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.”
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.
Put to a vote, the five-member school board unanimously chose in June 2013 to retire the nickname, and the students adopted the Redhawks name in a schoolwide vote in April. The Jamestown S’Klallam, the tribe nearest to Port Townsend, has offered to pay to refinish the basketball court, change the signage and buy new uniforms.
The switch is similar to one made by Miami University in Ohio, which changed its nickname from Redskins to RedHawks in 1997.
A large number of colleges have made such transitions. The last major holdout was the University of North Dakota, which staunchly supported its Fighting Sioux nickname before bowing to NCAA pressure to change it in 2012.
“There’s a lot in the dynamic because we’re still so connected with our neighbors here,” Mr. Engle said. “We had a different kind of respect for them.”
Union High School, which serves only upperclassmen in Tulsa, passed on an opportunity to change its name more than a decade ago. In 2003, it was threatened with legal action by the University of Miami over the use of its familiar “U” logo, forcing the high school to change to a more innocuous symbol representing a shield.
Chad Smith, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1999 though 2011, led an effort to strip the school of its Redskins moniker, which he considered to be an epithet. His desire to change the name drew from what he believes is a responsibility to educate students about American Indian history.
For years, Mr. Smith said, a group of Cherokees would attend school board meetings in Tulsa in an attempt to share their thoughts about the name with members, but the campaign fell on deaf ears.
“Sometimes prejudices have to die a natural death,” Mr. Smith said. “Maybe it’ll take another generation of those people to understand that their ancestors’ prejudices have lived long enough.”
The current president of the Navajo Nation, Ben Shelly, has taken a similar position toward the Redskins name, labeling it offensive. A spokesman, Rick Abasta, said Mr. Shelly was unaware of the Red Mesa school district’s use of the nickname and mascot and could not adequately comment on its use.
In April, the tribe found itself in controversy when its Navajo-language radio station, KTNN-AM, co-sponsored a golf tournament for college students with the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, an organization started by Mr. Snyder in March to address challenges facing the American Indian community.
Mr. Yazzie, the Red Mesa superintendent, drew a distinction between the professional football team’s use of the Redskins name and that of his own district. Although he believes it’s acceptable to embrace the name as an identity, using it as a profit-making enterprise is not.
“I’d leave it to the Navajo people that selected the name,” Mr. Yazzie said. “We do listen to popular culture and popular opinion, but for the most part we’re much more concerned about diseases, the drought [or] some of the other things that we would probably encounter, such as low-reaching achievement, math [proficiency] or other things that are evident within our school district. Anything that is popular opinion, we will listen to it, but we haven’t responded in either way.”