The bill passed by senators on a 22-5 vote would prohibit agencies like the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association from banning schools having teams with American Indian symbols and names.
"It belongs in the citizens' elected arena. ... It belongs to the legislature," said state Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, the bill's Senate sponsor.
The bill's supporters included Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City. Its companion measure passed in the House by a 76-14 vote on April 9, but it is not clear whether Gov. Phil Bredesen will sign the bill.
More than 100 of Tennessee's public and private schools - including Dobyns-Bennett High School and Kingsport's two middle schools - use American Indian names, according to the bill.
The bill's most vocal dissenter, state Sen. Thelma Harper, urged lawmakers to vote against it.
"I just wonder at what point we're going to stop being bullies over people who really have no rights and no one to speak for them," said Harper, D-Nashville. "This is a total disrespect for them. It is a total disrespect whether we like them or not. ... It projects us as bullies. They are down with their face on the ground. What this says is ‘We've got our foot on your back and on your neck and there is nothing you can do about that.' ... I would hope that as citizens we would project ourselves in their place. I wonder how we would react if this were happening to us? I think we need to reject it."
The Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs (TCIA) also opposed the bill and claimed the legislation denies Native American Indians equal protection under the law. TCIA presented its concerns about schools' use of American Indian symbols to the Tennessee Human Rights Commission last January.
"The use of (eagle) feathers, sacred pipes (miscalled peace pipes), sacred drums, the dances, the Indian songs, even painted faces are all part of sacred ceremonies used by Native American Indians and misused by non-Indians as ‘rituals' at sports games where they also misuse our tribal names with the addition of horrendous caricatures," TCIA Chair Evangeline W. Lynch said in testimony to the Senate State and Local Government Committee last month. "Senators, the misuse of them are direct attacks upon our ancient spirituality (religion). My point is that there is a national insensitivity concerning the religious beliefs, traditional values and the unique culture of the Native American Indian. ... Look at me! I am a human being! Remember, please, that we, the Native American Indians of this continent and residents of this state, are human beings created equally in the eyes of and by the hands of the Creator."
In a 2005 ruling, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Executive Committee said "the stereotyping of Native Americans is wrong." The presidents and chancellors who serve on the committee also adopted a policy to prohibit NCAA colleges and universities from displaying "hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery" at any of the 88 NCAA championships.
For more about the bill go to www.legislature.state.tn.us and click on "Legislation." The bill's number is HB 0133.
For more about TCIA go to www.tncia.org.