A superintendent in Michigan who had sought to penalize school districts with Native American mascots was told by the attorney general there that he has no such power.
State Superintendent Brian Whiston wanted to make a 5 to 10 percent cut in funding to districts if they refused to abolish their mascot. “What we would do is warn a district that if they don’t make a change within 60 days that we would withhold some portion of their school aid funds,” Whiston WOODTV.com reported.
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Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, however, wrote in his legal opinion that although the superintendent has “broad powers,” no act in the state “authorizes the Superintendent to withhold state school aid funds or to cause the forfeiture of such funds by school districts that use an American Indian mascot, logo, or other imagery.”
In March, Whiston said he couldn’t sit idly by as Indian mascots continue to offend Native peoples. “I understand and respect people’s varying opinions, but I think when people stand up and clearly say it’s offensive to them, I don’t know how I can sit there and say it’s not offensive to them,” Whiston said, WOODTV.com reported.
Two months later, in May, the Paw Paw School District Board of Education voted 4 to 3 to keep its controversial ‘Redskins’ mascot. Proponents of keeping the school mascot argued during the district’s monthly meeting that the name and image is meant to honor Native Americans, while Native Americans who also attended the meeting said the word is offensive, they are not honored by it, and the logo is demeaning.
“I think there’s very few people that are offended by this,” Tim Kelly, a Republican –representing the Saginaw Township, told Mlive.com. “Many in these communities feel very strongly about these mascots, and in fact look at it as honorable use of these images rather than disparaging.”
But leaders in the Native American community in Michigan disagree.
Linda Cypret-Kilbourne, a resident of Marshall, Michigan, and co-founder of the Michigan Coalition Against Racism in sports and media, told Mlive.com said she is “very disappointed” by Schuette’s decision. “When the schools use the Native American spiritual leader logos to represent their schools, they are disrespecting our religious leaders. You would not do that for any other religion,” she said.
Following Schuette’s decision, Michigan Department of Education spokesman Martin Ackley said in a statement that they continue to encourage abolishing offensive Native mascots in public schools.
“In accepting this Attorney General opinion, the State Superintendent still encourages school districts that have Native American mascots and logos to use the resources available in Michigan’s Native American Heritage Fund to defray the costs of changing their school mascot name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian tribe, individual, custom, or tradition,” Ackley wrote.
In 2003, the state school board passed a resolution encouraging the abolishment of Native American mascots at public schools in the state. The resolution was again proclaimed in 2010, but the board said that such actions should be taken at the local level.
Culture Editor Simon Moya-Smith contributed to this report.