BY RACHEL PAGE, FEATURES EDITOR
On September 23, DC Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie and David Grosso introduced a bill to ban the use of race-based nicknames, logos, mascots, and team names in DC educational institutions. If passed, the bill would insert the ban into DC’s Human Rights Act of 1977, which already prohibits acts of racial discrimination.
The bill comes after the DC Council’s unanimous vote last November in favor of a resolution urging the DC football franchise to change its name. McDuffie, who supported the statement, said that it forced him to think about the racial issues in his own backyard. “It seemed hypocritical of us as councilmembers to pressure the team to change its name, yet we still allow schools here to have race-based mascots,” he explained.
Before being voted upon in the DC Council, the bill must first go through the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, where McDuffie hopes there will be a hearing on it. Any Wilson student who wants to can give testimony at the hearing either for or against the bill, or write a letter to the Council stating their opinion.
“There are seven DC schools with Native American mascots”
According to American Indian Cultural Support, there are seven DC schools with Native American mascots, either “Indians” or “Warriors.” At least two have changed these names, deemed offensive to some, since the report was released in the early 2000s.
Some DC residents, however, are uncertain about the proposed ban. A petition on Change.org to oppose the ban, started by an alumnus of Anacostia High School, has gained over 250 signatures in less than a month. “I am proud to be an Indian,” read multiple comments below the petition. “It was once all Native American land,” says another.
Anacostia gets its name from a Native American tribe that settled along the Anacostia River in what is modern-day DC. The tribe’s original name, the Nacotchtank, was later anglicized to “Anacostine,” and finally “Anacostia.” Some Anacostia alumni still believe that commemorating this history is worth the price of a possibly offensive mascot.
This reluctance to change sheds new light on an issue that is often seen as the direct influence of a white settler-colonialist mindset. It was a band of white English settlers that ambushed the Nacotchtank tribe in 1622, and English-borne diseases that led to their mass depopulation in 1668. Under colonial rule, Native Americans and native Africans alike were exploited and dehumanized by white settlers.
Considering this history, the 99% black student body of Anacostia High School clearly has a unique relationship to its mascot. Most, however, would argue that this is no excuse for appropriating the image of Native American people.
One District Heights resident who signed the petition described her awareness of “the connections of many African-Americans to Native Americans.” Jenna Macaulay, a Syracuse-based lawyer from the Tuscarora Nation, agrees that coalitions between native and non-native communities are important. However, she argues that using the image of a Native American for a sports team mascot is not a good way to form this bond. Instead, schools should encourage students to spend time “learning about these people, what they went through, what they did to survive, how they used to live. Learning history and culture is the best respect and homage you can give.”
Macaulay points to the National Museum of the American Indian in downtown DC as a perfect alternative to offensive appropriation. In Syracuse, where there is a thriving Native American community, non-native neighbors are encouraged to partake in festivals and cultural celebrations. Although this is more difficult in DC, schools could include more discussions of Native American history and culture rather than dressing up as stereotypical native chieftains for high school football games.
The proposed bill attempts to find a balance between appropriation and homage by exempting schools that have agreements with federally-recognized tribes. The Seminole Tribe of Florida, for example, has officially sanctioned the name and mascot of the Florida Seminoles; the same cannot be said for the DC football franchise.
There are still some loose ends. Macaulay says that even when there is official consensus from a tribe, the responsibility still falls on the members of the educational or athletic institution to make sure that they are acting with respect. The exemption would not, for example, prevent fans from wearing redface or appropriating stereotypical images of native peoples. She says that one of the biggest problems she sees is “when you go to a football game and everyone is dressed up as a cartoonish Indian.”
At the end of the day, McDuffie and Macaulay agree that the problem with the cultural appropriation of Native American people cannot be fixed with sole legislative change. It requires non-native people to understand the fact that it is an issue at all.
“We still exist,” Macaulay says. “We’re still a thriving culture. It’s important to realize that.”