“I spoke out about this multiple times over four years and not anyone listened to me. I was ridiculed by students, I was even mocked by some teachers, because everybody thought, ‘Whatever, just another Indian.’ My culture is not your costume. My culture is not to be ridiculed and mocked.”
Alexis Mondragon was the third person called to speak during public comments at the Sept. 23 meeting of the District #111 Board of Education. Mondragon is an Inidgenous woman who attended MCHS and graduated in 2002. As her comments above reflect, she believes she was treated poorly by the other students at the school because of her background. And she wants the Indian mascot changed.
Numerous schools across the country have decided they don’t want to be associated with these mascots. While this movement has been ongoing for the past few decades, it has gained steam at MCHS.
Ted Trujillo, a resident of Morris and an enrolled federally recognized tribal member, also spoke at the Sept. 23 board meeting, and has spoken at many others. He says that Native voices should be involved in the decision and that the person who did the culture assessment at MCHS was someone who knew nothing about Native Americans.
“You’re here to take care of the youth,” he said. “No matter what it is. Especially when it is racism and stereotyping a race of people.”
According to data from the National Congress of American Indians, 79 schools nationwide with Native American-related mascots have changed since 2010, and 40 have changed since the beginning of 2020.
Schools coming to the realization that some see their mascots as offensive is one of the core reasons for them changing their mascots altogether, along with pushback from their own communities.
Social media accounts on Instagram and Twitter have been started by some students at MCHS, to push for change. Ava Bezaire and Jimmy Holmes, two seniors from Minooka, started the @improveminooka accounts and posted a petition on change.org to “address issues within the Channahon and Minooka Communities.”
Throughout the last few months, these students have continued through several steps in a process they hope results in positive effects at Minooka, including changing the school mascot.
“We felt the school and its administration needed an outside push to seriously evaluate our mascot and its harmful effects,” said Holmes. “We felt like, without this outside push, the board wouldn’t have considered removing the mascot as seriously.”
Bezaire and Holmes have come up with many suggestions, such as to “remove depictions of Native Americans in spiritwear or as a logo,” “stop all Native American style songs/chants at school functions” and “stop dressing up as our Native American mascot at assemblies.”
They have also called for adding Native American history classes to the curriculum, as well as changing the name of the Peace Pipe Chatter, the student newspaper name this article is published under.
Some of the students at MCHS don’t have a strong opinion on whether the mascot should be changed, but they recognize the reasons behind it.
“I don’t really care whether it gets changed or not. Either way it doesn’t really affect me,” Jocelyn Reavis, senior, said. “If other people are heavily affected by it, then yes, it should be changed.”
On the other hand, there are students who have a strongly established opinion on the subject, saying the school should listen to those who are directly affected and hurt by the mascot.
“I don’t have the right to say whether people that are [Native American] have the right to be offended or not. I just need to listen to what they’re saying,” senior Marlo Scholtes said. “By saying that you think that other people shouldn’t be offended is coming from a huge place of privilege, showing that you’ve never been in a situation where you kind of had to fight for your rights and for your culture.”
Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Lee and the board members of MCHS are currently gathering a task force committee to begin discussing the mascot change. A task force application will soon be publicized, which will ask applicants for their role within the MCHS community, availability, committee experience, why they are interested, and any relevant personal attributes.
Lee is recommending the task force include the following: two members of the board of education, two current MCHS students, two administrators, two staff members, two members of the community of Native American descent, and two alumni. He is also recommending they have a facilitator that will be in charge of leading the discussions on the mascot change, which would be Dr. Lee himself.
“If we can seek to understand, then I think that no matter what happens, we’re a more inclusive school,” Dr. Lee said.
Other schools in the area and across the nation have received coverage about this issue recently. They, too, are looking at how to address their mascots.
In August, the Chicago Tribune interviewed Austin Allbert, a former student of Morris Community High School, who, when he was a student there, dressed in a traditional native costume with a feathered headdress and “war paint,” despite not being a native. He portrayed the “chief” mascot of Morris during football games. That was six years ago.
Flash forward to 2020 in the beginning of August, Allbert joined protesters calling for the change of the Morris mascot, the Redskins.
“It was something at the time I thought was respectful and a high honor. … It wasn’t until I left Morris and went to college and made other friends that I saw — wow — that was really awful and horrible what we did,” Allbert told the Tribune.
