The controversy over using Native American mascots for sports teams has raged across the country. And this summer, it’s reared its head in Idaho again.
Nearly 200 people turned out for a school board meeting Monday to weigh in on Teton High School’s mascot, the Redskins. Passionate and tearful testimony poured from both sides as the Teton School District’s school board took public comments for four and a half hours, then deliberated on voting on the mascot for another hour and a half.
By 11:30 p.m., the board of the school district on the Idaho-Wyoming border agreed to hold another work session at 6 p.m. July 16 at Driggs Elementary. The board plans to vote up or down on the mascot then.
Opponents of changing the mascot argue the name Redskin was intended to show respect to the local Native American tribes and their bravery, strength and traditions. Those for a change say the school should listen to the Idaho Native Americans, including the Shoshone-Bannock and Nez Perce tribes, who support changing the mascot due its offensive meaning.
The Merriam-Webster, Oxford and Dictionary.com dictionaries all define the word as offensive. And the National Congress of American Indians says the term originates from white settlers offering bounties for the bloody skins of natives as proof of their killings.
School board member Ben Kearsley cautioned that the board should take its time, continue to hear from the community on the divisive issue and hold at least one more public meeting on the mascot. But fellow school board member Mary Mello countered that the debate over the school’s Redskin mascot has roiled the community for months, if not years, and that everyone who wanted to speak Monday did.
“We have to open a wound,” Mello said. “I’m not convinced continuing to talk about it is going to do anything but dig that wound deeper.”
REDSKIN CONTROVERSY RETURNS
Victor resident Stephanie Crockett revived the issue in March, asking the school board to change the high school’s mascot six years after it first became a hot topic.
Teton no longer uses a physical mascot dressed in Native American clothing with a headdress. Its official logo does not contain an Indian head, and its sports teams have phased out using Redskins on their jerseys since 2013, Teton Athletic Director Brody Birch said. But signage around the school still displays an Indian head logo.
The board put off debating and possibly voting on the mascot until July so it could focus on passing year-end budgets, but the mascot debate split the community in the meantime.
Two student groups walked out of class this spring in support of keeping the mascot. A student council poll found 67 percent of the high school’s students want to keep the mascot. But the school’s student newspaper, “The War Cry,” vowed to change its name in support of Native Americans.
The Teton County community waged its own debates. A private Facebook group titled, “Save the Redskins,” swelled to 1,100 members. Opposing sides took swipes at each other in letters to the editor. And both sides invited Native American groups that backed their position to speak in Driggs.
The Washington, D.C,.-based nonprofit Native American Guardians Association spoke in favor of keeping the mascot June 5, telling the Teton Valley News it wants to, “educate, not eradicate” Native American imagery and symbols in schools.
The nearby Shoshone-Bannock tribe pushed back against that message, claiming the group did not consult local tribes. And Native Americans who want the mascot changed held their own event June 26.
“Utilizing an Indian or tribal mascot is nothing more than a veiled attempt at hate speech. That’s all it is,” Northern Arapaho member Sergio Moldonado told the Teton Valley News. “Let’s be pragmatic. You want to put your cards on the table, put your cards on the table face up. Let us know where you are.”
Debate over the mascot first arose in June 2013 when Teton School District Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme ordered the high school to change the mascot. He told the Teton Valley News that the process would start, “as soon as I can get my tie off and get in the forklift.”
Even though he had the support of the Shoshone-Bannock and Nez Perce tribes then, the local community revolted against his unilateral mandate. Woolstenhulme eventually relented in the face of public opposition, and the school board tabled any changes to the mascot that August.
During the current debate, he has publicly said he will defer the decision to the school board.
THE CASE TO CHANGE THE MASCOT
Sixty-one community members testified Monday at Teton’s school board meeting with 33 arguing the school should change the mascot, 27 asserting it should stay the same and one not offering an opinion.
Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Chairman Ladd Edmo detailed the tribe’s stance against the racial misappropriation of Native American mascots. He also expressed his disappointment that racial controversy still has a home in Idaho schools and corrected the narrative that the Shoshone-Bannock, whose ancestral homelands include the Teton Valley, ever referred to themselves as redskins.
“Our traditional name for our people is a ‘Newe,’ meaning the Indian people,” Edmo said. “We do not have a name for redskin in our Shoshone-Bannock language. The origin of the name redskin refers to the name colonists made up, who sought to create their own social and racial categories.
“These names clearly delineated Indian people as a separate race of people who had no civil rights under the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights from the civilized American gentleman.”
Cameron Butler, a student at Teton High, said the community should honor the wishes of its Native American neighbors.
“A lot has been said about whether it is or isn’t racist, but in my opinion, Native Americans and native people have told us many, many times that they do not feel honored by this mascot,” Butler said. “... Since the people we are trying to honor so much, and feel so strongly that we need to help, have stated they don’t like the mascot and they’d like us to change it, we should listen to them.”
