By Monica Washington Padula
As someone who engaged in the successful fight to have the Paw Paw School District replace its racist nickname and mascot, I can tell you this: Our victory did not come quickly, nor easily.
Native Americans and their allies faced years of hostility from neighbors absolutely irate at the thought of losing their “tradition.” But, with a dozen or more school districts around the state stubbornly clinging to the same sort of misguided past and the harm it still causes, it is important to spread the message that, difficult and emotionally draining as they might be, these fights must continue to not only be fought, but won.
Paw Paw shows that, with perseverance, it’s possible.
Located in a rural part of western Michigan’s Van Buren County, the Paw Paw School District is home to about 13,000 people. Awareness of the mascot controversy dates back to at least 1994, when mention was made in the high school yearbook that the district was “… slowly pushing toward a more politically correct mascot but no one knows how long it will take.”
They were referring to the use of the use of the term “Redskins,” also referred to by Native American activists and allies as the “R-word.” (The controversy surrounding this team name was highlighted by Washington, D.C.’s professional football team, whose former owner insisted that the name would never change, but did in 2020 due to the heightened pressure and education by Native American activists, many of whom were matriarchs who are culturally viewed as having a respected role in protecting the youth and addressing the offenses that we endure as Native people).
In fact, opposition to using Native Americans as mascots has been voiced since at least the 1940s, when the National Congress of American Indians first began its campaign to combat the use of negative stereotypes in the media.
Other organizations also followed that example, including the Michigan Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media (MCARSM), a Michigan branch of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media. The Michigan branch was co-founded by two Native people in Michigan, and supported by others who united under the umbrella of addressing how mascots in school and professional sports teams contributed to portraying Native people as stereotypes in areas where there was little engagement with the Native people living there.
Mascots in sports teams disenfranchise culturally connected Native voices from addressing the offences that occur using the mascot as a green light for student bodies and detriment of Native people who attend the schools and attend the games themselves. The mascots and their accompanying nicknames encourage participation in the racism expressed by the settler-descendant populations that are exploiting Native references and images (and the oppressive history behind the genocides of the first nations in the US and Canada) for team branding.
As a person of Afro-Indigenous heritage, I became involved in the issue in 2015, when my children started attending the local public schools. Speaking out with others at school board meetings and using social media to get our messages out, Native people and their allies steadily ramped up pressure on the district.
It was not easy, as many people needed convincing of how to approach a hostile environment that used the school board meetings as opportunities to unleash microagressions, thinly veiled threats of intimidation, and used other people with Native ancestry as tokens for why their complicity with the use of stereotypes was ok for them to continue to do. The Native community often struggled to find ways to address this, and a manner of strategies were deployed, including participating in their local seasonal festivals, stopping the floats to demand attention to our requests for change, attending the games to protest, and inviting the wider community outside of Paw Paw to attend the board meetings to help provide influence from the wider regional community at large.
As voices for change grew consistently louder, so did the rancor generated by those rigidly opposing it. This was not, however, without threats of violence towards Native people and their allies for their disruption to the community with “the mascot issue.” As a lead organizer of many protests, my own credibility for parenting came under fire from an online radio show called “The Beating Drum,” where callers could vent about the Native activism taking place. In one episode, I was personally discussed as being an unfit mother for having a child in attendance at a demonstration where a conflict with another student of the Paw Paw district took place. I was also escorted out of a board meeting by police for speaking up against a White male volleyball coach who said those who wouldn’t stand for the flag should pack our bags and leave the country, to which I reminded him that we were here first, so we would help them leave instead if they did not like our political statements.
There was also a White woman who, having shown sympathy to the Native community pushing for change, was punched in the face by another parent outside of a school board meeting for her stance. Parents of the students who were against the change would follow social media pages, leave harassing comments, and use the R-word to cause harm to Native people in efforts to make them abandon the cause of retiring the offensive names and logos.
And that hostility began trickling down and affecting interactions between students, who also started choosing sides. Fortunately, some of the adults in the room, where decisions are made, finally saw that change had to happen for the sake of the young people whose education they are responsible for and changed the school mascot to the Red Wolves.
That was in 2017, nearly a quarter-century after that yearbook entry acknowledged that change was needed.
