California is the First State to Ban the R-word Mascot

By: Anna Hohag | Intern | anna.hohag@procopio.com

Theodore J. Griswold | Partner | ted.griswold@procopio.com

This past Sunday Governor Gerald Brown signed into law the California “California Racial Mascots Act”(Assembly Bill 30), making California the first state in the country to officially ban the use of the derogatory “r*dskins” mascot, nickname, and team name in public schools.

Currently, there are only four public schools in California still bearing the r*dskins name; however the consequences of this law could extend well beyond these schools. As Ray Halbritter, the leader of the “Change the Name” campaign and Oneida Nation Representative, opined, “As California goes, the country goes.”  Once states begin banning use of derogatory terms like the R-word and social awareness increases on the issue, Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Football team, may finally have no choice but to do what is right and change the name.

If you’re new to the issue and are wondering why the R-word is offensive and why it needs to change, the answer is simple.  The R-word is so much more than just a silly name to Native people, rather the use of the word directly and negatively affects Native people, communities, and especially our Native youth.  The R-word mascot is dehumanizing, and is a constant reminder of a very traumatic history—one that many do not recognize to this day.

So what does “R*dskins” mean?

In short, “R*dskins” refers to the scalps of dead Indians. In 1852—not so long ago—California paid about $1.1 Million to militias to hunt down and kill Indians. Two years later, the State issued a bounty of $.25 for each Indian scalp.  This was increased to $5.00 per Indian scalp by 1860.  However, this wasn’t only a California policy.  This was policy implemented throughout the West to make way for settlers. “R*dskins” is not a twisted compliment, like “Savages,” “Warriors,” “Braves” or “Red Men.” R*dskins refers to a trophy of war and bounty—the bloody scalp of murdered Native Americans, men, women, and children—slaughtered for money. Such a reference is not harmless.

Using derogatory mascot names does not honor Native people, it demeans and degrades.

The negative effects of using such mascots extend beyond mere insult. “Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth” (Center for American Progress, 2014) demonstrates the real negative impacts that Indian mascots have on Native youth around the country.  Clinical psychologist Michael Friedman found a link between high rates of suicide in Native youth and self-esteem issues and Indian mascots and team names.  “These mascots can result in bullying and harassment in schools” which can lead to depression and substance abuse, two major risk factors of suicide in Native youth.

As noted in the White House’s 2014 Native Youth Report, suicide is the second leading cause of death—2.5 times the national rate—for Native youth in the 15 to 24 year old age group.  There is nothing more precious to tribal communities than their children, as they are their future.

California has more federally and state recognized tribes—and the largest Native American population—than any other state in the country.  By enacting the California Racial Mascots Act, California has taken a meaningful stride forward by joining the over 60-year movement to remove such dehumanizing mascots.  Assembly member Luis Alejo, who introduced the bill: “Native Americans are people, not mascots.  The way to truly honor Native Americans in the state with the largest Native American community is to pass this bill and get it signed by the governor.”

There is also hope on the National level. On July 8, 2015, a federal judge in Virginia confirmed the order to cancel six of the Washington football team’s trademark registrations.  The order affirmed a ruling by the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board from last year, declaring that the team’s mascot is offensive to Native Americans and therefore ineligible for federal trademark protection under the Lanham Act.  Although Washington’s owner Dan Snyder claims he will never change the R*dskins name, those fighting the mascot see this ruling as a huge victory—one that has a far-reaching impact on how people see Native Americans.  Amanda Blackhorse put it succinctly, “this case is about humanizing the indigenous identity…  If people wouldn’t dare call a Native American a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?”

I am not a scalp, I am not a mascot. I am a Native American, proud and insulted.  Thank you California and Governor Brown for leading the way.

Anna is a citizen of the Bishop Paiute Tribe and born and raised in the Eastern Sierras in Bishop, CA.  She interned with Procopio in the Summer of 2015.  She is in her second year of law school at the James E. Rogers College of Law at The University of Arizona. She is a Board Member on the California Indian Law Association and the 2015-2016 National Native American Law Students Association Area 1 Representative. Before attending law school she worked for the Pala Band of Mission Indians as the Tribal Liaison.  

Ted is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with Ted at ted.griswold@procopio.com and 619.515.3277.