The debate about Native American-themed team names goes local

WGUARDIANS HAT and commanders have in common? Both project enough energy for sports fans to root for them, and neither is offensive. The Commanders are the former Washington Redskins, a football team; The Guardians are the baseball team known as the Cleveland Indians. They are the latest examples of the removal of Native American images from organized sports. In a video voiced by Tom Hanks, Cleveland’s name change is portrayed as moving history forward, from racism to justice. For some Native Americans, it’s not that simple.

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Brenda Bremner, former CEO of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, has a closet full of Warriors and Braves jerseys. Her parents met at the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, and her father played for the Chemawa Braves. “We proudly wore Indian-type logos,” she says. In 2017, it became illegal for public schools in Oregon to have Native American mascots, logos or team names, but an exception, requested by Ms. Bremner, allowed schools to keep their mascots by entering into agreements with local tribes. Eight school districts did.

A similar bill is now in the Massachusetts Senate, with the town of Dartmouth wondering what to do with its high school team, the Indians. Is the Indian logo racist (causing “shame, horror and harm,” as critics put it at a school committee meeting this week)? A non-binding referendum is scheduled for April 5.

The Pocasset Wampanoag tribe, who lived in this area when the Pilgrims landed in 1620, are divided on the issue. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe opposes the Dartmouth Indian logo. But 22 members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe signed a letter defending her. The image was drawn by a member of the tribe. “The symbol is not disrespectful,” Sean Carney of Aquinnah said at an earlier school board meeting on March 8. In a separate letter, the Aquinnah president said the ban is intended to remove Native Americans from “current culture and society.”

Carney doesn’t love the Redskins or Chief Wahoo, the cartoonish mascot of the Cleveland Indians. The damaging effects of these types of images on students have been well documented, which is why Maine banned such mascots in 2019, and why a new Colorado law will fine any public school with an unacceptable native team name or logo with $25,000 per month from June. But the Dartmouth Indian is not Chief Wahoo.

State bans are a crude instrument. What many tribes want above all else is meaningful consultation about the decisions that are ostensibly made on their behalf. The local approach has worked. Athletes at the University of Utah continue to call themselves Utes, with the approval of the real Utes, in exchange for curriculum and scholarships for members of the tribe. It is similar with the Florida State University Seminoles. Prejudice is the problem, says Ms. Bremner, “and you don’t get rid of prejudice without education.”

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This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “Pride and Prejudice.”

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