- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2014

As superintendent of the Red Mesa Unified School District in northeastern Arizona, Tommie Yazzie believes its schools’ use of the Redskins nickname and mascot epitomizes the qualities desired of its students and athletes: bravery, pride and intelligence.

Mr. Yazzie is also Navajo, and the student body of the Red Mesa school district on the Navajo Reservation is, by his estimate, 98 percent Navajo as well.

“We’re [a] hunter-gatherer [people], very mobile in our early days,” Mr. Yazzie said. “When the public schools were coming into this area of the reservation, for the most part we wanted to identify with those traditions.”

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PHOTOS: Honor or insult? Indians disagree on embattled 'Redskins' nickname

Part of the reason the adaptation of American Indian imagery in athletics, especially the Redskins, has remained contentious is that there is no consensus among those who seemingly should be honored or offended.

In the past two years alone, the debate has been protracted by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, whose marketing department launched a highly criticized social media blitz last week asking fans to show their “Redskins Pride”; the New York-based Oneida Indian Nation, which has mounted a countercampaign against the team; and the federal government, including a letter signed two weeks ago by 50 senators — all Democrats except for one independent.

At the regional level, school districts are experiencing the backlash in different ways. Mr. Yazzie said he has personally received only one or two phone calls challenging his district’s use of the nickname, but the issue has been more contentious elsewhere.

Port Townsend High School in Washington state, citing public pressure, will change its nickname from Redskins to Redhawks in time for the start of the next school year. Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has resisted claims by the Cherokees to change its nickname for the better part of the past two decades.

Rush Springs High School in Oklahoma, near streets named after the Arapahoe, Choctaw, Kiowa, Apache and Comanche tribes, has remained isolated from the debate despite its location.

“We’re in the middle of the Chickasaw Nation, but we haven’t had any conversations with them,” said Superintendent Mike Zurline, who estimated that of 600 students in his school district, 30 are of American Indian heritage.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, has no set policy on the use of American Indian imagery within school districts.

Spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the agency’s Bureau of Indian Education has no jurisdiction over schools it does not manage, including the Red Mesa school district and the Wellpinit School District in Washington, which is on the Spokane reservation and uses the Redskins nickname at its high school.

Ms. Darling said the agency generally prefers schools to avoid such imagery but will defer to the communities’ wishes. She cited the Santa Fe Indian School, which is owned by the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico and is under the supervision of the Bureau of Indian Education. It has adopted the Braves nickname to show pride in its heritage.

Approximately 50 high schools across the country use the Redskins nickname, according to The Wall Street Journal, which cited Wikipedia entries in research of American Indian names. That list is not complete; the Red Mesa, Union and Rush Springs high schools were not included.

David Engle, the supervisor of the Port Townsend School District, was hired in March 2012. He was immediately confronted with the dilemma of what to do about the high school’s Redskins nickname, which he said had been debated since at least the 1980s.

The school is on the periphery of nine reservations on Puget Sound, and Mr. Engle said the opinions of the tribes were mixed. Mr. Engle ultimately began to favor a name change after deciding that offending nobody was better than potentially offending somebody.

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