The nonpartisan Nebraska State Capitol
The Nebraska State Capitol building. Photo by Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service

From installing a new gym floor to repainting the football field to purchasing new school uniforms, changing a school’s mascot isn’t cheap.

LB 1027 in the Nebraska Legislature would offer grants of up to $200,000 to the 22 Nebraska schools with Native American mascots to cover the costs associated with changing their mascots.

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha proposed the bill and said she thinks the strategy will help prevent the ongoing issue in Colorado, where a lawsuit is pending that challenges the constitutionality of an outright ban on Native American mascots.

While Hunt has pushed for a full ban on using Native American mascots for several years, the approach in LB 1027 is to incentivize the schools to change their mascot, but not require it, she said.

“If the reason is you can’t afford it, now we’re taking that excuse away, and allowing you to make a change,” she said.

Representatives of the Ponca, Winnebago and Omaha tribes testified in support of the bill Feb. 22, as did representatives of the ACLU of Nebraska and the Nebraska State Education Association.

The bill is currently in the Education Committee, and Hunt said she is pushing to move the bill out of committee so it can be heard before the Legislature.

“It’s not only going to help the lives of these Native American students,” she said. “It’ll help start to make amends for the racist legacy of this state.”

The grants would be provided by the Nebraska Department of Education, and would cover costs associated with changing mascots such as repainting the football field and buying new uniforms, Hunt said.

The cost of the bill could be up to $4.4 million if all 22 schools take advantage of the opportunity and qualify for the full $200,000, Hunt said. Several of the school districts with these mascots estimated the changes would cost about $200,000, but that figure could be more or less depending on the school district’s size.

“I don’t think that this is a lot of money to ask from the legislature in the big picture,” she said during the bill’s Education Committee hearing. “And I think that this will improve the culture in these schools, but that money will also improve the experience for the students.”

The Nebraska School Activities Association lists 11 Nebraska schools with the Warrior mascot, seven Indians, one Chief, one Brave and two Chieftains.

The argument to end the use of Native mascots isn’t new. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement calling for the end of the use of Native American mascots by non-Native schools.

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs issued resolutions asking the state’s schools to stop using Native American mascots in 1991 and again in 2008, according to a 2019 statement by the Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

In October of 2020, the Nebraska Advisory Committee began a study on the impact of Native American mascots on Native students and Native communities, according to a March 2021 briefing.

Stephanie Fryberg, a professor of psychology from the University of Michigan, testified to the committee that exposure to Native American mascots increases stress and depression among Native students and increases stereotyping and discrimination against them, according to the briefing.

“There’s research out there that shows that there’s serious mental health implications to young Native American students with these mascots,” Hunt said.

Colette Yellow Robe, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe who grew up in Winnebago, said mascots like Warriors and Chiefs are caricatures of Native American culture that are offensive to many Native Americans.

“It’s keeping us trapped in the past; it’s representing our tribes in an erroneous manner,” she said. “As a Native woman, that is most certainly not an honor to me just to see a warrior, typically male, patriarchal image.”

Dwayne Ball, who served on the Nebraska Advisory Committee, said he was one of the only members who opposed mandating schools to change their mascot. He said he appreciates that LB 1027 wouldn’t force schools to change.

“The only problem that I see is that I think, to a lot of people, it won’t look like a very good use of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Hunt said many school officials across the state have expressed support for the bill and said the grants would make the process of changing their mascots more feasible.

“There’s a trend of schools leaving behind their racist mascots all over the country, at the local level and at the national level,” Hunt said.

Some Nebraskans oppose changing these mascots in the name of tradition, Hunt said, but many current students are open to changing them.

“There’s always those groups of people who are a little bit more willing to defend tradition than they are to embrace something forward-thinking, to listen to the young people and say, ‘This is the direction our state needs to go,’” she said.

Hi, my name is Luna Stephens and I am a senior journalism and advertising and public relations major at UNL. I am also currently an intern at the Omaha World-Herald and previous to that, at the Lincoln Journal Star.