Teton Middle School teacher Susan Christensen said the original meaning of the Redskin mascot was respectful. But she said the world, and the word, has changed since 1929.
“No one ever chose to have the redskin be the mascot here out of any kind of disrespect,” Christensen said. “No one thinks that. No one thinks it was meant in a racist manner. But times have changed. We’ve learned better. We can do better. It’s not who we are.”
Mason Moore, the president of Teton’s debate team, pointed out the controversy proves the mascot has outlived its purpose.
“One in three at Teton High School want our mascot to change. That may be a minority, but one in three is enough,” Moore said. “If one in three of our students can’t rally behind our mascot, it’s time to change the mascot because it has ceased being something that can unify us.”
THE CASE TO KEEP THE REDSKINS
Those who want to keep the mascot cited its tradition and what they said was the original intent to honor the local Native Americans. Janine Jolley, one of the administrators of the “Save the Redskins” Facebook page, said she’s sick and tired of being called a racist by outside groups.
“We have an awesome symbol of pride and honor and power,” Jolley said. “It was never a racial slur to be a redskin. We wanted to be as brave, as fearless and as strong as they were. We are keeping the memories of those who were here actually alive.”
Baillie Hillman, a 2018 Teton grad and an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, questioned why the focus was only on the negative connotations around the word redskin.
“We give words meaning,” Hillman said. “Any words can be made to be offensive or not depending on the meaning we give it. Why aren’t we advocating for making it the positive meaning it was intended to be 90 years ago?”
Several speakers worried about the cost of changing the mascot and threatened to pull their support from future bonds and levies. Woolstenhulme could not give an estimate Monday night, but he said in 2013 it could cost $60,000-$80,000 to change the school’s signage and replace athletic uniforms, the Teton Valley News reported. He cautioned that number may have changed.
“There is a community cost on what this would do,” Rachelle Fullmer said. “You are going to divide and rip and tear apart the little sense of community that we have left. This is why the discussion always turns into us vs. them.
“… It is a choice to be offended. It is a choice to let people get under your skin. Teton High School is in the crosshairs right now. I wonder what will be next? Casinos? Subarus?”
Sharon Boothe, a 1959 graduate of Teton, said it saddened her to learn some students are no longer proud of the Redskins name.
“Unfortunately, we live in a politically correct environment where every word, every action, every perceived intent is scrutinized for whether or not it is going to offend someone,” Boothe said. “No matter what is done, someone will always find something to be offended by. It is a choice.
“Names can be changed, statues can be torn down, murals can be painted over and history can be rewritten. But we do it at the detriment of our society and to our own peril.”
IDAHO’S HISTORY WITH INDIAN MASCOTS
Controversy surrounding the use of Native American mascots and imagery has touched schools in every corner of Idaho.
Salmon High still uses “Savages” as the nickname for its sports teams, but it stopped officially using its Indian head logo after the 1999-2000 school year when the parents of a native student and the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media threatened to sue the school district.
Salmon River High in Riggins also still uses “Savages” as its nickname. But it officially ditched its logo — a Native American atop a horse — the following school year fearing a similar lawsuit.
Boise High has phased out the Indian head from its Braves gear, and it painted over a mural in the summer of 2016 that depicted a red-skinned Native American dressed in a loin cloth and carrying a knife and a tomahawk. Then in May, two former mascots who once wore native headdresses at games wrote a guest editorial for the Idaho Statesman calling for the school to fully abandon the Native American mascot.
“When you find yourself defending the Boise Brave mascot, question that defensiveness and what it stands for,” wrote Grace Reif and Ezra Hampikian, both 2010 graduates of Boise High. “Remember that ‘because that’s the way it’s always been’ and ‘tradition’ are not good reasons to be hurtful. Remember that words and images carry connotations and history, even if our own associations with those words (‘brave,’ for example) may be positive.”
And in 2014, the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee asked Sacajawea Junior High (Braves) in Lewiston and Nezperce High (Indians) to retire their mascots. Neither have.
“People do it to honor us, they say. But really it’s very misguided,” Kootenai Tribal Council member Gary Aikens Jr. said at the Idaho Council of Indian Affairs that year, the Lewiston Tribune reported. “They don’t recognize the pain it causes, the disrespect that’s shown. The pain is generations deep. We’re still feeling the effects of atrocities committed a hundred years ago. All of us are carrying generations of pain. We’re still walking with that.
“When we speak out on this, the struggle has been trivialized. People say, ‘Get over it, we’re just honoring you.’ But I don’t think they realize the effect it has when we see this type of thing. It’s not honoring us.”
Twelve Idaho high schools have Native American mascots, including the Indians (Pocatello, Preston, Buhl, Shoshone, Nezperce), the Savages (Salmon, Salmon River), the Warriors (Meridian, Kootenai), the Braves (Boise) and the Redskins (Teton).
The high school on the Fort Hall Reservation, home to the Shoshone-Bannocks, is also known as the Sho-Ban Chiefs.