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After 90 years, Idaho high school retires its controversial Native American mascot

Shoshone-Bannock Chairman speaks against Redskins mascot

Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Chairman Ladd Edmo testified against the use of the Redskins mascot before the Teton School District school board. Teton High School uses the Redskins mascot, a mascot the community is considering changing.
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Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Chairman Ladd Edmo testified against the use of the Redskins mascot before the Teton School District school board. Teton High School uses the Redskins mascot, a mascot the community is considering changing.

After 90 years, the Teton Redskins are gone.

The school board for the Teton School District voted 4-1 on Tuesday night to retire the high school’s controversial nickname, with the stipulation that no taxpayer money goes toward the removal process. The board did not mandate when the mascot would change or its replacement, leaving that up to a community committee it will form next week.

Two of Idaho’s largest Native American tribes, the Shoshone-Bannock and the Nez Perce, both publicly urged the school to change the mascot, citing the word’s offensive definition by major dictionaries and its use as a racial slur.

“Yes, there are Native Americans that don’t have a problem with it,” board member Mary Mello told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview Wednesday. “However, I think we need to listen to the statements of people that represent large groups of Native Americans.

“My personal opinion, the name Redskins, who gets to decide if that’s racist is the voice of the people that are being called that.”

Teton School District Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme testified at Tuesday’s meeting that it would cost nearly $30,000 to replace the school’s uniforms and remove Redskin signage around the Driggs high school near the Idaho-Wyoming state line.

Mello suggested the district could fund raise to pay for the changes, citing 11 possible grants the school district could apply for, including one from adidas, which vowed in 2015 to help schools with Native American mascots change uniforms.

The $30,000 would have amounted to less than 1 percent of district’s $14.5 million budget, but board members didn’t want to use any taxpayer money on an issue that has split the Teton County community for years.

Ben Kearsley was the only board member to vote against retiring the mascot, citing a desire for the board to take its time and continue to receive input from the community.

“I do feel there’s a way to come to a compromise,” Kearsley said during the online broadcast of the board meeting. “But by moving too fast, we remove some of the voices we’ve heard and close the door on our community. We’ll leave voices behind, and that’s the greatest community cost.”

After Teton’s decision, 11 Idaho high schools still use Native American mascots: the Indians (Pocatello, Preston, Buhl, Shoshone, Nezperce), the Savages (Salmon, Salmon River), the Warriors (Meridian, Kootenai) and the Braves (Boise). The high school on the Fort Hall Reservation, home to the Shoshone-Bannock, is also known as the Sho-Ban Chiefs.

Salmon and Salmon River have officially abandoned the use of Native American images but still use the Savages nickname.

REDSKINS DEBATE

The vote to remove the name comes after years of debate. Woolstenhulme first unilaterally ordered the high school to change the mascot in 2013, but relented to public pressure that summer.

The issue returned in March when Victor resident Stephanie Crockett brought it back before the school board. The board put off any decision until the summer so it could focus on year-end budgets, but the issue roiled the Eastern Idaho community in the meantime.

A student council poll found that 67 percent of the high school’s students want to keep the mascot. Two student groups walked out of class this spring in support of the Redskins name, and a “Save the Redskins” Facebook page swelled to 1,100 members.

Meanwhile, the student newspaper vowed to change its name, “The War Cry,” in support of Native Americans. And both sides invited groups that supported their side to Driggs.

A July 8 school board meeting with 200 residents lasted six hours as 61 people testified: 33 for a change, 27 to keep the mascot and one offering no opinion.

“A lot has been said about whether it is or isn’t racist,” said Cameron Butler, a student at Teton High at the July 8 meeting. “But in my opinion, Native Americans and native people have told us many, many times that they do not feel honored by this mascot.

“... 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.”

Those who want to keep the name said it was intended to honor, not deride, Native Americans. Janine Jolley, one of the administrators of the “Save the Redskins” Facebook page, said at the July 8 meeting that she’s tired of being called a racist.

“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.”

A VOTE TO CHANGE THE MASCOT

The board delayed a vote July 8 to offer the community an informal work session Tuesday. Each board member rotated between five groups of randomly assigned residents for back-and-forth discussions. After two hours, the board returned and debated another two hours before voting to remove the nickname.

Driggs resident Adam Berry cautioned the board against a vote Tuesday.

“All of us agreed a vote tonight would be a disservice to this community,” Berry said at the meeting. “It would only drive a deeper wedge in the valley. … We as a community are not in a place to compromise. It’s too fresh of a wound.”

But others urged the board to vote and put the issue to rest, once and for all.

“I don’t know what more information there is to hear on this,” Driggs resident Peter McKellar said. “There have been years of conversation about this and years of research that has gone into this. I really worry if we delay that the riff will get bigger.”

Mello pushed for a vote to remove the name Tuesday, followed by a community-driven process to find a replacement. She relented to board member Jake Kunz’s request for a pledge to not use any taxpayer money, earning a 4-1 decision.

Mello, a former school counselor and licensed therapist, cited the effect stereotypes have on student achievement and self esteem.

“I believe it’s a moral and ethical decision,” Mello said. “It was a very hard one for our board. I felt like we needed to remember what we’re charged to do. We’re charged to make the best decision we can based on facts and not individuals or special interest groups.

“And our No. 1 overriding goal in our school district policy and code of ethics is to always make the best decision we can for our students.”

Board chair Chris Isaacson emphasized before the vote that none of the board members considered the county’s residents racists.

“I don’t think there’s anybody on this board that doesn’t believe that (the mascot) was not done in respect and love and caring for the people who lived here in this valley,” she said. “We don’t want to lose that.”

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