The bill sponsored by Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, specifies that no state agency could prohibit public or private institutions from using American Indians for symbols, names and mascots.
The measure passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday by a vote of 6-1, with Harper as the only dissenting vote.
Before the companion bill passed the House last month, an amendment was added incorporating a preamble to the bill that urged schools to "honor" the heritage of Indians in some way. But Bunch removed the preamble Tuesday to keep schools from doing something that might be offensive.
"We're simply clarifying that to keep problems from happening later," he said.
Harper, who is black, said the bill is still unnecessary. The Nashville Democrat said it's offensive that American Indians, black people, or people from any ethnicity would be used as school mascots.
"Bringing that bill, no matter what type of amendment was placed on it, is an insult to their heritage," she said. "It's an insult to the state of Tennessee, and I hope the bill doesn't pass."
House sponsor Mike Bell has said he proposed the legislation 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 names. Bell, R-Riceville, said his constituents were concerned that two schools in their district would be affected. The National Congress of American Indians said the debate over 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. The University of Tennessee at 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. Tennessee is the only state proposing such legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures In the past few years, legislation to ban the use of Indian mascots was introduced in California, Oklahoma and New Jersey. None of those bills passed.