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Association urges dropping of teams' nicknames, mascots that portray Native American stereotypes

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PIERRE | Despite pleas from two public schools whose teams are known as the Redmen, the ruling body of South Dakota high school sports on Wednesday advanced a resolution politely asking that school districts drop Native American nicknames and mascots.

By an 8-1 voice vote, the elected directors of the South Dakota High School Activities Association approved on first reading a resolution urging schools to “consider not using any stereotypical Indian imagery and Indian mascots that cause harm.”

Moe Ruesink, activities director for Sioux Valley High School, cast the "nay." Ruesink said his high school teams were known as the Warriors.

The second and potentially final vote on the resolution would be at the directors meeting March 2 in Pierre.

The resolution came last year from Roger Bordeaux, superintendent of Tiospa Zina tribal school at Agency Village on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate reservation. He is a member of the SDHSAA board of directors.

The resolution doesn’t force the high schools in the association to take any action or face any sanctions.

Bordeaux, a Sicangu Lakota tribal member, said there is “real clear evidence” that using such mascots and imagery harms Native Americans.

“It does affect self-image,” Bordeaux said.

Sioux Falls Superintendent Brian Maher, one of the SDHSAA directors, said the resolution probably wouldn’t lead to a new name for the Washington High School Warriors in his district.

But, Maher said, it probably would cause Sioux Falls school personnel to be aware regarding actions and decisions involving Warriors teams.

Aberdeen Central Principal Jason Uttermark, the SDHSAA board chairman, said the resolution’s intent is honorable and allows local choice.

“The nice thing about the resolution is we just have to keep those things in the front of our mind,” Uttermark said. “Just take a look, that’s all we’re asking.”

During the public comment period, the directors heard from two people whose teams' nickname is Redmen. Both opposed the resolution.

Ron Evenson, who described himself as a school board member at Sisseton for 22 years, said this is the fourth time his district has dealt with the issue.

Evenson said there isn’t unanimity in the Native American community. He said each time the matter came up for the Sisseton board, various tribal members asked that the Redmen name be kept.

Evenson challenged the SDHSAA directors to set a tight standard with penalties such as prohibiting post-season play for schools in violation.

Otherwise, he said, the fight will be one school at a time.

“The argument should be right here. You folks should be deciding this,” Evenson told the directors. “If you’re not willing to go that route, then you should reject this resolution.”

Evenson asked for proof of damage. So did Woonsocket Superintendent Rod Weber, who said his district’s school board voted many years ago to change the name from Redmen but quickly went back to it. 

Weber said his current board has many questions. “Is there research out there? Have we done research as a (state) board?” he asked.

SDHSAA staff members said they heard from only the two schools represented at the Wednesday meeting.

“So you’re talking about their homecoming traditions that can be construed as offensive, is that what you’re saying?” another of the SDHSAA directors, Linda Whitney, principal at Sanborn Central High School, asked Bordeaux. He replied, “Yes.”

Bordeaux said if he had to, he probably could get a formal statement of support for the resolution from every one of the nine tribal governments.

Woonsocket’s Weber said those tribal statements would make a difference for him. He asked the SDHSAA directors to provide examples of imagery that shouldn’t be used.

Evenson said Sisseton’s homecoming ceremony was written in part by three tribal elders and contains some Sun Dance references.

SDHSAA director Sandy Klatt, a Brandon school board member, said the resolution doesn’t specify the names that shouldn’t be used but asks that school officials be considerate of the Native American population in South Dakota.

“I don’t know why we wouldn’t,” Klatt said. Whitney agreed with Klatt but said it “would be a hard sell” in some districts.

Whitney recalled the controversy at Woonsocket, one of her district’s neighbors. “That was awful,” Whitney said. “They’re very proud of the name.”

The resolution urging districts to consider dropping Native American mascots highlights past efforts by several groups, including the White House.

The resolution notes that in 2005, the American Psychological Association called for “the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools,” and that in subsequent years the American Sociological Association and American Counseling Association made the same call to end use of the Indian mascots.

Furthermore, the resolution pointed out that in October, the “White House Initiative on American Indian/Alaska Native Education released a report with recommendations for schools to immediately retire Indian mascots and stereotypical Indian imagery, after findings which confirmed the harm of stereotypical Indian imagery.”

The resolution passed on Wednesday concludes: “It is very clear that Indian mascots, and any representation of stereotypical Indian imagery not only cause harm to American Indian youth, but moreover, such imagery is not suitable for educational settings which aim to foster healthy psychological development and/or student self-actualization.”

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