Illinois bill seeks to ban Native American mascots

Schools would have to rid use of uniforms, other materials with Native logos, mascots by Sept. 1, 2027

The use of Native American mascots or logos in kindergarten through 12th-grade schools is being challenged by Illinois lawmakers.

State Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, sponsored House Bill 5617, which would require schools to alter mascots, logos or names with Native American tribes or featuring Native American culture.

Native people should be in charge of our narrative. When we put control of our narrative into the hands of non-native institutions, it signifies that we are unable to tell our own stories and that we are not significant.”

—  Madolyn Wesaw, chairwoman for the representation board for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi

Madolyn Wesaw, chairwoman for the representation board of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, said native people need to be in charge of their representations.

“Native people should be in charge of our narrative,” she said. “When we put control of our narrative into the hands of non-native institutions, it signifies that we are unable to tell our own stories and that we are not significant.”

West said supporting the Native American community and making laws and resources for them in parity with the community helps the state and enables residents to have more pride in their history as Illinoisans.

“As a Black man, I empathize,” West said. “The civil rights movement helped in a big way for people who looked like me, and the Native American community needs to have that same kind of support when it comes to issues that are important to them.”

The bill prohibits schools from selling items with banned mascots and removes banned logos from school property. Schools would be able to use uniforms or other materials with Native logos or mascots until Sept. 1, 2027.

If the bill passes, some schools will be affected in northern Illinois, including Morris Community High School, Sandwich High School and Minooka Community High School, along with some grade schools. Waltham Grade School in Utica recently voted to retire its mascot that references Native Americans.

Those schools and others will select a new mascot that doesn’t violate the ban, refrain from selling prohibited school or athletic items with banned mascots and remove the logo the next time the property is remodeled, according to the bill.

The bill was assigned to elementry and secondary education Feb. 28 and is co-sponsored by state Reps. Laura Faver Dias, Diane Blair-Sherlock, Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar, Michelle Mussman, Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez and Anne Stava-Murray.

Wesaw said that when she was growing up in Hartford, Michigan, her mascot was the Indians, and arguments she heard when attending school board meetings revolved around the pride of playing as a member of a sports team.

“Changing the mascot doesn’t take away from anybody’s accomplishments or memories that they have from their time in school,” she said. “You can still be proud of those things that you’ve accomplished. They come from you. They don’t come from your mascot. Also, I don’t think that people’s sense of nostalgia is more important than children’s safety and well-being.”

Megan Bang, director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University, said research shows the use of mascots in schools harms native and non-native children.

“There’s 20 years of social science research that demonstrates that the mere presence of a logo on a wall declines student’s performance on all kinds of tasks,” she said. “We don’t put racialized caricatures of any other group of people in schools. In fact, most schools have rules against it. It’s only native people [that] this county thinks it’s OK to do that [with].”

Bang said that what she thinks most people fail to understand about this bill is it is focused on K-12, which are grades that have compulsory attendance, so students don’t have a choice when they are being exposed to racial stereotypes.

“I would argue that what happens very quickly is people understand dehumanizing a group of people is actually allowed, and it sets up the possibility of dehumanizing all people,” she said.

Bang said research in the past five years demonstrates that the presence of mascots and logos predicts higher rates of racism not only against native people but against other marginalized groups as well.

“It seems to me that K-12 schools, that this is an easy decision,” she said. “That shouldn’t be controversial, and what is controversial has to do with other people’s desires and not the best interest of the children.”

West said that the issue has been on his desk since 2019, after a group of students from a local school protested the use of a “humongous” Native American face on the wall of their school, sparking the idea of mascot reform.

West said that in 2019 his posture was education, not elimination, and when he filed the original mascot bill, it got traction. However, members of federally recognized tribes throughout the nation who originated from Illinois reached out to him to say that’s not what they wanted.

They wanted education reform.

“So I put my bill on ice, and we worked for two years,” he said. “We put together a group of federally recognized tribal members, and we drafted the Native American history bill that was signed into law last year.”

The bill requires the experience and history of Native Americans to be taught to all Illinois elementary and high school students.

Ted Trujillo, a Passamaquoddy tribal member, said that if the bill passes, West already has moved the needle forward.

“Our history and our present is the next step to make sure that is being taught appropriately,” he said.

West said he met with members of the Principals Association and School Board Association because they had some clarifying questions to help ensure the spirit of the law matches the intent.

“My hope is that we do get it to the finish line,” he said. “But I don’t want to rush it. If we do pass it, for Native American people, it should not be a one-sided vote. It needs to be a bipartisan vote. And that’s what my focus is, and my hope is we can get it to that point.”