As lawsuit brews, debate pits local tradition, sensitivity

Even as the state Board of Education tries to write rules to regulate them, Oregon schools remain adamant about keeping tribal mascots — and tribal advocates are just as vocal in saying they must go.

The board will hear a progress report at its meeting Thursday in Salem and is scheduled to adopt rules April 9.

The board is trying to implement a 2014 law that allows such mascots if districts come to agreements with any of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon.

Fourteen high schools have tribal mascot names. Among them are the Banks Braves, Molalla Indians and Scappoose Indians.

The full list: Warriors, used by Amity, North Douglas (Drain), Oakridge, Philomath, Lebanon, Siletz and Warrenton; Indians, used by Mohawk (Marcola), Molalla, Roseburg and Scappoose; Braves, moniker for Banks and Reedsport; Chieftains, adopted by Rogue River.

The board in 2012 gave districts five years to phase out such mascots. Lawmakers overrode it in 2013, only to have then-Gov. John Kitzhaber veto that bill. Kitzhaber signed a revised version in 2014 sponsored by Republican Sens. Jeff Kruse of Roseburg and Fred Girod of Lyons, whose district includes Molalla.

An informal work group attempted to craft a rule, but differences became evident during a two-hour rulemaking hearing last week conducted by Cindy Hunt, government and legal affairs manager for the Oregon Department of Education.

Tony Mann, superintendent of the Molalla River School District, says he has worked with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde on an agreement to retain the name of Molalla Indians.

“The tribes expect to maintain a mascot that genuinely and respectfully represents the Molalla people, the tribes, and all indigenous peoples in the state,” Mann says. “I humbly ask the board to remain neutral in matters related to this.”

He says the state board’s role should be limited to whether districts simply comply with the procedure outlined in the law.

“What I saw coming out of the work group was the necessity of having a relationship — not just a one-time meeting and agreement but an ongoing relationship — with our tribal partners,” says Paul Young, Rogue River schools superintendent.

Larry Parsons, Roseburg schools superintendent, criticized a proposed requirement for districts retaining tribal mascots to map how they would close academic achievement gaps for students. He says such a requirement should apply to all Oregon schools.

Parsons also says it would be impractical for Roseburg to adopt a name of Roseburg Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, the nearest of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes.

But tribal advocates say it’s time for the 14 schools to follow the lead of The Dalles High School, which adopted the name Riverhawks instead of retaining Indians as a tribal mascot.

“These mascots undermine the educational experience of all students, particularly those with little or no contact with indigenous or native Alaskan peoples,” says Se-Ah-Dom Edmo, interim president of the Oregon Indian Education Association.

“I think we can still be invested in our teams without mascot names or images associated with them.”

Edmo also says many students come from tribes outside Oregon and are not represented by the nine federally recognized tribes.

Sam Sachs, a Portland human rights commissioner and an activist for racial justice, says the affected schools should do something similar to what his alma mater South Albany High School did. The school’s mascot is still the Rebels, but there is no Confederate flag — a symbol that blacks take offense to because of the legacy of slavery in the South.

Sachs says if the board proceeds to adopt a rule, it will face a lawsuit from affected student plaintiffs.

“I am done; there is nothing left to say,” he says. “We can list numerous human rights organizations here and throughout the country that say this needs to stop, this needs to end.”

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