The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Schools in 2 states just retired Native American mascots. The D.C. NFL team should take note.

Helmets worn by players on Washington’s NFL team.
Helmets worn by players on Washington’s NFL team. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

SINCE 1929, Teton High School in Driggs, Idaho, has fielded a football team called the Redskins. No more. The school board voted recently to retire the name. The decision comes several months after the school board in Skowhegan, Maine, retired use of “Skowhegan Indians.” At one time, there were as many as 20 schools or colleges in Maine that used Native American nicknames and imagery for sports teams. Now, there are none. To make sure there is no backtracking, Maine lawmakers went so far as to enact a law that bars public schools from using Native American names, symbols or images for sports teams.

Washington football team owner Daniel Snyder should pay attention to what played out in Idaho and Maine. The actions underscore the resiliency of the movement to cleanse sport teams of outdated mascots and monikers that cause offense and do real harm. The decisions by these school boards came after years of tense — sometimes painful — debates that, in many respects, mirror the controversy that surrounds Mr. Snyder and his team. Opponents of changing the names cited decades of tradition (note that Idaho’s team actually predates the founding and naming of Washington’s team) and denied any intent to hurt or defame Native Americans.

In the end, though, officials recognized the need to be on the right side of history — and decency. “My personal opinion, the name Redskins, who gets to decide if that’s racist is the voice of the people that are being called that,” Idaho school board member Mary Mello told the Idaho Statesman, pointing to the objections of two of the state’s largest tribes, the Shoshone-Bannock and the Nez Perce. “While Indian mascots were often originally chosen to recognize and honor a school’s unique connection to Native American communities in Maine, we have heard clearly and unequivocally from Maine tribes that they are a source of pain and anguish,” said Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) as she signed into law the country’s first ban on the use of Native American mascots by public schools and universities.

It really shouldn’t take a law to prompt educational institutions — or professional sports teams for that matter — to recognize that the right thing to do is get rid of these offensive names. Social-science research conducted by the American Psychological Association showed the negative psychological, social and cultural impacts of derogatory Native-themed sports mascots on Native Americans, particularly Native youth. It recommended the immediate end to Native-themed mascots and names.

As more states take action to address this issue and other organizations come to the realization of how indefensible these mascots are (e.g., the Cleveland Indians finally jettisoning that awful Chief Wahoo), Mr. Snyder’s obduracy makes the Washington team even more of an outlier, and not one the region can be proud of.

Read more:

Theresa Vargas: A survey explores how Native Americans feel about the name Washington Redskins. No, it’s not that survey. This one is new.

Matt Hoyer: The psychological toll of that name