Photo courtesy Washington House Democrats: Rep. Debra Lekanoff speaks about her proposed legislation that would prohibit most schools from using Native American names or mascots. The Senate Ways and Means Committee will consider the bill Thursday.
Photo courtesy Washington House Democrats: Rep. Debra Lekanoff speaks about her proposed legislation that would prohibit most schools from using Native American names or mascots. The Senate Ways and Means Committee will consider the bill Thursday.

On Thursday, the Washington state Senate Ways and Means Committee will consider executive action on a bill that could pave the way toward ending what Native American advocates describe as decades of discrimination in the state’s public schooling system.

HB 1356 is sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-Anacortes), Washington’s only Native American state legislator. If passed into law, the bill would largely prohibit public schools in Washington from using Native American names, symbols or images as school mascots, logos or team names. The bill would not affect sports teams unaffiliated with the public schooling system.

Rep. Lekanoff said Washington state has dozens of school teams that use Native American names, logos or mascots, part of a long history of appropriation and stereotyping in American sports.

Activists and leaders from Native American communities have been advocating against stereotyped imagery in sports since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

According to an article on the website FiveThirtyEight, in 2020, more than 1,000 high schools in the United States still had Native American team names. More schools and teams are moving away from such divisive names, however. In 2020, after years of debate and controversy, Washington D.C. NFL football franchise stakeholders announced that the team would no longer be called the “Washington Redskins” and would go by “The Washington Football Team” until a new name was selected.

In testimony to the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee on March 12, Chaynannah Squally, an educator and Nisqually Tribe member, said, based on research and her own experience, that these portrayals negatively affect Native American children and how they view themselves.

“The foundations of Native American mascots connect harmful representations to Native Americans and their experiences,” she said.

She went on to cite a recent poll that indicated more than 60 percent of Native Americans found the  “Redskins” team name offensive.

Lekanoff and her allies do not want to remove all Native American imagery from sports. Instead, she has advocated for better understanding of Native American customs and art in Washington. When speaking before the Senate committee last week, Lekanoff noted how every aspect  of her appearance, from the floral designs on her clothing to the braiding of her hair, represented centuries of knowledge handed down from tribal elders to new generations and contrasted that to the “warrior chop” and imitation “costumes” used by many teams.

“Let’s have the public school system consult with the local tribe because great things will happen,” Lekanoff said when outlining her goals for the legislation. “The public school system will sit down with the elders in that community and say, ‘Let’s do this together.’ You’ll hear the sound of the drums during a state basketball tournament as the tribes and all of the kids of all colors sing that song. You’ll see what the Spokane Indians have done with a Minor League baseball team that has the only uniform that has Salish Indian written across their uniform. You’ll see what the La Conner Braves have done between the Swinomish tribe, the La Conner school district and the La Conner community, where they took the Indian head down, which really wasn’t a coast Salish head — it was a stateside Indian from the east — and the tribe actually designed a cedar band with two feathers hanging down. You created cultural education where the kids are learning how to honor and who it is that are your neighbors ... You’re teaching the next generation that we, as Native Americans, do exist.”

If the Ways and Means Committee passes the legislation, it will head to the Senate floor. The House passed the bill in late February by a vote of 92-5.

If passed and signed into law, the legislation would take effect Jan. 1, 2022.

The state’s legislative session is due to close on April 25.