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Kansas City School District Retires Offensive Native American Mascots


Public schools across the county are moving away from Native American-themed mascots. But what to do when your entire district is named after a tribe? This month, a Kansas City-area school district retired several Native American mascots, but its name - after the Shawnee Indian Mission - remains. Jodi Fortino of member station KCUR reports.

JODI FORTINO, BYLINE: Uncomfortable - that's the word Kansas House Representative Christina Haswood uses to describe how she felt playing basketball against Shawnee Mission North High School nearly a decade ago. As a member of the Navajo Nation, she says she had to watch the school's mascot, dressed as an Indian brave or princess and perform stereotypical war chants at the game. Haswood was one of five Native women on Lawrence High School's team at the time.

CHRISTINA HASWOOD: We felt like we were mocked. So now to see the youth after us being in high school really take this and lead this change has been really great to see.

FORTINO: Shawnee Mission North dropped its longtime mascot the Indians in May, a movement with support from Native Americans in Kansas. Three Shawnee Mission elementary schools also selected new mascots. But the district is still named after the Shawnee tribe. Carole Cadue-Blackwood is an enrolled member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas and a board member of the Lawrence school district. She supports not only changing the mascots but the name of the Shawnee Mission district itself.

CAROLE CADUE-BLACKWOOD: It's harmful because you don't just see it as a town; you see it on the stores and in the schools. You see it everywhere. You're not - you don't feel like you're human.

FORTINO: Cadue-Blackwood says that naming schools after Native Americans has long been commonplace across the country, but she argues the names and often the mascots are dehumanizing.

CADUE-BLACKWOOD: There is a correlation - a link, if you will - to how the imagery, the mascots and the portrayal in the media does contribute to sexual and domestic violence because we're seen as subhuman.

FORTINO: Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe in Oklahoma was also involved in the move for the mascot change, but he disagrees with the need to change the district's name.

BEN BARNES: The town was actually named after us. So the town's not a mascot; the town is actually named after us. It's the characterization of people, you know, creating a caricature of a people - that's the problem.

FORTINO: The district is named after the Shawnee Indian Mission, which in 1839 began serving as a trade school for Shawnee and other tribes that were forcibly removed from their land. Barnes says it only makes sense that the area and district are named after the Shawnees' presence there. He thinks it's a way to remember that Native people are among us.

BARNES: France is named for the Franks, you know? So why would a Shawnee place not have a Shawnee name?

FORTINO: While they disagree on the name change, they agree that more teaching of Native American history is critically needed across the country. A study from the National Congress of American Indians found that 87% of state history standards don't even mention Native American history after 1900. Representative Haswood says she sees the effects of that lack of education about Native Americans every single day.

HASWOOD: I'm trying to advocate on policy and try to talk about tribal sovereignty and our relationship with our government systems, and I have to pretty much give a history lesson every time.

FORTINO: Despite the recent push, a number of Kansas high schools still embrace Native American mascots, like the St. Francis Indians, Bonner Springs Braves and Argonia Red Raiders. Carol Cadue-Blackwood expects to move away from Native American caricatures and names in the coming years. But she doesn't expect the name of a district or city like Shawnee to change anytime soon. For NPR News, I'm Jodi Fortino in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "A NEW DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.