Mascot debate surrounds Utah bill


Coming face-to-face with Utah Rep. Rex Shipp, the sponsor of HJR 10, Alastair Bitsoi told the lawmaker that as Native Americans, we are not mascots.

Shipp is sponsoring the bill, which is currently before the Utah House Rules Committee, that supports the use of names, images and symbols of Native Americans and other Indigenous people in schools or places and discourages their removal.

“I shared our perspective such as, ‘Your bill is making it OK for Utah to legislate our Native culture and identity by saying Native mascots are OK and it’s not,’” said Bitsoi, communications director for Utah Diné Bikéya.

“Of course he tried to discredit all that I was saying,” Bitsoi said. “He was more or less denying the intent of the bill. But, I said, ‘The state of Utah cannot legislate Native identity.’”

Bitsoi explained that his lobbying efforts, along with Utah Diné Bikéya, are in support of the Utah League of Native American Voters and the Paiute Tribal Council and their efforts to defeat the resolution and have it ultimately withdrawn.

The resolution was introduced after Cedar High School, in Cedar City, Utah, dropped the use of its Native American mascot – the “Redmen” – and an associated warrior head that promotes inaccurate and generic stereotypes of Native Americans. This came after a 3-2 vote to no longer use “Redmen” mascot by the Iron County School Board.

As co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters, James Courage Singer explained the resolution marginalizes Native peoples and their governments by taking an official position that Native mascots, representations, and imagery can’t be changed unless it goes through a process.

“That process is not spelled out but would most likely be skewed in favor of those already in power, the ones proposing this bill,” explained Singer. “When institutional power or resources, like using the power and resources of a legislature, are used to further disenfranchise a marginalized group – when those powers are used to take away rights instead of pushing for more equality – and when that has a racialized component to it … that is institutional or systemic racism.”

Singer and Bitosi both said Shipp didn’t consult with any of the tribal governments or leaders before introducing this bill. And this approach undermines tribal sovereignty.
The resolution states there are 50 different tribes in the U.S. with varied cultures, histories, beliefs, languages and dialects that should be accurately reflected when names, images, or symbols used by schools or places in Utah.

It also states the Native American Guardian’s Association represents the sentiment of the silent majority of Native people who support the use of Native Imagery, name or symbols.

It also uses the Washington Post poll that found 90 percent of Natives are not offended by the Redskins nickname, which is a significant amount of support for what many believe to be a racist team name. This poll has been widely criticized by prominent Native activists, groups, writers, and scholars.

“The Washington Post doesn’t always represent the legitimacy or our stories of our Native American people,” said Bitsoi. “The question I have is, ‘Who are Native American Guardian’s Association?’ The bill cites that it’s an expert nonprofit.

“We dispute that because a nonprofit shouldn’t speak on behalf of Indigenous tribes like the Navajo Nation who has its own president, vice president and Council,” he said.

In 2014, when President Jonathan Nez was a member of the Navajo Nation Council, he supported a bill opposing the use of disparaging references to Native people in professional sports franchises, and he said that support continues to this day.

“We need to stand strong with our young Native people who are bringing this issue to the forefront,” said Nez. “It’s about protecting our sacred identity and teachings as Indigenous people. This is a matter for Native American people, not for a state legislation to decide for us.”

The Native American Rights Fund sent the chairwoman of the Southern Paiute Tribe, Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, seven pages of information on the impact of Native American mascots and the associated stereotypes imagery has on Native American and non-Native American youth.

The study stated HJR 10 ignores the negative psychological and educational impact Native American mascots and the mascot’s associated imagery have on both Native American and non-Native youth.

The reported stated not only are Native American mascots extremely offensive, but they also cause real documented harm to the mental health of Native American and Alaska Native students.

According to the American Psychological Association, numerous studies have demonstrated that the use of Native American mascots: undermines the educational experience of members of all communities; establishes an unwelcome and hostile learning environment for Native American students; has a negative impact on the self-esteem of Native American children; undermines the ability of Native nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture; and may represent a violation of the civil rights of Native American people, NARF stated in the letter among other harmful impacts.

In Arizona there are two schools on or near the Navajo Nation that continue to use”Redskins” as their team name. The St. Johns High School, located in the mostly Mormon town of St. Johns, and Red Mesa High in Teec Nos Pos.

Viewing the schools’ websites, it’s apparent St. Johns is more overt in showing its team’s name and Indian head mascot. But Red Mesa has publicly defended its school name in a 2014 Washington Post article.

Last week Delegate Charlaine Tso, who represents Mexican Water, To’likan, Teesnospos, Aneth and Red Mesa, loudly and proudly said into her microphone, “Go Redskins!” after she introduced a fellow Red Mesa High School alum, former Navajo Nation vice president candidate Buu Van Nygren.

“As a proud alumnus of Red Mesa High School, I grew up with the Redskins as our mascot,” said Nygren to the Times. “As a high school student, I was proud of the name and mascot. Mrs. Tso’s comment reflects the pride of many alumni, students, and faculty feel toward Red Mesa High School.”

Although a proud alumnus, Nygren said the school should consider changing the mascot. He expressed consideration for those who are offended by the name such as other members of the Navajo Nation, and members of other tribes.

Dismissing the views of those who are deeply affected by mascots, even if some Navajos do feel pride and honor when they see the mascot, shouldn’t be an option, he said.
“We should also be mindful of the imagery associated with the mascot,” said Nygren. “Most of the time, the imagery associated with the mascot includes headdresses, and we, as Navajo people, are not usually associated with that imagery.

“We should think, how would we Diné feel if non-Navajos or non-Natives dressed up as some of our holy/medicine people and paraded around saying they are honoring us,” he said.

Borchardt-Slayton said they met with Shipp and he is willing to amend the resolution, but the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah would still like HJR 10 withdrawn due to lack of consultation with the tribes in Utah, its ambiguous language, and that it is trying to address imagery in schools in Utah and landmarks, which are two different issues.

“We will continue to ask for changes in legislation for how Native American history is taught in the state of Utah curriculum,” said Borchardt-Slayton. “If they want to pursue with a resolution in the future, the governor needs to establish a commission to study Native American representation in public schools, similar to the one established by the state of Colorado.

“The process needs to be more researched and the tribes need to be consulted,” she said.

About The Author

Arlyssa Becenti

Arlyssa Becenti reports on Navajo Nation Council and Office of the President and Vice President. Her clans are Nát'oh dine'é Táchii'nii, Bit'ahnii, Kin łichii'nii, Kiyaa'áanii. She’s originally from Fort Defiance and has a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. Before working for the Navajo Times she was a reporter for the Gallup Independent. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @abecenti


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