Azusa Unified School District Debating Use of Aztec Mascot

Mascots, both in sports and in schools, have come under fire in the last couple of decades after being deemed offensive to Native Americans

Azusa Aztec Mascot

Photo: Azusa High School

Mascots, both in sports and in schools, have come under fire in the last couple of decades after being deemed offensive to Native Americans. Back in 1997 the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to eliminate all references to American Indians in the names and images of school mascots leading schools including the Mohicans of Gardena High now the Panthers. Now the Azusa Unified School District (AUSD) is holding a debate on this issue, the city is in the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County.  AUSD held a board meeting April 19 where the AUSD Board of Education discussed the possibility of changing Azusa High School’s mascot from the Aztecs, a mascot deemed offensive. This comes as several sports teams across the country have replaced mascots of native people including the Cleveland Guardians who were previously the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Commanders, previously the Washington Redskins.

The opportunity to change the school’s branding is the result of reorganization in the district that dissolved a second high school and merged those students with Azusa High School due to decreased enrollment. Azusa High School is now the district’s only high school.

“The Aztec mascot currently is insensitive to the native community,” Yolanda Rodriguez-Peña, AUSD Board member, said during the meeting. “Native Americans are not a character or a mascot.”

Rodriguez-Peña argued that in addition to the mascot being offensive, having the Board and students work together to determine a new mascot would be a way for the newly merged schools to form a new identity and path forward.

Board President Adrian Greer shared his journey from wanting to preserve the Aztec mascot when the Board first discussed the matter in December 2021 to now supporting the consideration of a new mascot after he researched scholarly articles and heard from community members.

“I had conversations with community members who expressed the offense and hurt that has been experienced from the Aztec mascot,” Greer said. “There is real impact to Indigenous folks serving as mascots in schools. There’s a real impact to that.”

As Greer summarized, the Board voted in December to form a committee to explore the school’s colors and mascot and gave the committee the explicit directive to replace the Aztec mascot. Tuesday’s meeting reversed that directive.

While several Board members referenced examples of the community finding the Aztec mascot offensive, the Board voted unanimously to preserve the school’s name as the Azusa Pacific Aztecs, but to form a diverse committee to determine the school’s mascot. Specifics about who would be on the committee were not part of the Board’s action, though several members called for the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives. The committee referenced in the December meeting had not yet assembled.

The Board’s recommendations are similar to the process that San Diego State University (SDSU) chose after decades of controversy over the school’s Aztec mascot. Since 2000, SDSU has considered replacing the mascot and school’s moniker including passing a resolution that year calling both racist. In 2021, SDSU assembled a task force that includes tribal leaders to select the school’s mascot by April 2022. The university continues to use the Aztec moniker today, just like the Azusa Unified School District opted to do.

A University of Michigan 2020 study — which had a sample of 1000 Native Americans, the largest of its kind at the point — found that about two-thirds of Native Americans who frequently engage in tribal and cultural practices take offense  to Native American mascots and team names in professional sports. The study, a collaboration between researchers from UM and University of California, Berkeley, also found that the use of Native mascots is detrimental for Native Americans, according to co-author Arianne Eason, assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

“The results highlight the importance of considering the unique and multifaceted aspects of identity, particularly when seeking to understand Native people’s attitudes and experiences,” the researchers wrote.

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