and fishing, as well as a spiritual connection to the land. Those who did live among white settlers were treated poorly and subjected to such injustices as forced cultural assimilation and unfair trading practices.
Despite attacks on the culture, Native Americans persevered and passed on physical and spiritual traditions to the younger generations. Those actions have resulted in a strong and proud Native American presence today in Michigan.
Recently the Michigan Department of Civil Rights decided that it wants Native American mascots and images removed from the state’s schools. To try and accomplish this, the MDCR has filed a suit with the United States Department of Education, naming 35 schools. It argues that mascot names such as Warriors, Redskins, Indians or Chiefs, along with accompanying images and logos, perpetuate a negative stereotype that ultimately hurts the academic performance of Native American students.
|Now the Warriors and other Native American mascots "bully students." According to the MDCR in 2013.|
A section of the suit reads, "Continued use of American Indian mascots, names, nicknames, logos, slogans, chants and/or other imagery by each of the schools named in the complaint creates a hostile environment and denies equal rights to all current and future American Indian students.”
Upon reading the MDCR claim, we agree that racism exists, as does stereotyping of Native Americans. However, the department is misguided in thinking there is any connection to a school’s logo or mascot. Any such problems are the result of ignorance, which stems from centuries of jokes and past portrayals of Native Americans as untamed, violent savages. To try and erase that ignorance, resources should be dedicated to properly educating students about Native American culture, not fighting to change a mascot.
Here at The D Zone we decided to conduct our own poll, using Twitter, to find out whether anyone has, or has knowledge of, someone left at a disadvantage due to the use of a Native American mascot. The question was sent to more than 9,000 users, with the promise of anonymity for anyone who responded. We waited, but the only replies we received were from others who are also unhappy that the MDCR has filed the suit.
Many Native American tribes have gone on record as saying that they are honored by the use of Native American mascots. Speaking to the online news site Mlive.com recently, Frank Cloutier, public relations director for the Chippewa Indian Tribe, commented on the use of the Warriors name by Bay City Western High School, which is one of the schools named in the suit.
"Something like the Western Warriors is a very general, straight-forward depiction of our people," Cloutier told Mlive.com "It looks at us as very proud and strong-willed people. I don't see anything wrong with Western using it. They are good Warriors."
This past week Mlive.com also addressed the issue by hosting an online chat, with an MDCR representative available to answer questions. The discussion was nearly a one-sided event, as most users commenting were not in support of removing Native American mascots or images from schools.
Throughout the chat, no evidence was given to support the MDCR claim that a connection exists between the uses of Native American imagery and poor academic performance by Native American students.
One point the MDCR representative tried to make was that the use of Native American mascots by one school could still be a problem for other schools. The example given was that of a Native American teen sitting in the stands at a sporting event and being forced to hear chants like “Kill the Indians” or “Scalp the Warriors.”
In response to this, one Mlive.com user said, “This is the best example yet of your organization's ignorance. This simply does not happen, period. I'm embarrassed for your department and I truly hope that its budget will be redirected to pay for road maintenance in the near future. Disgusting."
Even if something like this were to occur, it once again should involve education as a solution. Either way, schools should be teaching students, fans, parents and even administrators what is appropriate in the bleachers and what is not. Switching a logo will certainly not eliminate bad behavior.
During the Mlive.com chat, the MDCR representative also pointed out that the suit does call for an exception in places where a school district and local tribe could agree on a name or logo acceptable to the tribe. The MDCR representative said this aspect of the plan has been frequently overlooked.
Well, if the MDCR is serious about allowing this, why is that particular segment written in ambiguous language and not mentioned until near the end of the complaint, and near the end of the Feb. 8 press release, as well. Actions like this make it appear that either the MDCR doesn’t have its ducks in a row or that its motives are questionable.
The confusion surrounding the issue only continued when we suggested, during the chat, that time be set aside to educate students about Native American culture. The MDCR representative pointed to the existence of Native American Heritage Month as a means of education. However, the representative wasn’t even sure what month is designated as Native American Heritage Month (it’s November). Aside from the lack of knowledge, this is also indicative of the fact that Native American Heritage Month gets very little attention, subsequently doing little for education and proving that more needs to be done.
Overall, we were certainly left scratching our heads after the Mlive.com chat. It left us even more confused, and even more skeptical, when it comes to the MDCR and the filing of the suit.
Aside from the cultural aspects, another angle to consider is the monetary burden schools would have face by having to change mascots. At a time where budget cuts have become the norm, school districts would be using funds to correct something that was never a problem. We feel that if MDCR does win its case, it should at least cover each school’s expenses associated with changing mascots.
If the MDCR is successful, it’s scary to think what would be targeted next. Would cities, street names or landmarks with Native American names be subject to a forced change? What about school mascots and logos that depict other cultures, such as the Irish, would that be under attack, as well?
At the college level, actions have varied when it comes to Native American mascots. In 2005 the NCAA banned the use of mascots that it considers “hostile or abusive” toward Native Americans, naming 18 schools in the process. The NCAA went as far as threatening sanctions against the University of North Dakota if the school didn’t drop the name the Fighting Sioux by the deadline given. However, not only do the Sioux people of the Spirit Lake tribe support the use of the name, they have battled the NCAA in court, trying to keep the name for UND.
Here in our state, we have seen Eastern Michigan University voluntarily change its Huron mascot about 20 years ago to the Eagles. At Central Michigan University, the school’s leadership and the local Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe have worked together to form a mutual relationship that ensures the Chippewas’ logo will remain tall and proud. That partnership has brought nothing but respect from both sides when it comes to the use of the Chippewas’ name.
Recently we received an email from a reader named Ian, who lives in Jackson. We’ve included some of his comments below because we feel they represent the passion and anger that has been stirred in many Michigan residents since the NDCR announced the filing of its suit.
“Do they want to see what kind of effects (Native American mascots) have? How about pride? Has the Michigan Civil Rights Department ever been to a University of North Dakota hockey game or athletic event? What do all the students yell at the end of the national anthem? “…And the home of the SIOUX!!!!!.” That’s true pride of what that university is able to represent on a national forum. That university had the tribe’s permission (to use the name)…they even (held) a religious ceremony over 40 years ago with 2 of the local tribes giving UND its blessing to (use the name).”
“Much like what the NCAA did, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights clearly has an ulterior motive here. It’s a PC move, period. They can claim it’s not about being offensive, or that it’s truly about the negative effect it has on children, but it’s really about nothing but power and control. What is the state going to do if a high school/district refuses? Then the department will show their true colors."
To close, we see the MDCR suit as an injustice against the Native American people, rather than an action that would help them. The MDCR would only be taking away a tradition that honors Native Americans. The names would be stripped from schools such as Port Huron or Birmingham Brother Rice, which honor the names with courage and bravery of their own.
Honestly it’s frustrating that we are even debating this, a debate that is sadly taking place after the MDCR filed its suit. We hope that the MDCR eventually listens to the people, primarily Native Americans, and realizes its priorities are not in order. Removing the names and imagery of a proud people is certainly not a step forward for anyone and would be a big mistake.