Choctaw oppose bill that would prevent banning mascots 4-17-07

Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A Choctaw activist told lawmakers on Tuesday that legislation that would prevent the state from ever banning American Indian mascots at schools is disrespectful and unconstitutional.

``We are not mascots, we are human beings,'' Evangeline Lynch told the Senate, State and Local Government Committee. Lynch is a member of the Tennessee Commission on Indian Affairs.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, specifies that no state agency would have the authority to prohibit public or private institutions from continuing to use Indians for symbols, names and mascots.

The committee delayed action on the measure until next week, which is expected to be its last meeting. However, the companion bill passed the House earlier this month.

House sponsor Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he proposed the bill after American Indian activists went before the state's Human Rights Commission earlier this year and asked its members to ban what they consider offensive Indian mascots and symbols in state public schools.

The activists said about two dozen high schools and 80 middle and elementary schools in Tennessee use Indians in their team name.

Bell said his constituents were concerned that two schools in their district would be affected.

Before the bill passed the House, an amendment was added incorporating a preamble to the bill that states, in part, ``The General Assembly urges all schools which currently utilize American Indian symbols in the selection of their mascots or names to embark upon a study of the history and heritage of the tribe or tribes from which such symbols are derived.''

Lynch, who taught 21 years at Obion County High School and was allowed to develop a curriculum on her Choctaw heritage, said she's not appeased by the amendment.

``The preamble has little meaning to us,'' said Lynch, adding that the measure still doesn't make the bill constitutional.

``It denies us equal protection and violates our equal rights,'' she said.

Shalini Rose, interim director of the Human Rights Commission, said the commission also believes the legislation is unconstitutional and has requested an attorney general's opinion.

``It singles out a group of people, and anything that singles out just one set of people is legally suspect to us,'' said Rose, who is also an attorney.

According to the National Congress of American Indians, debate over Indian sports mascots date back to the 1970s, when The University of Oklahoma changed its mascot, Little Red. In 2005, the NCAA banned the use of Indian mascots in postseason tournaments.

In Tennessee, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga stopped using Chief Moccanooga as its mascot in the mid-1990s when activists asked the school to change. The school's sports teams are now nicknamed the Mocs.

Tennessee is the only state proposing such legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures

In the past few years, legislation that would ban the use of Indian mascots instead of protect them was introduced in California, Oklahoma and New Jersey. None of those bills passed.