When Jared Hautamaki brought his 5-year-old son to school in Silver Spring, Md., he immediately noticed that the school’s principal wore a burgundy-and-gold polo shirt bearing the name and logo of Washington’s National Football League team, the Redskins.
“As a native parent, that’s really, really offensive,” Hautamaki recalls telling the leader of Highland Elementary School in Montgomery County.
Hautamaki has since testified before the county school board, started a petition drive and stirred community debate about what constitutes offensive attire at school. He is calling on county school officials to ban students and staff in the district from wearing clothing with the name or logo of sports teams with Native American mascots, including Washington’s NFL team.
His efforts come after a Maryland private school recently ended the use of the “R-word” on campus, including on student attire, and as an increasing number of schools nationally drop the Redskins name and others linked to Native American culture. California recently became the first state to pass a law banning public schools from using the term Redskins for their team names or mascots.
“If it was any other slur, the board would be all over it in a heartbeat,” said Hautamaki, a Wheaton resident who works as a federal government attorney and is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. “Can you imagine people walking around with the N-word on their sleeve? Why is it okay to do it to natives?”
In making his case, Hautamaki cites a federal judge’s July ruling that affirmed the cancellation of Redskins trademark registrations because they disparage Native Americans. He notes that dictionary definitions label the team name as offensive, and that Montgomery’s dress code says clothing that “offends others” is inappropriate.
Montgomery already took the step of banning the use of Native American names, logos and mascots for school teams in 2001. Hautamaki said he believes that the school system should go a step further.
“It’s clear that the county is not enforcing the dress code as written when it comes to the D.C. team and native mascots in general,” he said, adding that research has shown a psychological impact on students. “It’s not just affecting native students. It’s teaching black students, white students and Hispanic students that stereotyping is acceptable.”
The issue flared in Montgomery County in September, as Hautamaki and his wife noted the team name and imagery in their son’s school: on the principal’s polo shirt, a teacher’s clothing, a staff member’s lanyard, a bulletin board celebrating the start of school.
That month, Hautamaki twice e-mailed the school board, heard nothing back, and testified before the board on Oct. 13.
Montgomery school officials say such complaints are not widespread and have been handled at individual schools, not as a matter of district policy. About 285 students are American Indian or Alaskan Native, less than one percent of the school system’s enrollment.
In an Oct. 21 letter to Hautamaki, Larry A. Bowers, interim superintendent, said he recognized it was “a sensitive and important issue for you and others.”
“When other parents have raised concerns about the use of the Washington football team’s name and logo, our staff has worked to respond in a manner that is consistent with our core values of equity and respect, while also adhering to our obligation as a public school district to safeguard the right to free expression enjoyed by our students and staff,” Bowers said in the letter.
Bowers said the school system would monitor the issue and continue to compare its approach with those of other area school systems. He advised Hautamaki to work “in a collaborative manner” with his principal and others at his son’s school.
“It is important that our staff and our parents demonstrate to our children that we can disagree with one another and still be respectful and kind,” Bowers said in the letter.
The issue by then had touched a nerve.
Another parent at Highland Elementary, Vanessa Miranda, spoke before the school board Oct. 26, submitting written remarks with 30 signatures.
“None of us are trying to dehumanize Native Americans but rather are demonstrating our American love of football,” she told the board. “For many, supporting the Redskins team is part of our culture and tradition. No one is wearing the gear to convey a message of racism. We are an inclusive community that prides itself on our diversity.”
Miranda told the board that Highland staff work hard to relate teaching and learning to students’ experiences.
“The local football team is one topic of interest to our students and one they have previous knowledge about,” she said. “When a staff member wears a Redskins shirt or lanyard, they are able to make a connection with students because it is also their favorite team.
“Most team names in sports have the potential to offend someone. But being offensive is not a crime, and being offended doesn’t make you a victim,” she said. “If you don’t like the Washington Redskins, then don’t support them. ”
The school’s principal, Scott Steffan, declined requests for comment. Highland Elementary staff have taken steps to ensure that all students feel welcomed and respected, a district spokesman said.
A Washington Redskins spokesman said Wednesday that the image was made in the early 1970s by an Indian tribe in Montana, where members supported the name. Team officials have vowed never to change it. “Our position is consistent with the more than 80 percent of Americans and 90 percent of Native Americans who do not want to change the Washington Redskins name,” the spokesman said.
Elsewhere in the Washington region — in the District, Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William and Prince George’s — school officials said they knew of no similar complaints and that students and staff may wear attire bearing the name and logo of the Washington team.
In Fairfax County, Mary Phillips, an advocate for Native Americans, said she and others pressed for similar change in 2007, but were unsuccessful, with Fairfax officials ultimately telling them that the dress code reflected the most recent court decisions and the community’s expectations.
“This has been a continuous oversight by public schools to see that their own policies do not allow for slanderous or derogatory language and imagery of Native Americans,” she said.
In the broader community, the question of Redskins attire at school has begun to buzz again among parents chatting at weekend sports games and amid the current NFL season.
Norris Thigpen, president of the Wheaton Hills Civic Association, said the discussion is continuing in the area that feeds into Highland Elementary. “People in the neighborhood are looking for ways to be inclusive to everybody,” he said.
Richard Regan, a Kensington resident who led the 2001 effort to rid Maryland schools of American Indian team names, logos and mascots, said he sought to do what Hautamaki is striving to do today: Ban Redskins gear at school. It did not work at the time.
“The fight goes on from generation to generation because the trauma is real,” he said.
Tara Houska, a tribal attorney and a co-founder of the organization Not Your Mascots, noted that in spite of changes since the 1960s, many school teams nationally still reference Native Americans — more than 2,000, according to one report.
She said most people haven’t given it much thought. But for Native American children, the name and image take a toll on self-esteem, she said. “You feel ostracized, and you feel pressured to go along with it,” she said.
Hautamaki said that, with three young children, he is looking ahead to many years in Montgomery schools.
“In an ideal world, the team changes its name and the clothing and the visibility of it in our region slowly disappear,” he said. “But for right now, what I can do is to fight to get it out of our schools so that we can stop teaching this tacit approval of casual racism.”