It should never have taken so long, or caused so much anger, frustration and racialized trauma, something that Native American activists and communities are too often familiar with when speaking up about our invisibilized plights in this nation where we have been displaced from our ancestral homelands. heartache – all because we, as Native Americans, want and deserve to be in a position to determine how we are portrayed. Sovereignty is a concept that is limited to White national identity for Americans, not something that is acknowledged for the First People who have survived the displacement, removal, institutional erasure, and intentional ethnic cleansing of our people across the West.
Using living humans who are marginalized and oppressed as caricatures has served the narrative that we were indeed erased, or extinct, and need the images and English nicknames of our references to memorialize our existence at one point in time. This is a settler-colonial racist idea, and it is not true. We do represent ourselves, and we do not accept the limited scope of representation that mascots and offensive nicknames have to offer as they continue to under-educate children about the existence and right to sovereignty that Indigenous people have.
Because those depictions aren’t just insulting. They cause real harm, especially to our children. That’s not just a personal opinion. It is an established fact.
"The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in schools and university athletic programs is particularly troubling because schools are places of learning,” according to Ronald F. Levant, former president of the American Psychological Association (APA). “These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading, and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students."
That is why, in 2005, the APA called for the “immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations.”
As explained on its website, APA's position is based on what it described nearly 25 years ago as a “growing body of social science literature that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people.”
Research also shows the devastating effects of the intentional genocide of our nations has had a lasting impact on the mental and emotional health of Native people. Native American youth have a heightened risk for suicide and mental health disparity that the National Indian Council on Aging, Inc., calls “the highest across all ethnic and racial groups’ in the U.S.
Despite reams of studies showing the harm these mascots and nicknames cause, resistance to removing them remains adamant in some districts. That’s true even though school officials no longer have the excuse that the expense of retiring old logos and creating new ones is not a good use of district resources.
Making Change Happen
Since the creation of the Native American Heritage Fund in 2016, which could be perceived as one tribal government’s response to the push across the nation and the state for mascots and nicknames that harm Native American sovereignty and identity to be removed in schools, money has been available to K-12 schools, colleges, universities, and local governments to improve curricula and resources related to Native American issues – including funding for mascot or imagery revisions. Because of this gracious offering, schools can no longer use lack of finances as a reason to delay making needed changes.
Which means there is no reason whatsoever for any offensive mascots or nicknames to continue being used.
In our efforts to make that happen, Native people do not always find assistance in places where support might be expected. Even the ACLU of Michigan declined a request for assistance with the fight against offensive mascots in the early 2000s. However, organizations can gain enlightenment and grow. When the ACLU of Michigan was approached again, in 2016, about the problems we faced in Paw Paw, folks there did not hesitate to participate in strategy discussions with activists, analyze records the organization obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, engage with Paw Paw civic and religious leaders, file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and participate actively in other struggles against mascots, most recently in the Camden-Frontier School District. Native people have gained an ally in the ACLU of Michigan.
Together, along with other allies, we’ve been able to generate positive, sustained momentum. Bridge Magazine reported on the progress last year, noting, “More and more Michigan school districts are moving away from Native American-based nicknames and mascots, a trend that is also happening nationally. “
Progress has been painfully slow. But we are moving in the right direction, and won’t stop until there is no school remaining that continues to use racist stereotypes for Native American people as a representative for their school brand and sports teams.
I would not be where I am today in terms of cultural connection, understanding of Native history, and why mascots and Native-referencing nicknames are harmful in the school and professional sports environments had it not been for the local Anishinaabe community and specific elders who stepped in to lend their leadership and support, especially Linda Cypret-Kilbourne, Gary Markowski, and Jim Farrar (all co-founders of the MCARSM), the other Native organizers around the state and nation, and Julie Dye, Pokagon Band Bodewadmi Elder and grandmother, as well as Sue Lepper and Christine Herdman. As we reconnect to our cultural traditions, our understandings of ourselves, and our traditional communal structures, we regain the strength to speak for and represent ourselves.
You can help by speaking out in support of change wherever it is still needed, allying with the local tribes and Native community in your school district, addressing your school boards and educating the educators about the need to remove exclusive reminders of the past, and acknowledging the people who were displaced from the lands that you live on. Follow the leadership of culturally connected Native American people who have the highest good of their community and sovereign nation at the helm of their work.
Monica Washington Padula is of Afro-Anishinaabe heritage and is a displaced descendant of the historic Saginaw, Swan Creek, and Black River bands of Chippewa. The mother of six children, she is a graduate of Western Michigan University, with BA and Master of Music degrees in classical piano performance.