Opinion: Arizona high school on Navajo reservation clings to mascot tradition, but pro sports can send message

Washington Football Team helmets sit on the sideline prior to an NFL football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Football Team, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally) (Photo: Mark Tenally, AP)

Editor's note: First in a series looking at the debate surrounding some high school mascots as Washington's NFL team and others have announced changes in 2020.

PHOENIX – There’s a stubborn outlier in the debate over Indian mascots: the Red Mesa Redskins of the Navajo Nation community of Teec Nos Pos.

The small school, about 25 miles southwest of Four Corners, is gaining more and more attention for using a racial slur against its own people as diversity advocates make slow but steady progress toward eliminating stereotypical representations of Native people in the world of sports.

“I guess with some generations, they see that the mascot is a depiction of our fierce bravery and their way of survival,” said Charlaine Tso, a Navajo Nation Council delegate and graduate of Red Mesa High.

She and other Red Mesa leaders have fielded questions from the USA TODAY Network, The Associated Press and The Washington Post in recent years. And it’s hard to imagine the point of view held by many of Tso’s constituents leading the conversation for much longer.

It opens a real opportunity for professional sports franchises in Atlanta, Chicago and Kansas City to pick up where Cleveland baseball and Washington football franchises left off and accelerate the process of ending a boorish — and frankly, embarrassing — practice of naming teams after Indigenous people.

The Facebook page for Red Mesa High School, on the Navjo Nation in northeast Arizona, highlights its mascot name and symbol. (Photo: Via Facebaook)

'Mascots are a racist epithet' 

There are about 1,900 schools across the U.S. that still use Indian mascots, according to the National Congress of American Indians. The organization considers that a sharp reduction from previous decades. About 2,000 Indian references have been eliminated since 1985, including about 30 schools that have dropped the same racist name that the Washington NFL team once had and Red Mesa High still uses. 

There’s been a sharp change in tone among Navajo leadership, as well.

Four years ago, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly attended an NFL game in Glendale, Arizona, wearing a Washington NFL team hat with the former mascot name and logo.

This summer, when the Washington franchise announced that it would stop using the name after nearly 90 years, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez issued this statement: “For generations, this team name and logo has misrepresented the true history and events that define the term ‘redskins.’ History tells us that the term ‘redskins’ derived from bounty hunters, which identified Indigenous people by the color of their skin. We must continue to work together to correct these issues. One of those remedies is to cease the use of disparaging terms and logos among all teams and organizations.”

Members of the Washington Football Team taking the field before the start of the first half of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (Photo: Susan Walsh, AP)

That would suit the Native American Journalists Association just fine.

“NAJA has been involved in the mascot debate almost as long as we have been an organization. And NAJA was founded in 1983,” Bryan Pollard, associate director of NAJA, said. “Our position has always been that mascots are a racist epithet and harmful to native people.”

Washington's former team name holds a special place of shame, he said.

“There’s no getting around the origin of the term and that fact that there’s a direct linkage to the genocide that was happening on this continent.”

But, he said, every last one of these mascots — Apaches, Braves, Red Raiders, Savages and Warriors among them — is a problem.

“This is harmful messaging that gets indoctrinated into society, and it all needs to go,” he said.  

'Many intense conflicts'

He cited a study, “The Psychosocial Effects of Native American Mascots,” posted to his organization’s website. It involved researchers from the University of Michigan and Harvard, and it provides context that’s often missing from this debate.

“Across the nation, there continue to be many intense conflicts over these mascots. Most conflicts focus on differences in opinion, rather than the effects of these mascots,” the 2020 review states.

There are scores of problems affecting Native communities, including discrimination in education such as facing “racial slurs, stereotyping, microassaults and culturally insensitive, delegitimizing and assimilative school policies and practices (e.g., discrimination in disciplinary practices; problematic academic labeling and tracking that assumes Native families and students are deficient.")

Finding after finding in the study published in Race and Ethnicity in Education showed exposure to Native logos and mascots made things worse.

People who cling to their traditional school names have long said they believe the mascots indicate positive traits.

Washington Football Team quarterback Dwayne Haskins (7) and the offense runs a play during an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally) (Photo: Mark Tenally, AP)

“In the gymnasium, we have the mascot on a horse,” Tso said, speaking for her Red Mesa constituents. “As a source of pride and symbolism, he does raise his spear. That gesture there does say that we are strong, we are resilient, and we are going to face whatever battle or challenges that may come. … That gives us strength and positivity and hope. And I think that’s the reason some of us, the communities, cannot relate to the controversial opinion.”

But this argument fails to consider the harm of cultural appropriation.  

There’s a case to be made that neither of the logos Red Mesa uses accurately reflect Navajo traditions.

If that’s so, then they’re no better than anyone else who reduces people to stereotypes because they’re mocking others not themselves.

Washington’s football team already has done the right thing. And sometime before Opening Day 2022, Cleveland’s baseball team will, too.

This is a perfect opportunity for the NHL, NFL and MLB to make a joint move, dropping the names Blackhawks, Braves and Chiefs, in unison.   

It would send a powerful message to the 1,900 high schools and colleges around the nation who either don’t know or don’t care how much harm they’re doing.

Even if it’s to their own people.

Reach Moore at[email protected]or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @SayingMoore.

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