State Rep. Sherrie Sprenger had a good idea: A bill she shepherded through the Legislature would have encouraged schools with mascots named after Native American symbols to reach out to tribes if they wanted to keep using those mascots.
But Sprenger's bill, for all intents and purposes, was undercut by the state Education Department, a striking example of how bureaucrats can frustrate the best efforts of the Legislature, deliberately or not. The result in this case is a missed opportunity to build partnerships between schools and tribes — and to give today's students some real-life lessons from those tribes.
The State Board of Education ruled in 2012 that all Oregon public schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, had to stop using American Indian names, symbols, or images as school mascots by July 1, 2017. Those who don't risk the loss of state funding.
After months of hearings and reports, and more than 700 written comments that were almost evenly split on the issue, the board sided with research that indicates Indian mascots are tantamount to institutionalized racism and give tacit approval for stereotyping, bullying and other negative messages.
The decision affects the Lebanon Community School District as the High School uses the "Warriors" nickname, along with Native American imagery that is being phased out this year. The decision left room for those schools to keep the "Warrior" name because it does not specifically carry a Native American connotation, but the state said it can't be linked with a symbol or image that refers to any Indian tribe, individual, custom or tradition.
Sprenger, the Scio Republican whose district includes Lebanon, has been following the issue for years. In 2014, she convinced the Legislature to sign off a bill that allows school districts with Native American names and imagery to keep them if they worked out agreements with local tribes.
Sprenger's hope was that school districts would build relationships with tribes, getting to know them and adding their information to school history lessons. She worked hard to convey that hope to school districts, meeting with officials from every affected district.
The problem was that the bill still had to be implemented by state officials, and although they did so — grudgingly — any educator paying any sort of attention to the process surely understood that the Board of Education was not particularly interested in fleshing out Sprenger's bill.
Lebanon Superintendent Rob Hess put it well, with more than a touch of diplomatic understatement: "The process the state ended up with was very limited and did not fit our needs."
It looks as if other districts around the state have reached the same conclusion: To date, no school districts in Oregon have requested approval from the state Board of Education to continue using a name or image associated with Native Americans.
However, Philomath school officials say they're going to give it a shot: Superintendent Melissa Goff says that the school board will review a draft memorandum of agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians regarding keeping the names Warriors and Braves, and associated logos. (Philomath Middle School uses the Braves nickname.)
Goff said that the Siletz Tribal Council has been working "to ensure that this work is seen within the classrooms in what our students learn about the history of our region and the contributions and impacts of the Siletz tribes."
If the deal comes to pass (and gets approved by the Board of Education, apparently not a given), it could result in exactly the kind of relationship building that Sprenger originally had in mind. It's too bad that other Oregon students apparently won't get the same opportunity.