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Native Americans should be the judge of when some high school mascots stay or go

Stereotypes die hard, and sometimes they need a push. A bill making its way through Springfield would make it harder for schools to keep offensive Native American mascots.

Chief Illiniwek of the University of Illinois performs at a game between Illinois and Michigan in October 2004. The chief was scrapped in 2007.
Chief Illiniwek of the University of Illinois performs at a game between Illinois and Michigan in October 2004. The chief was scrapped in 2007.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

A new bill making its way through Springfield would make it tougher for high schools to keep their Native American mascots.

We support the bill in concept, even as its particulars are being worked out.

Not all such mascots are necessarily objectionable, though that’s a judgment better made by Native Americans, not this editorial page. But most of us can readily see why a war-dancing man in a full-feathered headdress and buckskins, or a team name like the “Redskins,” or a grinning “Chief Wahoo” is deeply insulting.

In the 21st century, schools should know better than to promote such stereotypes, and many or most do. But old ideas can die hard and sometimes need a push. A student-led petition drive to scrap the Native American mascot of a Rockford-area high school prompted Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, to introduce a bill to provide that push.

House Bill 4783 initially required schools to gain the consent of Native American groups within 500 miles of the school in order to continue using a Native American-themed mascot. West now wants to set up a commission of Native Americans that would decide whether a mascot is acceptable.

Schools that don’t comply with the rules could become ineligible for sports playoffs. Chicago’s Lane Tech, whose teams are the Indians, would be among the 52 high schools in Illinois affected.

We don’t know what the final bill will look like — or exactly what it should look like. Indeed, Native Americans are not of one mind on the mascot issue.

Groups such as the American Indian Center of Chicago and the National Congress of American Indians oppose Indian mascots as harmful and derogatory. Other groups, seeing an opportunity to educate people and promote cultural pride, have worked with sports teams to make sure that Native American imagery and logos are respectful, not offensive.

All the more reason to support West’s idea of a commission that gives Native Americans the final say.

There are practical impediments. Cash-strapped schools that scrap their names will have to spend money to change logos and buy new uniforms. And many alumni won’t be happy.

You should have seen the angry emails that Marlen Garcia, a member of the Sun-Times editorial board, got after writing a column in 2018 about why her alma mater, Maine West High School, should scrap its dancing Indian mascot. (The school later did scrap the dance itself.)

But Native Americans should be the final judges. It’s their culture.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.