For my work, I travel to high schools throughout Ohio, which usually means turning up at a sweaty gym on a weeknight for a college fair. More often than I would expect, the conversations I’ve had with high school students and their families about their hopes for the future have taken place beneath the gaze of an Indigenous man in profile.
According to the Ohio High School Athletic Association 2020-21 school year report, 19 Ohio high schools have chosen the “Indians” as their mascot, 11 Ohio high schools have chosen to be the “Redskins,” two are the “Mohawks,” and seven are the “Braves.” This may not be a significant percentage of the total high schools in Ohio, but that’s still 39 schools where every student is exposed to a school-sanctioned, racist depiction of Native People.
For many years, conversations centered on Indigenous mascots have focused on professional teams, such as the ex-Cleveland Indians (now Guardians), whose fans for decades sported racist caricatures on baseball caps, T-shirts and sweatshirts. Generally, the team name is changed not because it’s dehumanizing, but because ownership understands the controversy generated is bad for business.
The conversation around changing team names is certainly not over. At the professional level, it’s a business decision. At the high school level, there’s even more at stake. And as local high school names begin to be debated across Ohio in the coming years, I worry we will miss the point.
When I look at the wall of a high school gym painted with the face of a Native man, I see a state full of classrooms where Indigenous people are only spoken about in the past tense, where students are given only a homogenic look at a complex and diverse people. I see a state where students are not being educated about the Shawnee, Seneca-Cayuga, Lenape and Wyandot people who once lived where these schools now stand.
So, whether your local high school has a painting of an Indigenous man or some kind of punch-drunk wildcat, I want us to remember that our public system fails to educate students on the history and the modern lives of Indigenous people.
Professional teams can roll out a new marketing strategy, hold a contest for the new name, and pat themselves on the back for bringing the city they represent into the 21st century. At the high school level, if these communities merely choose to paint over this history with a coat of beige paint, selecting one of several big cats as a replacement, I think that would miss the point entirely.
Instead, we all need to take a look at what schools are teaching students in each of our communities for November’s Indigenous Peoples’ month, and in every month after that.
I would invite you to acknowledge the number of high schools in Ohio with Indigenous mascots and see them for what they are: a symbol of an educational system's collective values, or perhaps more accurately, its lack thereof.