By Lauren Rearick
As a growing number of public schools continue to reconsider use of Native American mascots, Maine has taken legislative action. On Thursday, May 23, the state became the first to ban public educational institutions from appropriating Native American imagery.
The law, signed by Governor Janet Mills, no longer permits public schools to have or adopt “a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to a Native American tribe, individual, custom or tradition and that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name of the school," CNN reports. The measure will go into effect in 90 days.
In a statement made on Thursday, Mills acknowledged that local tribes had express discontent with the pervasive appropriation of Native American imagery for school mascots. "While Indian mascots were often originally chosen to recognize and honor a school's unique connection to Native American communities in Maine, we have heard clearly and unequivocally from Maine tribes that they are a source of pain and anguish," she said.
Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, who is a member of the Choctaw Nation and Executive Director for the Association on American Indian Affairs, applauded the state of Maine for its decision. “We are not mascots – we are diverse peoples and Tribes that should be recognized by fully protecting our human rights and acknowledged for what we have sacrificed, mostly under force or duress, so America could ‘prosper,’” she told MTV News. “Today we fight for clean water, to safeguard our lands and sacred places, to utilize our cultures and languages, protect our children and govern ourselves – we are not mascots.”
Passage of the law comes after some Maine residents raised concern regarding the mascot that was still being used by the Skowhegan Area School District, WGME13 reports. As pointed out by the Press Herald, the district was the last in the state to still feature a mascot that appropriated Native American culture. The name was later changed in March, the Press Herald reported, and Maine’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs introduced the now passed bill that would prohibit any future use of Native American imagery for school mascot purposes.
Rena Newell, a tribal representative for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, told WGME13 that the bill’s passage was the “start of a higher trust of promoting cultural diversity and awareness.”
The National Congress of American Indians continues to call for an end to the use of Native American imagery in sports. “Rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful, perpetuate negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples, and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples,” their website reads.
Since 1972, higher education institutes and high schools throughout the United States have continued to rethink their use of Native American mascots. In 2017, Wells High School in Wells, Maine, came under fire for the use of its mascot when the school played Lisbon High School, whose quarterback at the time was Native American. The Lisbon student’s mother alleged that people in the stands had appropriated headdresses and were openly racist to both her and her son; the Bangor Daily News reported that the school changed its mascot but not the team name in September 2018.
However, many institutions, and professional sports teams, including the NFL team that plays in Washington, D.C., continue their use of Native American-inspired mascots. In January, the MLB team that plays in Cleveland, Ohio, conceded that their old team mascot was worth abandoning, but the owner of the Washington football team has doubled down on his decision not to change the team’s name, even though it is a slur against Native peoples.