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Tribes would get final say in Washington proposal to ban Native mascots at schools

Tulalip tribal chair hopes for "meaningful dialogue between tribes and districts" about the use of Native American imagery.

MARYSVILLE, Wash. — The people of the Tulalip Tribe can trace their history back at least 15,000 years. The artifacts in their cultural center tell stories that evoke a great sense of pride.

Ryan Miller, the tribe's director of treaty rights and governmental affairs, says appropriation of tribal culture cuts very deep. He supports HB 1356, currently making its way through the state legislature would ban the use of Native American symbols and imagery as school mascots.

"It trivializes our culture and it trivializes our people. Sometimes these images can be used to dehumanize Native people. It's a lot easier to think of someone as less than human when you see them as a caricature," Miller said.

The bill also allows for exceptions to the ban if a district consults with the local tribe.

The Tulalip reservation is within the boundaries of the Marysville School District, which includes Totem Middle School, home of the Thunderbirds, and the Marysville-Pilchuck High School Tomahawks.

There are 1,270 Native American students in the district. That's about 13% of the school population.

And while there is great pride in the Tulalip tribe itself, there is also pride in the Tomahawks. Facebook posts by tribal members show quite a bit of support for keeping the nicknames.

One person posted, "Best mascot in the state! Go Tommys!"

Another said, "Tulalip should design a tomahawk, too!"

Still another added, "I felt proud of the name when I was in high school."

Miller acknowledged that tribal support is split on whether to change Marysville's mascots.

"We all have differing opinions but we elect our tribal council to represent us and we have to let them do that for us," he said.

Tulalip Tribal Chair Teri Gobin said the bill would allow for the discussion to start.

"We believe that tribes are the ultimate experts in our culture and identity. Every tribe and every district will have a different relationship, and different history," Gobin said. "HB 1356 creates meaningful dialogue between tribes and districts and gives tribes the authority to decide whether the use of a Native-themed mascot, or tribal imagery is positive or negative for that tribe."

State Rep. Emily Wicks, a Marysville-Pilchuck graduate and former cheerleader, expressed her support for the bill.

“If passed, this legislation provides for the necessary and appropriate consultation between school districts, communities, and their local sovereign tribes. In Marysville, it ensures that our school songs, imagery, and uniforms are consistent and developed and determined by community input. It gives our Tulalip tribal partners due voice in decisions related to their cultural representation. HB 1356 encourages a respectful school environment that listens to and honors all community members, especially those who have been historically and presently left out of the decision-making process.”

Recent studies have shown the use of Indian icons as mascots can have serious consequences for young people and communities.

"It has a negative impact on tribal youth self-esteem. It also has a negative impact on how outside communities see tribal communities," Miller said.

A spokesperson for Marysville schools said that with the bill still being debated, it would be "premature" for the district to comment on the matter.  

If the bill does become law the decision about the Tomahawks and Thunderbirds would ultimately be up to the tribe.

Mascots aside, Ryan Miller believes that is what really matters.

"It's about lifting up traditionally marginalized voices and giving them a seat at the table and giving them decision-making power over their representation in the greater community."