SCHOOL LEADERS FACING CONFLICTING PRESSURES IN PUSH TO RETIRE NATIVE AMERICAN MASCOTS
As a football player and wrestler at Wichita North High School in the 1970s, Jeff Watkins embraced the Redskin mascot. One-quarter Cherokee himself, he didn’t mind when cheerleaders wore face paint and danced in a circle while patting their open mouths with their palms.
It was not until years later – after a long run as a teacher and coach at Wichita West High School – that he saw racism embedded in the mascot. Fittingly enough, it was when he took over as head of the school district’s Native American program.
Watkins’ experience highlights both sides of an issue seemingly guaranteed to stir the pot, whether in the fan base of a professional sports team or among patrons of a local school district. The question about whether Native American mascots honor a culture or demean its rituals has simmered for decades.
But the debate has come to a boil during the past year, part of the broader racial reckoning spurred largely by high-profile cases of Black people dying at the hands of white police officers. Gone now from the national sports scene are the Washington Redskins of the National Football League, and the Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball will be retired after the 2021 season.
As activism refocused at the local level, school officials in Wichita and around the state faced calls to retire their Native American mascots.
The Wichita school board did just that in February, voting to phase out North’s Redskin, which some regard as an epithet. And just two weeks before that, the Shawnee Mission school board in Johnson County effectively banned Native American mascots throughout the district. Shawnee Mission North’s mascot became the Bison instead. The actions in those two districts came more than three years after the Manhattan-Ogden school board reached a middle ground decision on the Indian mascot at its high school.
The experiences in those three districts could just be early skirmishes. (In April, the Atchison School District revisited a decision it made nearly three years ago and elected to stop using the “Redmen” and “Braves” mascots for Atchison High School and Atchison Middle School.)
“I do think this issue is not going away,” says Wichita school board President Stan Reeser.
“Eventually every school district (with a Native American mascot) will have to deal with it at some point.”
If there is one overarching lesson from the recent experiences, it is that there is more than one path to navigate this hot-button topic. One way districts walk that line is by taking a broad lens in hopes of creating a trustworthy process and inspiring collective purpose around a divisive topic.
Examples include determining whether Native American mascots comply with antidiscrimination policies already on the books or highlighting broader equity and inclusion principles that deserve consideration.
Questions about the costs of changing the mascot usually aren’t the key issue. Those expenses can be absorbed relatively easily through routine expenditures.
The bigger issue is the hard feelings that can linger after a decision is made, and can reemerge in a flash as the national climate continues to shift.
Native American mascots and imagery remain ubiquitous in Kansas, especially in high school sports. This past December, Jared Nally, the editor-in-chief of The Indian Leader, the student newspaper at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, documented how dozens of schools participating in Kansas High School Activities Association events appropriate Native American imagery or culture. His story included a gallery of logos featuring Native Americans or cultural symbols such as thunderbirds.
Nationwide, there were more than 1,200 high schools with Native American team names, according to an analysis published last fall at fivethirtyeight.com.
In Kansas, at least four districts have tried to address concerns about Native American mascots in the past few years:
- In December 2017, the Manhattan school board voted 4-3 to adopt a proposal from the student council that a wolf serve as the “physical mascot” for the high school.
- On Jan. 25, the Shawnee Mission school board unanimously adopted a new district mascot policy that applies to all schools. Among the requirements are that mascots must be “culturally and racially sensitive and appropriate,” that they “depict individuals with fairness, dignity, and respect,” and that they don’t “run counter to the district’s mission of creating a fully unified, equitable, and inclusive culture.”
- On Feb. 8, the Wichita school board unanimously approved a task force’s recommendation to discontinue use of the Redskin mascot at North High School.
- On April 12, the Atchison school board voted 7-0 to do away with the Redmen and Braves mascots at Atchison high and Atchison middle, respectively. According to The Topeka Capital-Journal, it was asked to revisit the mascot matter at the request of Atchison United, a group that promotes diversity, unity and tolerance.
The back stories differ.
In Manhattan, the school board said from the outset that it was not interested in changing the mascot for the high school. As part of the motion in December 2016 that created the task force to study the issue, the board agreed that the Indian name and image “shall remain the official name and image of Manhattan High School.”
The task force presented a series of recommendations, which the board adopted in September 2017.
Marvin Wade took over as Manhattan superintendent in July 2016, knowing full well that the mascot issue was at hand. Not long after he started, the district held a 5 ½-hour public forum on the matter.
