WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — The Kansas State Board of Education voted to strongly recommend that Kansas K-12 schools “retire Indian-themed mascots and branding” within the next three to five years. The vote came during its meeting Thursday morning.

An advisory council had been studying the issue and put together a Mascot Reform Statement and Recommendations. It said that even when schools have the best intentions, their rivals often use negative images at sporting events.

Specifically, these mascots prompt students to dress in fake stereotypical Indian clothes, to make fake Indian noises and chants, and write jokes about ‘sending them back on the trail of tears’ and ‘scalping the Indians’ on pep rally banners.” 

Kansas Advisory Council for Indigenous Education Working Group Mascot Reform Statement and Recommendations

“As a high school principal, I was unaware of how the mascot naming and branding affected people,” Kansas BOE Member Jim McNiece, Wichita, said.

He said it is essential that the state board indicate the direction the state should go on the issue.

McNiece referred to Native American representatives in the room and said, “You have come to us very politely and very nicely and said, ‘This is offensive. This hurts us. This is something we’d like to see changed.'”

Dr. Deena Horst, a board member from Salina, said the conversation should have happened a long time ago and that it needs to take place at schools as soon as possible.

She said she grew up as a Clearwater High School Indian and that it is near and dear to her heart.

“But, when I hear after visiting with those individuals that they now do the tomahawk chop and they do other things that are demeaning … I mean, if I was a member of a tribe, and I was in a competitive environment, I would take that as making fun of me,” Horst said.

Michelle Dombrosky, a board member from Olathe, said she reached out to people, including a friend who grew up on a reservation. Based on those conversations, she did not feel the 10 people on the State BOE should be deciding something that affects the whole state. Instead, she thinks the decision should come from the communities.

“This absolutely is a state board issue,” Ann Mah, State BOE member from Topeka, said. “These 10 people are not deciding anything for anyone. All we’re doing is asking these schools that have these mascots and branding to start a conversation about, ‘Is this mascot, is this branding tied to real learning, or is it an empty moniker that makes fun of other sovereign nations?'”

Board Member Ben Jones, Sterling, wanted to know if measures like the one the BOE was taking have any impact. Dr. Alex Red Corn, K-State assistant professor of educational leadership, said the results are mixed.

“But it does start a conversation that, over time, does a lot. It can be productive over time as people work through, in their local context, what that actually looks like for them,” he said.

Red Corn is on the Kansas Advisory Council for Indigenous Education Working Group. He said the statement being sent to school districts includes recommendations about how to start conversations and educate communities.

Jones said one of his fears is the State BOE’s action will not change anything. Red Corn said he shared the concern.

Betty Arnold, a State BOE member from Wichita, said there are no guarantees.

“At least there is a beginning to the end,” she said. “I don’t know how long it will take to get there, but I like the idea of starting a conversation, of bringing this awareness to local school boards, to communities, that this is something that’s very hurtful and destructive and should not be allowed to continue.”

“I don’t know where the road is going to take us, but we’re not going to go anywhere if we don’t start, and this is a good start,” Arnold said.

Board Member Janet Waugh, Kansas City, said she was shocked after hearing about the issues regarding Native American mascots and that it has taken so long to come before the Kansas State Board of Education.

“This is tragic that these things have happened, and I apologize that they have,” she said. “I think that it’s very sad.”

She asked Red Corn what will happen for school districts that have signed contracts with tribes, allowing them to use Native American mascots and imagery.

Red Corn said that the council considered that, and there are certain cases where it would be OK. For example, if the school has a written partnership with the legislative body of a tribal government, if they share the name and provide substantive learning about the tribe, and if they avoid caricature imagery.

Mah said she had Red Corn speak to a group.

“I think the thing that really struck me about what he presented to the group was how this can be tied to education,” she said.

Mah said a group member asked Red Corn about getting rid of the names Kansas and Atlanta Braves.

“He explained that, well, no, you keep Kansas, and you teach the kids about the Kaw people who were here and why it’s called Kansas, and there are lots of layers of education that can go along with it,” Mah said. “But the Atlanta Braves? That’s just an empty moniker, and they make fun actually of Indian people. So there’s a big difference there.”

According to the council, more than 10,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students are attending public schools across almost every district in Kansas.

The State BOE said the strong recommendation is to get districts to start having the conversation. It will not impact a school’s accreditation.

The board’s vote on Thursday was not unanimous. Seven board members voted for it. Dombrosky voted against it, saying she thinks the decision should be made at a local level. Members Jones and Jean Clifford abstained from the vote.