Tennessee votes to protect American Indian mascots

Thursday, June 14, 2007

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen recently signed into law a measure that bars state agencies from regulating American Indian school mascots.

State Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, sponsored the bill that allows schools and colleges in the state to “continue to honor certain persons or cultures through the use of symbols, names and mascots.”

The original version of the bill stated that the Legislature recognized school mascots “acknowledge admirable characteristics of American Indians and … reflect a positive outlook and recognition upon the contributions and the heritage of American Indians in Tennessee.” The Legislature last month amended the bill to remove any specific references to American Indians before submitting the final version to the governor.

Earlier this year, American Indian activists asked the state Human Rights Commission to ban Native American symbols and mascots in Tennessee’s public schools, noting that more than 100 high, middle and elementary schools in the state have Indians as their mascots.

The Tennessean reported May 9 that concern from Bell’s district, which includes two schools that would have been affected, prompted Bell to introduce the legislation. Bell's District 23 covers McMinn and part of Monroe counties. McMinn County High School uses the Cherokees as a mascot, and Monroe County’s Sequoyah High School uses the Chiefs.

Bell said the bill would not apply if school symbols were portrayed in a demeaning or obscene way.

California, Oklahoma and New Jersey have in recent years considered legislation to ban the use of Native American mascots, but the bills did not pass. The National Conference of State Legislatures lists Tennessee as the only state this year to propose a law preventing a ban.

The law took effect immediately upon Bredesen's signature June 7.