Looking back, Wade thinks the mascot debate had a lasting impact far beyond determining a suitable symbol for the high school. “The whole mascot conversation,” he says, “has created more attention to what the district needs to do to really make the district a better, more welcoming, inviting place for everybody.”
He noted that the district named its new elementary school for Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff in a famous class action lawsuit against the Topeka school board that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court dismantling the legal basis for racial segregation in schools.
In the Shawnee Mission district, Superintendent Mike Fulton said Native American mascots were evaluated in light of the spirit and language of a strategic plan adopted in June 2019. The plan, developed with a lot of public input, stresses a dedication to inclusiveness, dignity and respect.
It was through that prism that the board and administration reviewed use of Native American mascots at all levels, not just at Shawnee Mission North, with its Indians mascot. “Braves” is also unacceptable, meaning mascot changes for a few elementary schools as well.
The community, he says, should not lose sight of the larger purpose at play in the mascot debate.
“Equity and inclusion are not an end in and of itself,” Fulton says. “It is part of the process of making sure that when our kids leave Shawnee Mission, they are absolutely equipped to be life ready.”
Progress in the district includes the announcement earlier this month that Shawnee Mission North has approved a bison as its new mascot.
District spokesman David Smith said in an email that leaders have begun a “fairly extensive series of conversations” to determine how to address the various Native American images at the school. That discussion will continue through the next school year, he said. Complicating the solution will be the fact that some of the representations are embedded in the school itself.
“Some items may be judged to have historic value as part of the story of the school,” Smith wrote, “and there may be a way found to display them in a manner that places them within that historical context.”
For communities, this issue goes beyond the district.
For instance, Manhattan businesses and Kansas State University compete for talent nationally, and Wade says the mascot is a potential turnoff for candidates.
Their reaction goes something like this: “Other places dealt with that decades ago, and you still haven’t? What does that tell me about this community, and do I want to be a part of it?”
In Wichita, an unexpected discovery helped smooth the way. As part of its research, the Wichita mascot committee found a policy, enacted in the 1970s, that directed principals to ensure no school spirit regalia was offensive to minority ethnic groups. Reeser says the policy most likely dates back to the integration of Wichita schools, and probably arose around the time Wichita South High School did away with a mascot and imagery based upon a Confederate soldier.
Given the wording already on the books, Reeser said the board’s consideration came down to whether it wanted to follow existing policy, weaken it or get rid of it. In the end, he says, holding to purpose meant: “We felt like we had an opportunity to correct a wrong, and that was a very powerful motivation for the Wichita school board.”
The move in Atchison marked an about-face from an effort in 2018, when the board voted 5-2 to retain the Native American mascots.
“For me it is a matter of perspective,” board member Sean Crittendon told the Atchison Globe. “The time has come to care and listen to others of cultures different than our own.”
Crittendon and Diane Liebsch were the two board members on the losing end of the 2018 vote. Those two are among the four holdovers from the earlier vote.
But for some, the movement against Native American mascots has gone too far. One critic even suggests that prohibiting their use might actually be a form of reverse discrimination.
Emmitt Monslow contends he’s willing to test the argument in court by alleging the Shawnee Mission district policy violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
An all-white school board eliminating the use of a minority mascot smacks of racism, he says. “It is just a continuation of eradication and putting Indians on reservations,” Monslow argues. The district’s name itself flies in the face of the new policy by incorporating the name of the Shawnee Tribe, as Monslow sees it.
A 2012 graduate of Shawnee Mission North, Monslow says his Native American lineage traces to the Choctaws and Indigenous Mexican peoples.
Monslow testified against the name change before the school board, and started an online petition protesting the move, which garnered approximately 3,300 signatures. (An online petition supporting the name change has about 4,800 signatures.)
Eliminating the Indian mascot at North will do more harm than good, Monslow says, because the symbol has caused classmates to treat Native Americans with respect.
“What do we as Indians gain by losing this representation?” he asks. “We lose a lot. We lose a seat at the table. We lose relevance.”
Monslow would prefer a more “regionally appropriate” logo that does not include a headdress, which he said Plains Indians did not wear.
The North logo is not dissimilar to that of Haskell Indian Nations University, founded in 1884. The school’s nickname is the Fighting Indians.
So then, asked Dr. Doug Stigge, a Manhattan optometrist, how can a Native American mascot be offensive if a school set up to serve the nation’s indigenous people uses such imagery? “That has been my point for 40 years,” says Stigge, a former student council president and 1973 graduate of Manhattan High School.
