North Carolina Legislator Introduces Bill to Study Mascot Impact in Schools

Gale Courey Toensing
4/20/11

A North Carolina legislator has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to establish a panel to study the impact of American Indian mascots in public schools.

Rep. Charles Graham, a business owner and retired educator, co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Garland E. Pierce and Rep. Marcus Brandon. Graham is a Lumbee Indian. All three men are Democrats.

H.B. 681 was introduced to the House on April 5, passed a first reading and was referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations on April 7. The bill, which is called Study of American Indian Mascots at Schools, would create a 12-member committee with appointees from the House, the Senate, the State Board of Education, the Commission on Indian Affairs, tribal members, and the CEO of the North Carolina Economic Development Initiative. The committee will have support from professional staff at the Legislative Services Office.

The committee’s charge is to “study the impact of American Indian sports mascots and logos at the public schools and review current policies and procedures on their use.” The bill sets a May 1, 2012 deadline for the committee to file its final report.

H.B. 681 came under attack by the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, a North Carolina right-wing think tank. In an April 8 posting called “Mascots under the Microscope,” Andrew Blackburn wrote that the bill would put “public schools under scrutiny to see if their mascots and logos are politically correct.”

Blackburn complained that North Carolina schools are contending with staff shortages, classroom crowding, low test scores, and funding cuts in addition to budget shortfalls. “To add mascot worries to their burden seems rather inappropriate during their current difficulties.” He claimed that the proposed commission “would be funded with ever increasingly rare tax dollars (over other programs such as improving the schools themselves) to travel around the state to visit schools and make recommendations that could include the disposal of old mascots in favor of more socially acceptable and historically neutral ones.”

Furthermore, mascots are often a source of “pride” for students and teachers, Blackburn wrote. “To call this into question would rob them of their history and school pride. The General Assembly has bigger things to worry about than mascot management,” he wrote.

Graham, who is serving his first term in the legislature, told Indian Country Today Media Network that he isn’t concerned about the Civitas Institute’s criticism. “They’re what they are, a right-wing think tank,” he said. He said he introduced the bill at the request of the Commission of Indian Affairs. “I introduced this as a study bill, not a money bill that would affect the budget. It’s a study bill to get input from the Indian community on how they feel about this issue. This is not new and has been discussed before.”

There are more than 100,000 American Indians in North Carolina. The state has seven state recognized tribes and one federally recognized tribe—the Eastern Band of Cherokees Indians. The Lumbee Tribe has been seeking federal status for decades. Graham is the only American Indian now serving in the state General Assembly. “Across the state we do have a lot of support for the bill with our tribes. The North Carolina Commission on Indian Affairs, which is made up of tribal representatives, has had this on its agenda for some time and this is one I said I’d be glad to take a stab at and see if we can get it to the floor, so we’re hopeful that this will work out and get a commission working.”

Greg Richardson, the executive director of the state Commission of Indian Affairs, told the Charlotte Observer that several years ago his commission passed a resolution and forwarded it to the state Board of Education encouraging local school systems to eliminate American Indian mascots. “The Indian community obviously feels offended by the use of mascots that do not accurately represent their culture… On this particular proposal, I am representing the interest of American Indians who are among my constituents.”

Richardson said that about half of the 60-plus schools in the state that had Indian mascots when the resolution was submitted several years ago have now eliminated them. Many American Indians are offended by the way they are represented as cartoon characters, jokes on T-shirts, and in advertisements, he said. “In some Indian circles, this is viewed as degrading, disrespectful and not supportive of American Indian culture. In theory, you don’t have other populations in America—white, black or Hispanic—as mascots. Why have school mascots representing American Indians?”

He said that most American Indians don’t mind a school that’s closely linked with Indian culture or known to support Indian causes having an Indian mascot. He cited the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, which was founded in 1887 for and by American Indians historically an American Indian liberal arts university. UNCP’s athletic teams have had the nickname Braves—a term that echoes the institution's American Indian past—since the 1940s and the red-tailed hawk mascot was added as a companion to the Braves in 1991. The red-tailed hawk is indigenous to the area where the university is located.

“The community has accepted an Indian mascot at UNCP because of the institution’s ties with American Indian history and culture,” Richardson said. “Many institutions don’t even have a record of supporting Indian causes. When an institution has no ties with American Indian culture or supports Indian causes, it is perceived by many to be just using the image of the American Indian to sell a product.”

Richardson said that while the concern of American Indians about their use as mascots in North Carolina’s public schools may “look small,” the issue “symbolizes” a much larger problem. “In America we have to be more conscious and respectful of other cultures,” he said.

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