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SALEM, Ore. (AP) - A bill expected to become law in Oregon would allow some of the state’s elementary, middle and high schools to continue using Native American mascots if local boards and tribes can agree to terms.
The measure cleared the House on Wednesday, and was headed to the desk of Gov. John Kitzhaber, who has said he will sign it.
The bill goes against a decades-long movement away from American Indian mascots that has seen Stanford University change from the Indians to the Cardinal and Seattle University drop Chieftains for Redhawks. Last year, the Oneida Nation in upstate New York launched a national drive to pressure the NFL’s Washington Redskins to change their nickname.
During the House debate, supporters said Oregon’s bill encourages schools and tribes to develop their relationships. But several opponents cautioned it might be unintentionally racist and could have negative effects on Oregon schoolchildren.
Rep. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said he was concerned that Native American children could face rally cries such as “scalp the Indians” at athletic events. Frederick, who is black, urged House members to oppose the bill, recounting his own experiences with school traditions that were hurtful to blacks, such as being forced to sing “Dixie” at school events in the South. The Confederate anthem has been known to evoke slavery and prejudice.
Republican Rep. Sherrie Sprenger of Scio, one of the bill’s sponsors, said she has faced prejudice and gender discrimination, and feels the best way to handle it is through conversation. She said the bill might not be the only way to encourage such a conversation between the tribes and the schools, but “nothing else is being done.”
Under a rule approved by the state Board of Education in 2012, as many as 15 high schools in Oregon and an unknown number of elementary and middle schools would be required to retire their Native American symbols or nicknames by July 2017 or risk losing state funding. They include schools that call themselves the Indians, the Braves, the Chiefs and the Warriors.
But some schools and tribes have lobbied for a way to keep the mascots.
The governor vetoed a bill last fall that would have let schools keep their mascots with tribal permission. When lawmakers revived the measure this year, members of his staff worked with tribal representatives to craft a compromise. A rewritten version of the bill passed the Senate earlier this month.
Under the compromise, the bill directs the Education Board to consult with federally recognized tribes in Oregon to write guidelines for the agreements between schools and tribes over mascots and their use. The agreements would be subject to approval by the board.
Sprenger said she expected those guidelines to be narrow in scope. She said the bill is not about allowing schools to keep the images on their gym floors or football helmets, but about “sitting down and building a relationship in their communities.”
None of Oregon’s colleges or universities has an American Indian mascot.
Representatives from Oregon tribes have supported the legislation as an opportunity to have a say in the state’s policy on mascots.
But not all Native Americans support the measure, said Rep. Chris Gorsek, a Troutdale Democrat.
“I am not a mascot,” he said on the House floor, reading aloud an email from a member of the Umatilla tribe in eastern Oregon.
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