In one oft-cited statement, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2001 made the distinction that Native American images and team names should be eliminated only at “non-Native schools.”
Stigge remembered back to his junior year when Stanford University in California did away with its Indian mascot. We’ll be next, Manhattan students said.
Stigge is resigned to the inevitability of the Indian mascot being completely retired someday. He was a member of the community task force that studied the issue in 2017, and supported the hybrid approach that retained the Indian as the mascot.
Ottawa University provided a good model. The school nickname remains the Braves, but it has Gibby the Otter as a mascot, a nod to the animal’s importance to the Ottawa Tribe. Ottawa University traces its roots to work between Baptist missionaries and the tribe.
Stigge says he put a lot of thought into the matter as a member of the task force and continues to follow developments around the country. He doesn’t want to come across as a white male somehow laying claim or appropriating Native American customs. He’s aware that life will go on should the mascot someday be completely eliminated.
Then again, Stigge would be disappointed at the loss of history if the mascot was dropped completely, remembering a redesign of the football helmets while he was in school that subtly paid homage to Native American heritage by placing a red bar below the white “M.” The designer of the logo was a Native American teacher. The same teacher redesigned the Indian in 2001.
“To lose that story makes me feel bad,” he says.
And while not disavowing the principle of white privilege, Stigge also says he was not entirely comfortable bowing to political correctness when even the Native American community remains split about the appropriateness of such imagery.
It’s not just Haskell, he says. What about Red Mesa High School, located on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona? Stigge asks. Their mascot is the Redskin.
Manhattan school district officials try not to play up the Indian mascot too much nowadays, but that was not the case when Stigge was in school. He remembered the pep club doing war whoops to the fight song and cheerleaders performing stereotypical dances.
He laughed at one classic memory, where a cheerleader was supposed to stab a spear into a chunk of Styrofoam. “The first time they tried it, she missed and put a big old gash in the center court of our new basketball floor.”
Retiring Native American mascots often means balancing the school pride of alumni with the priorities of current students.
In summing up his presentation to the Wichita school board the night of its vote, the chairman of the mascot committee, district administrator Terrell Davis, read a statement from the panel’s student representative.
“It is hard to think this symbol we love so much is wrong and insensitive,” Davis read. “But that does not change the fact that the name Redskins goes against everything we stand for. As times change, we need to realize this and be ready to change with it. We are not trying to erase history, but instead grow from where we were to where we need to go.”
It’s possible to balance both competing values to some degree and even speak to the sense of loss mascot supporters might feel.
Wichita, for instance, will honor history by not changing North High’s trophy cases or statues. The district will also retain the logo that features a shield, drum and feather, with the mascot committee noting that the football team used those symbols as rewards for perseverance and selflessness.
The board’s motion also called for the development of a ninth-grade curriculum, to be implemented in advocacy class, that highlights “the great history of North High School and its Native American influence.”
The Manhattan school board issued a similar directive to its staff, telling them to include Native American history, religion, culture and contemporary issues in curriculum and staff development.
A high school teacher is also working on a certification to teach an American ethnic studies course, which the district hopes to add by the fall of 2022. Middle school teachers are also incorporating Native American elements into social studies and English language arts.
Superintendent Wade and Paula Hough, executive director of teaching and learning, understand the frustrations of some people who would like the district to be further along. But doing it the right way takes time, they say.
Moving more quickly, Wade says, “would mean dropping the ball on something else, so we are just juggling those things and trying to focus on continuous improvement.”
He also noted that the district now has a very active diversity committee and has followed through on the board’s directive to recognize former Manhattan High teacher Frank Prentup, a member of the Tuscarora Tribe, who is honored in the school logo, which features a Native American in a headdress.
As for implementing changes, the Wichita and Shawnee Mission districts set out transition timelines, distinguishing between changing the mascot and allowing more time to remove physical representations incorporated into buildings.
Fulton says he’d like the new mascots to be chosen by the end of this school year.
In general, the process calls for principals to work with students, parents and other interested parties to come up with an appropriate mascot to be approved by the superintendent. Then each principal will be expected to submit a timeline to Fulton, the Shawnee Mission superintendent, as to how long it will take to fully implement the change, including removing any imagery embedded in buildings.
Wichita anticipates a two-year phase-in starting in the fall. Reeser says the timeline for selecting a new mascot was purposely left open-ended to let the principal facilitate a process, with feedback from the “North High community,” to decide if they want to merely stick with the current logo or come up with a new nickname and mascot.
