State Rep. Chris Rabb said he hopes to propose the bill before Thanksgiving.
State Rep. Chris Rabb will soon formally propose legislation that aims to ban the use of American Indian names and iconography in Pennsylvania schools.
Rabb (D-Philadelphia) plans to introduce his bill at the Capitol building in Harrisburg, where the kind of institutional racism he is seeking to curb is literally built into the architecture.
“There’s a tile under the rotunda in the Capitol building, it’s an image of what appears to be a Native American man scalping a white settler,” Rabb said. “I show it to everyone I possibly can. People are shocked to see it. To have a tile that implicates Indigenous folk as scalpers is deeply concerning. It’s emblematic of the false narrative that has gotten us to this moment.”
Examples of racism towards America’s first inhabitants aren’t hard to find. Major League Baseball’s recently-concluded postseason offered a regular prime-time showcase for it, with thousands of Atlanta Braves fans (along with impartial observers like former President Donald Trump) participating in the racist “Tomahawk Chop” chant, a decades-old ritual that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred seems pretty much OK with. And it wasn’t until last year that Daniel Snyder, owner of the National Football League franchise that plays in Washington, DC, finally acquiesced to pressure and dropped the team’s racist name, a move widely considered to be driven by money, not morals.
Across Pennsylvania, more than 60 schools still feature mascots and logos that stereotype Indigenous peoples, according to the Pennsylvania Youth Congress. Under Rabb’s legislation, schools that refuse to cease using American Indian names and images will be declared ineligible for inclusion in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), a potentially devastating blow for their athletic programs. Rabb’s bill also calls for the offending schools to provide more education on American Indian culture and history.
Rabb has worked to advance Indigenous issues before. Just last month, he introduced legislation to remove Columbus Day as a holiday and replace it with a holiday on Election Day, and joined other legislators in proposing a bill to make the second Monday in October, currently Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Rabb said that he’ll soon propose a resolution that Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives begin each legislative session week by acknowledging that the Commonwealth exists on the lands of the Erie, Haudenosaunee, Lenape, Munsee, Shawnee, and Susquehannock nations. As a father of two Black teenagers, Rabb said, seeing his children marginalized in predominantly white institutions informs his work on behalf of American Indians.
“I can relate to the concerns of Indigenous parents and their children who, when they’re in school, are othered,” Rabb said. “Their cultures are represented as a form of entertainment for a predominantly white audience who has never asked for their input or their perspective, or inquired about their culture in good faith beyond trying to justify use of a mascot or a name.”
Neshaminy High School in Bucks County has spent the better part of the last 10 years — and more than $400,000 in legal fees — trying to justify its use of a racial slur against American Indians as the mascot for its sports teams. It’s the same name the NFL franchise in Washington finally stopped using. Donna Fann-Boyle, whose two sons graduated from the high school, took up the fight against the Neshaminy School District after an exchange with a school administrator back in 2012 regarding the school’s use of the slur.
“I asked him, ‘How can you allow this racial slur to be plastered all over?’” said Fann-Boyle, who is of Choctaw-Cherokee ancestry. “He said, ‘We use it for honor.’ I said, ‘How can it be for honor when the people you say you’re honoring are telling you to stop doing it?’”
In 2013, Fann-Boyle filed a complaint against Neshaminy with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, hoping it would prompt the school district to take action. Soon after, the high school newspaper, The Playwickian, joined the cause, saying it would no longer publish the name because they deemed it racially insensitive. Fann-Boyle said once she began speaking out on the issue she went from a respected community member to being vilified.
“I was harassed and threatened,” Fann-Boyle said. “Someone got my unpublished phone number and I got a threatening phone call saying something about one of my sons. I heard a lot of ‘If you don’t like it move back to the reservation, get out of our country,’ and horrible things like that on Facebook.”
After years of back and forth, the PHRC ruled in late 2019 that the Neshaminy School District could continue calling some of its sports teams by that racial slur, but must do away with any logos and imagery “that negatively stereotype Native Americans.” However a panel of Commonwealth Court judges voided that decision this past June, on the grounds that the PHRC arrived at its decision without hearing discrimination complaints from any American Indian students in the district.
Fann-Boyle continues to pursue the Neshaminy mascot issue as a member of the Middletown Township Human Relations Commission. And in the wake of the PHRC’s ruling, she helped to found the Coalition of Natives and Allies, which works to pass policies to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples living in Pennsylvania, along with helping similar causes in school districts throughout the country. Fann-Boyle said her organization helped the Radnor and Unionville-Chadds Ford school districts adopt new mascots recently by helping to educate the school boards to the insensitive connotations of their previous mascots.
Rabb believes much of this issue comes down to education. He said that if there were a better understanding regarding the plight of American Indians, and the negative psychological and social impact derogatory mascots have on Indigenous peoples, his legislation might not even be necessary.
“When I’m in these conversations about these derogatory names and mascots with often very defensive people, they give me all the justifications about how this honors indigenous people, how it’s respectful of them,” Rabb said. “And, honestly, I don’t know if any of these people have had a conversation with one Indigenous person.
“As an American people, we are ignorant of our Indigenous predecessors. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was founded on the tribal lands of a number of native peoples. We don’t know that history. What we do know are the fictions and caricatures of people we have forced into the margins or do not believe even exist.”