WU students hear viewpoints about mandate affecting school mascots

by University Communications,

To prevent the harmful effects of racial stereotyping, the Oregon State Board of Education mandated that public high schools stop using Native American mascots by July 1, 2017.

Yet, it provided no funding to help Oregon’s 15 affected school districts prepare for the change.

That’s when Rebecca Dobkins, an anthropology professor at Willamette University, volunteered to help.

“I felt that it was a really appropriate role to help spearhead a way to facilitate this transition,” Dobkins says. “Knowing that, I began to think about how to do this project, and I thought LARC was a perfect fit.”

Through a Liberal Arts Research Collaborative program, select Willamette students collaborate with faculty members on summer research projects in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Through Dobkins’ project, she and four undergraduates — Kelley Villa ’14, Felicia Garcia ’14, Blanca Gutierrez ’14 and Cristina Marquez-Guerrero ’15 — spent eight weeks interviewing school officials, Native Americans and others in three communities affected by the impending legislation.

Professor Brook Colley, a visiting scholar who taught at Willamette last year, also assisted with the research.

Their goals are to share what they learned with state government officials, host a workshop to discuss the issue on campus next spring, and educate people about the value of adapting school curriculum to include information about Native American culture and history.

“The project has real-world value,” Dobkins says. “I have no doubt that the report we write and the convening we do will result in some positive change.”

Wanting to be Heard

Assisted by LARC funding and a grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust, Dobkins and her team spent the summer conducting research.

They learned about the history of tribes in Oregon. They read studies showing that mascots based on racial stereotypes and imagery are harmful to youths, and they learned about other schools across the nation that have successfully made mascot changes.

They also conducted 18 interviews in the towns of Enterprise, Scappoose and Banks, where they talked to everyone from teachers and athletic directors to principals and Native American community members about the mascot issue.

“I really learned the power of listening to folks,” Villa says. “One thing I heard constantly is that people said state officials weren’t listening to them and that no one had bothered to ask them what they thought. That really became the basis of our project.”

For Garcia, the listening sessions enabled her to hear new perspectives on the issue. As a Native American who grew up on a reservation, she says she’s familiar with the negative stereotypes associated with mascots of indigenous people.

That’s why she was surprised to feel sympathy for the school districts affected by the government’s mandate.

“I didn’t realize the extent of people’s attachments to their mascots,” says Garcia, a psychology major who aspires to work with Native American youths. “I saw how hurtful it was for them to not have their voices heard.”

What Garcia and Dobkins found especially interesting were the sentiments shared from people living in Enterprise. Even though the high school changed its mascot several years ago, attitudes on the subject remained largely the same.

“As you engage with this issue, you learn it’s not black and white,” Dobkins says. “My number one finding is that the broader public does not even have the basic understanding of Native American culture, history and contemporary life.

“There is a real void of understanding, and what fills this void, unfortunately, are the stereotypes.”

Initial Findings

Dobkins and her students wrote a preliminary report on their findings this fall. A final, comprehensive report will be released in January and shared with the Oregon Indian Education Association.

Although opinions on the mascot ban were mixed, some universal themes emerged. According to the report, people want students to take leadership roles in making the transition. They want the public to participate in choosing the new mascot, and they want to hear what local leaders and Native American community members have to say on the subject.

They also aspire to make the change slowly and deliberately — both to minimize financial costs to the schools and to better understand Native American histories and contemporary views on issues, including the mascot ban.

“The report we produce is going to really help these communities make the transition, and maybe even result in more education about native culture and the history of Oregon,” Garcia says.

Jackie Grant, coordinator of the Rural & Native American Programs at Eastern Oregon University, agrees. When she learned of the work Dobkins and the Willamette students were doing, she helped connect the team with people to interview.

“Not only is the research important, it’s necessary to gain better insight and awareness to the diverse opinions,” says Grant, who also serves as chairwoman of the Oregon Indian Coalition for Post Secondary Education.

“Choosing to be a part of the solution for this controversial topic takes courage and a commitment to change. Everyone, including high school students, should be brought into the circle and become a part of the conversation.”

Next Steps

Although the LARC research is complete, the work is not.

The LARC team is piloting an activity-based workshop next spring on campus, where they will brainstorm with the affected parties on how to best prepare for the statewide ban on Native American mascots.

Their research may also help the OIEA write related training materials and aid communities in planning forums to discuss the topic, Dobkins says.

“When we’re dealing with issues that go to the heart of American identity, like this one does, there’s so much work to do to listen and understand what our history really is,” Dobkins says.

“This is a real chance for mutual understanding and a new appreciation for what it means to be American.”

• Katie Huber ’13 contributed to this story