COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Forty-one high schools since 1989 have changed their mascot’s name from Redskins, picking new monikers like Red Hawks, Reds and Legends. Calaveras High School, forced to change by the state of California, changed its name to nothing.
The San Andreas, California, school had been known as the Redskins for almost 70 years, but had to abandon the name after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Racial Mascots Act into law in October 2015.
A committee of students, staff, alumni and community members decided in May 2016 it would rather have no name than choose something other than Redskins.
“Overwhelmingly that was the choice, maintaining the tradition of our logo and emblems and dropping the term Redskins,” Calaveras Athletic Director Mike Koepp told Capital News Service, referring to an online survey circulated in the community.
Calaveras was one of four California high schools affected by the law, which banned the state’s public schools from using the name for its athletic teams. Tulare Union High School, Gustine High School and Chowchilla High School were also compelled to abandon their school mascots.
The law in California is the most prominent example of government entities stepping in to either pressure or directly induce high schools using the name to change over the last four years.
In almost all cases where an external government has driven the change, it was met with fierce resistance from the affected schools.
- In Texas, a state senator sent an open letter to the Houston Independent School District asking it to “put in place a process” to remove the name from Lamar High School, leading to a December 2013 school board vote that did just that.
- Neshaminy High School faces an ongoing challenge to its name from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, a state agency that enforces state laws prohibiting discrimination.
- In Michigan, two state senators introduced legislation in early November to empower the State Board of Education and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to create a list of racially offensive mascots and financially penalize schools that use the names. Five Michigan high schools currently use ‘Redskins’.
The California law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, and all four affected schools that once used the name have now stopped.
In the months leading up to the September 2015 state Senate vote on the bill, representatives from at least two of the schools tried to stop the legislation from passing.
Then-Gustine mayor Dennis Brazil, who is now running for a state Senate seat, thought the law was unnecessary because he said Gustine didn’t use the name disrespectfully.
“If Native Americans were coming out in groves of people opposing us having the name Redskins, we would have changed it, unanimously,” Brazil said. “We can’t find Native Americans that see there’s anything wrong with the way the schools have been using the name.”
Brazil said the town reached out to both the bill’s author, then-Assemblyman Luis Alejo, and the governor, but didn’t hear back from either of them about the bill.
“We did an online petition, spread through social media, we did interviews on radio stations, we did press releases for the news media, and kept forwarding all of this to the governor, telling him we think this bill needs to be removed, to no avail. He never even returned our phone calls,” Brazil said.
The governor’s office did not return multiple requests for comment from Capital News Service.
Alejo is now on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and is running for the state Senate seat occupied by Anthony Cannella, who voted against the Racial Mascots Act. Alejo did not return multiple requests for comment.
“It’s a small thing we can do in California that is part of a national movement to phase out the use of racial slurs as mascots,” Alejo told the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after the legislation was introduced in December 2014.
Before the measure passed both legislative houses, Tulare Union students also lobbied against it. Tulare Union students and alumni also said they did not believe they used the name in a derogatory manner.
“You’re always going to have those that are offended,” 1987 Tulare Union graduate Brenda Correia said. “And I understand back in cowboy times it was what the white man called the Indian, and it wasn’t necessarily a positive I guess back then. But the connotation of it was very positive going to the school.”
She added: “To have (the name) changed, it’s like they cut off the history of the school and are having to start over with a new history…It just kind of feels like a disconnect even though it’s the same school.”
Another Tulare graduate, James Paulkeen, who was a senior when the bill passed, did not want to see a part of the school’s identity disappear.
“It wasn’t something we just slapped on the back of our jerseys and said this is us,” Paulkeen said of the name in a Twitter message to Capital News Service. “It is who we are.”
A group of Tulare Union students traveled to Sacramento to speak with state legislators about the name. Paulkeen helped circulate petitions opposing the bill and spoke to multiple news outlets about his views on the name. The school also enlisted the help of local Native American tribes.
Cordelia Swan Mills, a member of the Lakota tribe who lives in Tulare, sent a letter to Brown, encouraging him not to allow the law to pass.
