Report: Kansas could use accreditation threat to force schools to eliminate Native American mascots

Some are so eager to rid Kansas schools of Indian mascots that they’re floating the threat of tying it to accreditation.

An advisory group to the Kansas State Board of Education would at least…

Some are so eager to rid Kansas schools of Indian mascots that they’re floating the threat of tying it to accreditation.

An advisory group to the Kansas State Board of Education would at least like the board to formally recommend public schools statewide eliminate Native American mascots within five years. The Kansas School Board is scheduled to vote on the advisory council’s recommendation on Nov. 10.

But Kansas City public radio station KCUR suggests the board may go further, writing, “A mere recommendation, even coming from the state school board, is unlikely to overcome decades of tradition and identity invested in mascots that communities often see as honoring American Indians rather than symbols of racist stereotyping. Factoring mascots into school accreditation would raise the stakes. …

“The Kansas Department of Education could even use accreditation to pressure schools to eliminate racist imagery.”

The station doesn’t attribute the notion directly to the board or its Kansas Advisory Council for Indigenous Education-Working Group, made up of representatives from all four federally recognized tribes in Kansas. The station merely suggests the possibility of loss of accreditation for schools that retain Indian mascots.

The Lion asked multiple board members for clarification on the matter. Michelle Dombrosky, representing District 3, tells The Lion it was another board member who brought up accreditation as a possible “solution.”

“I had the same question after a board member from another district brought up ‘accreditation’ as a possible solution to get districts to change or remove their mascot,” Dombrosky said, emphasizing that her opinions are only hers.

Her concern is ensuring that if some kind of decision is made, it is only a “recommendation” and not a “mandate,” thereby keeping accreditation out of the equation.

“I asked that same question to [Commissioner of Education] Dr. Watson this week in a brief meeting we had,” Dombrosky said. “I wanted to make sure that if this passes with six votes, that it is only a ‘recommendation’ by the State Board of Education, not a mandate by us. Therefore, it should not impact a district’s accreditation.”

Some two dozen Kansas schools still use Native American-themed mascots, according to KCUR.

“[T]hose pushing for change say offensive mascots create a hostile learning environment, which goes against state guidelines on student well-being,” KCUR writes.

Alex Red Corn, chairman of the advisory council, member of the Osage Nation and assistant professor of educational leadership at Kansas State University, tells KCUR the mascots and logos portray Native Americans as savages, harming the students at these schools and any school that may compete against them.  

“I was sitting in an Applebee’s, and the Liberal Redskins came into town. A whole bus full of Liberal Redskins-themed stuff was surrounding us at the restaurant, and my kids were there, and there was a level of discomfort,” he said. “When people go to other communities, that discomfort and what happens because of those branding practices, it ripples outward.” 

The Andale High School Indians near Wichita say their name and mascot were intended to pay homage to the indigenous peoples who once lived there. The school’s logo even adorns the local water tower.

Andale Superintendent Mindy Bruce told KCUR she has only received “one or two complaints,” about the mascot over the past 30 years. Neither of which, she claims, were serious enough to require action by the board.

“But it has never been taken (up) for board action,” she said. “And my Board of Education has never directed me to look into that.” 

However, proponents of dropping Native American mascots in the state say what feels like hometown pride to some, often feels like racism to others.

“They have no idea what it is to be an Indian,” Joseph Rupnick, chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas said. “Our children, when we go to these different athletic events, they’re the ones that are the brunt of the prejudice and the bigotry.”

The push against Native American-themed mascots and logos has become a nationwide issue impacting schools, Major League Baseball and the National Football League over the last decade. KCUR reports at least six other states, including California, have implemented some sort of mascot ban.

In 2012, the Oregon State Board of Education banned Native American names, symbols or images as mascots after more than eight hours of public testimony and 700 pieces of written testimony. 

“The concept of Native American mascots being hurtful and racist was not new to me,” state board member Serilda Summers-McGee declared. “However, the testimony we received from students, members of the Native American community, and researchers regarding the impact of Native American mascots on student learning and self-esteem was extremely illuminating.” 

“I do not believe any of our schools with Native American mascots intended to be disrespectful,” Oregon’s state Superintendent Susan Castillo said at the time of the ruling. “Our role as educators needs to be to create a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment for all of our students — an environment which honors them for who they are as individuals with a rich and varied cultural history. We can no longer accept these stereotypical images for the sake of tradition — not when they are hurting our kids.” 

In 2021, the Cleveland Indians professional baseball team decided to change its name to the Cleveland Guardians after discussions with community leaders and Native American groups. 

In July 2020 the Washington Redskins announced in a statement on Twitter the team would drop the nickname after years of pressure from the public, including President Barack Obama. For 18 months the team was simply called the Washington Football team. The new team name, Washington Commanders, was announced in February.

It’s unclear how much sway the Kansas State Board of Education would have if it does recommend eliminating Indian mascots, since such decisions are typically made at the local or district level. 

In fact, Dombrosky says two weeks ago she spoke about the issue with a native American friend who grew up on a reservation in Kansas and is familiar with the concerns. But he insists decisions must be made at the local level.

“He thinks this decision should not have been brought to the State Board of Education,” Dombrosky said. “He thinks this is a local decision. The conversations need to happen locally. They should include the public, and the input needs to be from everyone involved back in those communities.”