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Activists fight to remove Native-American themed mascots from Michigan schools

Posted at 6:15 PM, Sep 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-08 18:15:36-04

(WXYZ) — This fall semester is looking a little different for some Michigan schools that are now in the process of ditching their Native American-themed mascot and imagery.

Indigenous communities have called their use offensive and long stood in opposition.

Many schools using an ‘R-word’ mascot are quickly getting pushed out, but there are plenty of other problematic ones that remain and will become a target, including in metro Detroit.

I spoke with two women, on a decades-long mission, about why it’s time to rid Michigan of native-themed mascots once and for all.

For these indigenous women, some days are filled with wins, but it has always been along the road less traveled.

Between these two great grandmothers is 80 years of activism and hundreds of road trips to schools in every part of the state.

“We show up, because we’re ready to say No, we’re done. You’re not going to hurt one more child,” says Yvonne Moore.

The main mission for Moore and Linda Cypret Kilbourne is to fight to eradicate racism hiding in plain sight.

“We did Paw Paw, Michigan and then we did the Fountain of the Pioneers in Kalamazoo,” says Moore.

The battle against school team nicknames and mascots, those as egregious as racial slurs like the “Redskins” - known as the “R-word” - to insensitive names like the Chiefs, Warriors & Indians.

Julie Dye introduces herself in her indigenous Potawatomi. A native rights advocate today, as a child, she was negatively impacted by mascot names.

“I was born in Paw Paw, Michigan which used to be an ‘R word’ school,” Dye says. ”I’ve had to endure a lot of culture shaming and ridicule.”

And she has never been alone. A host of psychological research proves its adverse effects.

“It lowers the self-esteem of native kids, it creates depression, instances of self-harm and substance abuse,” Dye says.

But standing up against what many Americans consider tradition has not been easy.

“Communities and schools, and alumni mostly get so attached to this part of their childhood they just don’t want to let it go,” Dye says.

Making voices like Linda and Yvonne all the more unpopular.

Q: “Did you receive backlash for taking the position you took?”
Linda: “Yes we did, we received death threats.”
Q: “You’ve been verbally attacked?”
Linda: “Yes, I’ve had state police literally escort me into and out of a board meeting.”
Q: “How difficult is that knowing that you’re opening yourself up to that kind of visceral response from people?”
Linda: “if I don’t stand up, who will?”

Since 1970, roughly two-thirds of native-themed mascots and imagery logos have been retired but nearly two thousand nationwide still remain. In Michigan, there are roughly 50, with at least four in Wayne County.

There are the Chiefs in Plymouth-Canton, along with the Woodhaven Warriors, the Ecorse Red Raiders, and the New Boston Huron Chiefs.

“When they’re using these severed heads of Native American spiritual leaders, it’s the same as a pope, rabbi, or anyone else and you would not put them on your gym floor and go trampling back and forth at a basketball game,” Linda says.

Some community members have pushed back saying a mascot tribute should be considered an honor.

“Who has the right to tell a person how they should be honored?” Linda says. “There’s other ways to honor Native American people and it’s not in sports.”

”This one says I am not a mascot, I am not a mascot,” Linda says explaining her button.

And until phrases like these no longer need to be said or worn, the mission for these justice seekers continues.