NASHVILLE - A Tennessee lawmaker wants to prevent the state from ever banning American Indian mascots at schools.
Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, is sponsoring legislation that specifies no state agency would have the authority to prohibit public or private institutions from continuing to use Indians with symbols, names and mascots.
The measure was scheduled for the House floor on Monday, but Bell deferred action. The companion version is scheduled to be discussed in the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday.
Bell said he proposed the bill after American Indian activists went before the state's Human Rights Commission earlier this year and asked its members to ban what they consider offensive Indian mascots and symbols in state public schools.
The activists said about two dozen high schools and 80 middle and elementary schools in Tennessee use Indians in their team name.
Bell said his constituents were concerned that two schools in their district would be affected.
"They came to me and said, ‘Hey, they're not going to take this away from us are they?'" Bell said.
Under the legislation, "local communities would decide whether they want to use Indian names, mascots and symbols, and not the state," Bell said. His bill says that the schools' use of the mascots "honor" Indian heritage.
According to the National Congress of American Indians, debate over Indian sports mascots dates back to the 1970s, when The University of Oklahoma changed its mascot, Little Red. In 2005, the NCAA banned the use of Indian mascots in postseason tournaments.
In Tennessee, the University of Tennessee Chattanooga stopped using Chief Moccanooga as its mascot in the mid-1990s when activists asked the school to change. The school's sports teams are now nicknamed the Mocs.
Adam McMullin, spokesman for National Congress of American Indians, said his group opposes Bell's legislation and would rather see states ban the use of Indian mascots. But if the decision were left up to local governments, as Bell is proposing, McMullin said he hopes "communities would make the right decision."
The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association and Tennessee School Boards Association said Monday they haven't taken a position on Bell's legislation.
But Stephen Smith, the state school boards' director of government relations, said the measure "is a different type of legislation than we've seen before."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Tennessee is the only state proposing such legislation this year.
In the past few years, legislation that would ban the use of Indian mascots instead of protect them was introduced in California, Oklahoma and New Jersey, said Nithin Akuthota, a policy specialist for the NCSL's Institute for State Tribal Relations. None of those bills passed.
But Bell said he's optimistic about his bill's chances this year. "It's getting support," he said.