A group of high school football players dressed in their jerseys stand on a football field.



The ongoing controversy over the use of Native American names and mascots by America’s sports teams also is occurring in K-12 public schools. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools. The American Psychological Association in 2005 cited the negative effects of American Indian sports mascots on the self-esteem of Native American youth. Still, the National Congress of American Indians reports that about 2,000 schools continue to call their teams “chiefs,” “braves,” “Indians,” “warriors,” and similar names.

To supporters, these symbols have been bound up in the very identity of the school district for generations. And there can be relevant history or context that weighs against a one-size-fits-all policy. Then there are the schools on tribal lands with authentic cultural ties to their teams’ names and mascots.

In the past, school districts had unfettered discretion to choose their team names and mascots. Now, there is a rapidly accelerating push to impose legal restrictions on the use of Native American team names, if not to eliminate them entirely. Federal and state civil rights statutes have long prohibited discrimination by districts based on race or ethnic identity, but court challenges to Native American mascots and team names based on those statutes usually have been unsuccessful. That’s because these laws typically require a real-life victim—with legal standing to sue— who has suffered demonstrable harm.

A recent case from Pennsylvania shows the difficulties litigants face when seeking recourse through the courts. In Neshaminy School District v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, a school district challenged a ruling by the state human relations commission that its use of Native American imagery and the term “Redskins” violated the state’s anti-discrimination statute because it created impermissible stereotypes. The commission declined to find that any particular student was harmed, because none testified. It nevertheless found the term “Redskins” sufficiently discriminatory to students in general to prove a violation of the law.

However, the reviewing court found that without evidence of discrimination against a particular victim, there was no basis for any finding of discriminatory behavior at all. The court vacated the commission’s order. Still, because many states’ civil rights laws afford more protection than federal law, even without distinct, provable harm, districts with Native American students should assess the legal theory of “hostile environment” discrimination in their own jurisdiction to ensure they do not unwittingly violate students’ rights.

Many states have addressed the matter through legislation that offers clear guidance to their school communities. These laws reflect a variety of approaches. Maine prohibits references to Native American tribes or customs. California’s statute is more narrowly tailored, specifically banning the term “Redskins” with a phase-out period for schools. Washington state has banned Native American names and mascots but exempts districts that secure permission from a nearby tribe for respectful use.

Oregon permits districts to enter into written agreements with the governing body of a federally recognized Native American tribe to allow the use of a mascot. Nevada prohibits public schools from using any racially discriminatory name, logo, mascot, song, or other identifier associated with a federally recognized Indian tribe without the tribe’s approval. Tennessee has taken a different tack altogether, prohibiting any state agency from banning mascots “that honor certain persons or cultures,” and protecting districts’ local option.

Colorado adopted a bill in 2021 that imposes a fine of $25,000 for each month a public school continues to use a Native American mascot after June 2022, with exceptions for tribally operated schools and districts with preexisting agreements with federally recognized Indian tribes. The law also allows districts and tribes to agree on the use of a mascot culturally affiliated with the tribe if American Indian history is incorporated into the school’s curriculum and encourages a positive cultural exchange.

This past April, New York’s State Board of Regents approved a regulation requiring districts to eliminate any “indigenous name, logo or mascot” by the end of the 2024-25 school year, with an exemption for schools on tribal lands and those with preexisting agreements with federally recognized tribes.

Change can be costly, as districts rebranding their teams need to purchase new uniforms, change signage, and may even need to renovate their buildings. A Wichita, Kansas, school district, for example, estimated it would cost $400,000 to rebrand its gym and marching band equipment. Last year, the Native American Heritage Foundation provided grants as high as $139,000 to several Michigan districts. Legislators in a few states, including Nebraska and Pennsylvania, also have introduced bills proposing grant funding to schools prepared to do the same.

The clear trend in the law is to presume that the use of Native American names and mascots is demeaning unless sanctioned by local tribal leaders, as they are best positioned to ensure their use in a respectful and authentic manner. The struggle to chart a sensible boundary line between honoring and demeaning the Native American community will continue in statehouses across the country. However, school districts should not hesitate to join in the discussion to make sure the choices of their state policymakers properly balance respect, tradition, and the culture of their communities.

David B. Rubin (drubin@buschlawgroup.com) is of counsel to the Busch Law Group LLC, in Metuchen, New Jersey.

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