Time for Change: Race-Themed Mascots Cast Shadow on Schools

Misuse of Indigenous Names and Symbols Perpetuates Harm

By Edward T. Ventura Jr.

A national conversation on racial equality and anti-racism has renewed attention to and interest in a number of  issues.  One topic that seems to sit on the back burner being forever deemed okay is the use of American Indian-themed school mascots.

While there are many issues we as Indigenous People must address, our task is much more difficult when mascots and caricatures prevent others from seeing Indigenous People for what they are: people.

Native Americans constitute roughly two percent of the United States’ population and less than 1 percent of students.

Thus, if Native American voices must outweigh the voices of those who want to retain harmful mascots, our battle will never be won.

Rather than engaging in a heated, divisive debate, it is time to start listening to research and voices that have been drowned out for decades.

Addressing the issue of race-themed mascots is not political correctness. It is about racial equity and justice. It requires the courage of a whole society to stand up against an accepted norm to overcome racism.

As Nebraskans, we must push to advance a more equal and just society for all people. We must accept that the time to advance equality for America’s first people is long overdue.

I recognize that many may feel a sense of pride and identity with race-themed mascots adorning the hallways and sports facilities. I recognize that a call to retire familiar mascots will bring feelings of anger, defensiveness and confusion.

I recognize that it is easier to name and call out racism in other communities and institutions than to do so within an institution we have grown up in and identified with. I recognize that it is difficult to speak the word “racist” in association with a school district in which we feel great pride.

I also recognize that many students, educators, alumni and, yes, even you, may feel uncomfortable with the mascot but are hesitant to say so publicly at the risk of upsetting friends and family and perhaps loss of elected or appointed position.

When I look at the Bellevue Public Schools website, I see a proud, successful and award-winning school district. I also see the misuse of many Indigenous names and images. This use causes significant divisiveness and distracts from the district’s core mission: to provide the highest quality, equitable education for children and youth.

However, we have an obligation as educators to discontinue any practice that could create a racially hostile educational environment.

The Bellevue Public Schools’ race-themed mascots undermine education efforts regarding the struggle of Indigenous and Native Americans who were wiped out by white greed and racism. This lessens the value of education because the district continues the legacy of racist oppression and humiliation.

By turning a minority group into caricatures, the Bellevue Public School District invalidates our identities and makes our voices less accepted by those in power.

That no harm was intended when the logos were adopted may be true. It is also true that we – American Indian people – are saying that the logos are harmful to our cultures, and especially to our children, in the present.

When someone says your actions cause harm, that harm becomes intentional if you persist.

Today the Bellevue Public School District has the opportunity to  represent American Indians with respect by removing such mascots in a show of respect for all current, former and future American Indian students. To ignore this issue means to continually and knowingly inflict harm and perpetuate racism.

Edward T. Ventura Jr. is a Bellevue resident and a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. He serves as the chairman of the Nebraska State Education Association Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee. This opinion piece originally appeared in the Omaha World Herald on Feb. 7, 2021.