The National Football League and several universities have been embroiled in controversies involving Native American mascots that many consider to be highly offensive and harmful. While the issue has gained a lot of new attention in the media, movements to retire and change these representations go back decades, especially in K–12 schools. In fact, more than 2,400 school districts are estimated by the U.S. Department of Education to have mascots or nicknames that depict Native Americans. Some contend that the mascots honor the native peoples, but others find them to be insulting and deeply derogatory. At the community level, school administrators can become the critical arbitrator of a challenging debate between community and school tradition, and the real impact these depictions have on native and non-native students alike.

When confronting these challenges, it is important for administrators to understand that the mascot issue is part of a much larger barrier to success for Native American students who too often find themselves in learning environments rife with cultural misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

Impact on Native and Non-Native Students

In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) called for the immediate retirement of all Native American mascots, logos, and depictions by schools, colleges, athletic teams, and other organizations. Other prominent professional organizations, including the American Sociological Association and the American Counseling Association, have enacted similar resolutions. In calling for the end of these mascots and other depictions, the APA cited several important studies about their actual impact on the learning environment. They found that these mascots:

  1. Undermine the educational experience of members of all communities.
  2. Establish an unwelcome and hostile learning environment for Native American students.
  3. Have a negative impact on the self-esteem of Native American children.
  4. Undermine the ability of American Indian nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture.
  5. May represent a violation of the civil rights of Native American people.

These impacts can be especially severe for Native American students ages 15–24, who face a suicide rate 2.5 times higher than the national average—in fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for this group. Native American students also have the lowest graduation rate of any ethnic group in the country, and they grapple with high rates of poverty, as well as substance and alcohol abuse, according to the 2014 White House Native Youth Report.

In 2015, ED held a first-of-its-kind listening tour to better understand what challenges Native American youth face when it comes to their learning environment and school climate. Officials visited seven communities across the country and heard testimony from numerous students, educators, and community members about the specific impact of mascots and other derogatory imagery. The report found that “stereotypical imagery and symbolism harm all students, especially [American Indian and Alaska Native] students, by interfering with self-identity, perpetuating negative stereotypes, encouraging bullying and teasing, and creating unhealthy learning environments.”

Strategies for Creating a Culturally Inclusive Environment

One of the most important findings from the ED report was that Native American youth were hesitant to file civil rights complaints with the Office for Civil Rights. Reasons included a fear of retaliation and endangerment of one’s self or family. Students also expressed that this was part of a much bigger issue of cultural shaming, negative attitudes, and discrimination by educators and students alike, stemming from a lack of cultural awareness and understanding.

One of the most recent efforts to tackle this issue has been the Commission to Study American Indian Representations in Public Schools in Colorado. Established in 2015 by Gov. John Hickenlooper, this commission was charged with visiting communities throughout the state to hear from a broad cross-section of stakeholders, including educators, administrators, community members, and native and non-native students. The report of the commission, issued in April 2016, shares key insights. Responses ranged from the costs of changing a name or mascot to documented evidence of the depictions being used to bully native students. Broadly, the commission recommended the elimination of Native American mascots, imagery, and names, especially those that are clearly derogatory and offensive. It acknowledged the challenges facing administrators, but stressed that the concerns of Native Americans—especially students—should be given stronger consideration in determining whether to retire these representations. Finally, the commission encouraged administrators to develop respectful community dialogues about these issues.

In Oregon, the state Board of Education in 2012 required schools to change Native American mascots unless they had acquired tribal approval to use the mascot. The Oregon board recently required 14 public schools that resisted changing their Native American-themed mascots to adopt a new symbol by 2017. State boards of education in Minnesota, Michigan, and New York have taken similar approaches. A California law, known as the California Racial Mascots Act, called for public schools to phase out such team names by January 1, 2017. In Pennsylvania, a state civil rights agency decided that a Redskins mascot at a high school was racially derogatory, and other governors have also taken action in their states. However, in 2013, the governor of Wisconsin signed a law that made it more difficult to require schools to change their mascots, citing First Amendment rights.


A few issues involving mascots have led to litigation. In Los Angeles, students alleged First Amendment violations after a Braves mascot was dropped. The court granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the principal acted reasonably and in good faith when removing the mascot. Although Native American mascots are receiving the most recent attention, the Rebel mascot has also been at issue in some school districts. A principal in Virginia eliminated the Rebel symbol because minority students found it offensive. Other students protested the symbol’s removal, arguing that school officials violated their First Amendment rights. Affirming the district court’s decision, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia) held that a school may disassociate itself from an inappropriate mascot.

What’s the bottom line? In most cases, Native American students are incredibly isolated from cultural and other support networks in their schools, especially in the estimated 94 percent of school districts that have 10 percent or fewer native students in their student body, according to the 2014 White House Native Youth Report. When they are harmed by these derogatory mascots and stereotypes, it can turn a challenging learning environment into a hostile one and exacerbate mental health challenges and barriers to success. Administrators should take a holistic approach when working toward solutions to this issue. In addition to tackling the mascot challenge, they should promote stronger cultural awareness and affirmation through training, curricula, stronger tribal community relationships, and other kinds of programming.

Erik R. Stegman, JD, MA, Carry the Kettle First Nation (Nakoda), serves as the executive director of the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. Suzanne E. Eckes, PhD, JD, is a professor at Indiana University. She has published widely on school legal matters and is the president-elect of the Education Law Association.