How TikTok Activists Are Fighting to End Native Mascots in Schools

Lily Joy Winder is on a mission.

About one in 19 high schools in the U.S. have a Native mascot, according to her #PeopleNotMascots website, and the Diné activist from Albuquerque, New Mexico, is pushing for federal legislation to remove them all.

The website was launched last summer with the help of Sofia Ongele, a fellow TikTok activist who coded it. It features a map listing the schools in each state that have Native mascots, and urges visitors to sign a pledge to support and vote for legislators who will prioritize banning Native mascots in schools that do not have specific tribal consent.

Winder, 19, told Newsweek that it all started after she made a TikTok video in the summer of 2020 about how Native people are represented in the media.

"It was like one of those videos, like me being sad that I don't see Native people, me being happy, because I know that Native people are awesome," she said.

The comments on the video were eye-opening, she said.

"Some of my comments were saying that they've never seen a Native American before. They were saying a lot of racist sentiment, a lot of anti-Native sentiment, a lot of ignorant statements," she said.

Lily Joy Winder (left) and Sofia Ongele launched the #PeopleNotMascots website, which features a map listing high schools that have Native mascots (photo credit: Emma Marie; Jenny Ongele).

A junior in high school at the time, Winder pivoted from using the platform for comedy videos to using it as a tool for activism, speaking about racial injustice and issues affecting Native people, including how Indigenous communities were being disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During that summer of 2020, the Washington Football Team finally announced it would change its controversial name and logo amid the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd's murder.

"I was doing the best that I could on behalf of my people," Winder said. "I really think that having positive representation of Native people humanizes us and will have a genuine impact on how non-Natives and Natives perceive Native people."

She said she then started receiving messages from students who told her of their struggles to get Native mascots removed from their high schools.

"People were coming to me, and telling me, 'My school board won't listen to me. My classmates won't listen to me. Please can you use your platform to talk about this, as I have no support in my school.' And so I did I use my platform."

Now a sophomore at Stanford University, Winder said that while she didn't have a Native mascot at her high school in Albuquerque, she had experienced racism during those years that deeply affected her.

"I knew what it was like to have people treat you like you're not human," she said. "Hearing people's personal stories of having to deal with these Native mascots, it became more of a pressing issue to me."

In December 2020, she compiled a list of high schools with Native mascots and the petitions calling for them to be banned into a Google document to be used as a resource by supporters.

The website has been used by about 40,000 people all over the world in the year since it launched, Ongele said.

"I feel like people worldwide acknowledge that injustice anywhere begets injustice everywhere, which is why I think it's really powerful that we've been able to sort of not implicitly touch the lives but spark conversations about this on an international scale," Ongele said.

Winder said some high schools have removed their mascots thanks to petitions that were shared on the campaign website.

And the movement has also scored some bigger wins: Colorado, Nevada and Washington all enacted laws last year banning Native mascots and imagery in public schools.

The next step for the #PeopleNotMascots campaign is to push for legislation on a federal level, Winder said.

However, not all agree that removing Native mascots from schools is a good idea.

The Native American Guardian's Association (NAGA) filed a lawsuit against Colorado's law last year, arguing that the complete erasure of Native American imagery is not beneficial. The suit argued that the use of positive Native American symbolism is a form of "reappropriation."

NAGA president Tony Henson told Newsweek that the majority of Native Americans support the "respectful" use of Native names and imagery, citing a Washington Post survey that found 9 in 10 Native Americans were not offended by the Washington team's former moniker.

The North Dakota-based group "opposes Native American 'mascots' in the true sense of the term being a costumed entertainer," Henson said.

But he added that the word 'mascot' "is intentionally used to elicit a negative connotation of what would otherwise be commonly termed as a logo or icon. This is nothing more than another version of the radical cancel culture movement that the vast majority of American people, [including] Native people, are sick of. Native Americans are not your mascots but we are your icons."

A man holds an ant-mascot button
A man holds an anti-mascot button to protest using Native people as mascots for sports teams on January 1, 2003 in Columbus, Ohio. Mike Simons/Getty Images

NAGA's website says it is "committed to keeping Native identity at the forefront of mainstream America" and that educational institutions and sports teams "play an important role in the preservation and promotion of American Indian legacy."

But the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY), an education and advocacy organization, said race-based mascots "do not honor the strong cultures of Native Americans."

CNAY is calling for all educational institutions and sports teams to establish policy "that prohibits derogatory mascots, logos, and cultural appropriation."

"The use of these terms and logos perpetuates the systemic racism within our country. They represent inaccurate depictions of the Native American population and promote cultural appropriation," the organization said in a statement to Newsweek.

"The Non-Native rationale of utilizing racial slurs as mascots and logos is unacceptable. It is disrespectful and disheartening. The racial logos and mascots have created social stigmas that detrimentally impact the health and well-being of Native American youth. These logos and mascots erect intergeneration traumas rooted in the forced assimilation of the population."

Ongele said the research into the harm of Native mascots on students is "tried and true," noting that the American Psychological Association first called for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols and images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations in 2005.

"In that time, we've come completely through grade school, and no federal action has been taken," Ongele said.

Winder argued that the harm caused by Native mascots can also be linked to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

She pointed to research that shows 80 percent of Native women experience some form of violence in their lifetime and face murder rates almost three times those of white women overall—and up to 10 times the national average in certain locations.

"When I look at such devastating statistics, and I see the things that my people are faced with, I think about what can be done," Winder said.

"We're not seen as humans, because we're being dehumanized by these Native mascots." Removing them from schools "is something tangible that I thought could be done on behalf of Native people," she added.

Melinda Lim, a lawyer working with Winder and Ongele on their effort to introduce and pass federal legislation on the issue, told Newsweek she is confident in the endeavor.

"I believe tackling this issue via federal legislation is long overdue," Lim said. "There is clearly a growing movement and interest and with the recent laws passed in Washington and Colorado, just as examples, there are strong state examples of this being codified."

Winder hopes that federal legislation will acknowledge tribal sovereignty.

"Because it's not fair that these schools are dictating whether these mascots, these racist caricatures are offensive or not when it should be given back to the tribe to decide," she said.

"I'm standing on the shoulders of people [who] have been doing this Native mascot work for decades... The time is now. The time was decades ago."

Correction 8/25/22, 2:11 PM ET: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of the attorney working with Winder and Ongele. It's Melinda Lim, not Melissa Lim. We regret the error.