One potential example is Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which Reeser says dropped the name Redskins and now goes merely as Union High.
The fiscal questions generally come from critics who wonder if it makes sense to spend the money needed to erase the vestiges of the mascot, embedded as they often are in parts of the building and emblazoned on gear.
For the most part, though, school officials in the three districts say spending will be handled through the normal course of replacing such things as worn-out jerseys and refurbishing gym floors.
Wichita expects the changeover to cost about $400,000. Shawnee Mission schools are still tallying up the costs, and Wade did not have figures from Manhattan.
But it is here, Wade says, that the old wounds of the mascot debate can flare up. The district has to tread lightly in purchasing any new sports equipment that might be perceived as playing up the mascot too much.
“We do take into consideration the fact that the Indians is not a resolved issue for us,” Wade says.
“Yes, we are still the Manhattan High Indians, but the tension surrounding that fact is still there. All we have to do is bring up the issue, and tensions rise pretty quickly.”
Proponents of the recent changes insist they are not part of the so-called cancel culture, the term mostly political conservatives have attached to communities rethinking homages to past leaders with histories of slave ownership or other wrongs.
“There are some Trump voters among us,” says Shawnee Mission parent Alisha Vincent, a graduate of Shawnee Mission North. “It is not a political thing. It has nothing to do with that.” Vincent’s 11-year-old daughter, Halley, also participated in the name-change initiative – orchestrating a letter-writing campaign that garnered more than 40 submissions from around the country, which Halley submitted to the school board.
Vincent’s husband is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
In Wichita, Reeser says the renaming of the Washington NFL team, which is still in progress, “really helped move this along.”
He says the national discussion prompted an outpouring of communication with the board through emails, calls and casual conversations out in the community. Reeser estimated he had a couple of thousand interactions between July and early this year. Sentiments were evenly split between keeping the mascot and retiring it.
Native American Perspective
David Glass is the longtime president of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media. Advocacy by his organization has helped eliminate more than 2,500 Native American ma cots at all levels over the past 30 years, he says. But the coalition counts more than 3,000 teams still using names and imagery that are offensive to Native Americans.
Among the teams in the coalition’s crosshairs are the NFL Kansas City Chiefs, and the Savages of Savannah, Missouri, a town about 50 miles southeast of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska’s reservation near White Cloud, Kansas.
Glass’ group is based at White Bear Lake, Minnesota, about a half-hour’s drive from Minneapolis, where the police killing of George Floyd in May helped ignite protests around the country against police brutality. Footage of Floyd’s arrest showed a white officer placing a knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.
“It is sad you have to watch an officer put a knee on the neck of an African American man for as long as he did, and watch that man expire, to raise the consciousness of our nation,” Glass says. On the other hand, he said, he took calls for weeks after Floyd’s death from people who apologized for attacking him because of his activism regarding racist symbols.
It’s just a football game, they would tell him, and Glass would say, no, it’s more than that. “If you understood what my community was all about,” he would say, “if you visited different homes and different communities, and talked with the young kids, and looked at the kids’ faces when the tomahawk chop starts in the stands by the drunken patrons of the teams, maybe you would understand.”
Those conversions are reminiscent of the change of heart experienced by Watkins, the Wichita North alum. Growing up, he was not oblivious to his heritage. He listened to his grandmother speak her Cherokee language and tell stories.
But his views on the Redskin mascot changed because of the actions of a social worker he worked with as director of the Native American program. The social worker and her husband were both Native Americans.
They lived in the Wichita North attendance area, making their kids eligible for district transportation.
But out of respect for their parents, the son and daughter walked to another district high school farther away because they did not want to attend a school with a Redskin mascot. Watkins watched how it pained the mother to see her kids occasionally plodding through snow and ice on their way to school.
Watkins recounted a text exchange with a former classmate who cursed him out for supporting the mascot change. The text lumped Watkins in with all sorts of beliefs ascribed to card-carrying members of the cancel culture.
Watkins responded, “For your information, I do honor the flag, I don’t think that boys should play sports with girls or use the same bathroom, I do believe in free speech. In fact, I agree with free speech so much that I believe if you want to continue using a racist term like Redskin, you have the right to do that.”
The friend didn’t reply.
“I am as a conservative guy as there is,” Watkins says, “but I do believe in this very passionately.”
A version of this article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
Sign up for email updates about The Journal’s content.