State racial equity commission advocates eliminating American Indian mascots at Kansas schools

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Activists protest the Washington NFL team's nickname, formerly the Redskins, at a game in 2014. A state commission in Kansas recommended schools "review and eliminate" the use of American Indian mascots, nicknames or imagery.

A commission tapped by Gov. Laura Kelly to probe racial equity in Kansas has recommended schools in the state "review and eliminate" the use of American Indian mascots, nicknames or imagery.

The guidance from the Commission on Racial Equity and Justice is voluntary but comes as many schools throughout the state are re-evaluating mascots that many consider to be offensive and derogatory.

The move wasn't unexpected, as many members advocated for the recommendation during a recent meeting of the commission dedicated to the subject.

"You can imagine my own response and the response of children in our school systems when they hear those kinds of things and they know the history," Elyse Towey, treasurer of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, said at the meeting. "They know why those things were named that and see that every day."

More than two dozen schools in Kansas use American Indian mascots or nicknames currently, according to documents presented as Atchison Unified School District 409 considered changing their mascot this year.

The Kansas Association for Native American Education first advocated schools change their mascots in 1998, although many haven't begun heeding the call until recently.

Shawnee Mission School District banned American Indian mascots in January, for instance, prompting students at Shawnee Mission North to vote to change their nickname from Indians to Bison. Wichita school board members voted in February, meanwhile, to ditch Wichita North High School's Redskins moniker.

The guidance from the commission advocates that schools work with the KANAE and other American Indian advocacy groups in the state "to identify resources and to educate and assist in assessing their Native American representations and build relationships with federally recognized tribes in their area.

The report noted the state could opt to ban their use statewide, following in the footsteps of Maine and Nevada, who have implemented similar policies.

If schools elect to keep American Indian mascots or imagery in place due to cost or an inability to remove them, the guidance says they should develop education resources and work with tribes to "ensure imagery is appropriately contextualized."

Unclear if guidance will prompt schools to change mascots

Whether the remaining schools using American Indian mascots will change course in light of the guidance remains to be seen.

Students and staff in Osage City Unified School District 420 voted overwhelmingly to preserve the high school's Indians mascot in a vote several years ago, school board president Jay Bailey said.

Osage City High School is one of morethan two dozen schools in Kansas to have an American Indian mascot. A state racial equity commission recommended schools "review and eliminate" their use of American Indian mascots and imagery in a report Wednesday.

Bailey said he would be open to any change among the popular sentiment in the district and said he would welcome a conversation with American Indian advocacy groups on why the nickname might be problematic.

But he added he didn't believe the mood of students, parents and the Osage City community had changed on the matter and said it hadn't been discussed in recent years.

"If the people at USD 420 believe it needs to be changed, then they will let us know," Bailey said. "But to have for the lack of a better word, for state government, or anybody else that says we have to change something, I don't know if that would be legit. Then we'd have to change the name of our county because it's named after the Osage Indian tribe.

"So we changed the name of the county, we're changing the name of the town. When do we stop?"

The mascot guidance comes amid a second round of recommendations from the group, after they released a report earlier this year on a range of recommended policy changes at the state and local level related to policing.

Other recommended changes come in a host of areas, ranging from health care to education to taxation.

Recommendations include reinstating a rebate to make up for the fact that the state is one of seven who fully tax groceries, expand financial aid programming for students of color seeking to attend Kansas colleges or universities and ensuring COVID-19 funding and support reaches communities of color.