“We will address any issues that infringes on our dignity as indigenous nations in our community,” the letter reads. “Tulare Union High School consciously displays a positive image of our nations for our community.”
Mills was unavailable for comment for this story.
The local Native American tribes had worked with the school to make sure the name was used appropriately, Tulare Mayor Carlton Jones said.
“(The students) would learn the culture of who can wear a headdress and why someone has a headdress,” Jones said. “There was always this cultural sensitivity and education that went along with them using (the name) to get the blessing of the local tribes.”
The opposition to the Racial Mascots Act failed. Both houses of the state legislature passed the bill by comfortable margins. Of the six senators and assemblymen who represent districts that contain the affected schools, four voted against the bill and two did not vote.
Brazil, the former Gustine mayor, said there was not enough consideration given to future students before the bill passed.
“One key element was left out, probably the most important element of all of this: the kids,” he said. “Where was their (the bill’s proponents) understanding about four high schools or 300 years combined history of using the Native American name so proud and so honorable that was stripped from these kids?”
At Tulare Union, opposition to the change started even before a new name had been selected. The school’s class of 2016, the final class to use the old name, had, “Forever Redskins” inscribed on their senior shirts.
The schools took different paths in choosing a replacement. Gustine shortened its name, becoming the Reds, a name it used before it became the Redskins in the 1930s, dropping it to avoid associations with communism. Calaveras protested the state-imposed decision by not replacing its mascot at all.
Tulare Union chose Tribe, a name Chowchilla also now uses.
“We’d been calling our school ‘tribe of Redskins’ kind of for a while,” said Summer Parreira, a Tulare senior. “We had a club on campus called TRIBE, that was an acronym (Tulare Redskins Interested in Being Enthusiastic), so it’s kind of been around and it was a good fit.”
Not everyone believes that switching the name to Tribe is enough to rid schools of Native American stereotyping. Joely Proudfit, chair of the American Indian Studies Department at California State University in San Marcos, said the Racial Mascots Act was “a positive step in the right direction” but also called it “a political compromise.”
“There’s no redeeming quality of the word ‘Redskin’ but to try to soften the blow by using ‘Tribe’ or ‘Indian’ or ‘Warrior’ is nonsensical,” said Proudfit, who is a member of the Luiseño/Payomkowishum tribe. “It just shows that the proponents of keeping these types of words in there don’t understand or refuse to understand the harmful effects of stereotyping one particular population.”
She believes those harmful effects still exist, even though people who use Native mascots may intend them to be respectful.
“If you’re stepping on my foot and telling me, ‘It doesn’t hurt,’ and I’m saying ‘Yes, I’m the one feeling the pain, I’m telling you it hurts,’ who are you going to believe?” Proudfit asked. “Mascots and stereotypes hurt. There is no good way in which to utilize them.”
Tony Rodriguez, the Tulare Joint Union High School District superintendent, said the student population’s reaction to the Tribe moniker has been mixed, with an age divide between those accepting the new name and those still nostalgic for the old name.
“New students come in as freshmen and they never really were involved in being what they call a ‘Redskin student,’” said Rodriguez, who has worked in the district for 27 years. “You have the others, the juniors, seniors, they feel strongly that they should have kept the name.
“I think they’re slowing embracing the new name Tribe. And it takes a while, if you have a school that has had that name for a hundred years, for the community and for staff and even for alumni, it takes a while to transition to the new name.”
For some students and alumni, however, the best way to remember the history of the banned name is to keep using it.
Correia said Tulare Union’s old name will continue to be a fixture at athletic events in the future.
“All those (alumni) are coming to the games and they’re still wearing their Redskins stuff,” she said. “That’ll never change.”
Parreira still wears gear with the old name as well.
“I’ve grown up on this campus, with my brother going here and me coming in my freshman year as a Redskin and finishing my sophomore year as a Redskin, I feel that I am a Redskin,” she said. “Just because they took the name away doesn’t change the way I portray my mascot for my school.”