Out west in Loveland, Colo., Loveland High School and Bill Reed Middle School are two of the schools that have acted to change their mascots from Indians and Warriors. Their main reasoning behind it was that people found it offensive and they didn’t want to cause harm.
According to an article from the Loveland Reporter-Herald, they held a school board meeting and “nine people pleaded with the school board to change the mascots, calling them racist, wrong and embarrassing.”
There was also the concern for youth seeing Native Americans portrayed in such a way in the mainstream media. In another article from Fox-31 in Denver, Carla Fredericks, who is a law professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, stated that the mascots will only cause harm, especially for Native youth. She says that if a Native child sees them represented as being an “aggressive, outdated, caricature, then they begin to internalize that conception for themselves.”
The reasons for changing mascots brought to Loveland, Morris, and Minooka schools are similar, and now schools are looking at how they should explore this issue further.
What to do next
With the current debate on whether Native American mascots should exist comes the challenge with what process schools will use to discuss it.
There have been many schools across the country who have already opted out of Native American mascots. There is a long process that goes with this that can be different for each school.
Columbia River High School, located in Vancouver, Washington, chose to change its Chieftain mascot in September.
They decided that it was time to retire their Chieftain mascot after over 50 years, since it opened in 1962. Mike Iyall, a tribal counselor member and historian from Southwest Washington’s Cowlitz Tribe, informed the school that having a Chieftain as a mascot was “not historically accurate” for that specific area, since there was zero history of Chieftains locally, according to KING-TV, a local station in Seattle.
In an email sent to the PPC, Pat Nuzzo, the communications director for Vancouver Public Schools, said that the board of directors voted unanimously to retire the Chieftain mascot from Columbia River High School and Minnehaha Elementary School. The board’s resolution “calls for the immediate retirement of Native American mascots, symbols, images, logos and nicknames.”
Kathy Decker, school board vice president, said she appreciated the history, but once she was presented with new information as to why the mascot was offensive, she voted for the mascot change, according to KING-TV. Another school board member agreed that Native American mascots have a negative impact on students and they believe that it was time for change. Instead they would like to choose a more inclusive replacement for their mascot so that students would not feel alienated from their own school.
The process regarding change started much earlier. CRHS had classroom discussions about this topic back in May of 2019, according to the email from Nuzzo. The district saw the situation as a learning opportunity.
At that time, they included different cultural perspectives, as well as statements from students who argued against changing the mascot. The students at Columbia River held classroom discussions based off of the resources they researched for reference. Students from ASB (Associated Student Body) and social justice wrote a position statement for and against changing the current mascot. The results showed that the majority of the students had voted to keep the mascot at that time.
When students had the opportunity to express their feelings on retiring the mascot via Zoom, everyone had various thoughts. Some said that it would be disrespectful towards Native Americans to retire the mascot while others of Native descent said that the mascot doesn’t honor them or their family.
It wouldn’t be until Sept. 8, 2020 — more than a year later — that the board of directors all unanimously voted to retire the Chieftain mascot.
For Columbia River, there will be a final approval of the suggestions for a new mascot in January 2021 along with students choosing the new mascot by majority vote in February 2021, according to the school’s website. The artwork of the new mascot will also be presented at that time to get an idea of what their future mascot will look like. A new mascot is set to be presented to the entire community by April 2021.
Other schools located on the other side of the country, such as Glastonbury High School in Connecticut, have made changes to their mascot.
According to an article posted by WFSB, a local news station in Rocky Hill, Conn., “The administration said it has already been using a different logo for uniforms, flooring, and equipment.”
The school wanted the removal of their tomahawk logo because it was seen as offensive and derogatory to Native Americans. The school board voted 7 to 1 to remove the mascot. Although the decision was final in August, they were preparing for it long before and considering what challenges they may face.
Cost is one of the big factors that is brought up when discussing the process of changing the mascot. Anderson High School in Ohio recently voted to change their mascot from the Redskins. They considered not using taxpayer money to make the change and instead use fundraising from private donors to offset the cost, according to Fox-19, a news station in Cincinnati.
Local schools undertaking the issue
In addition to Morris, other area high schools — Lemont, Sandwich, and Momence — have mascots related to Native Americans.
Some schools have not chosen to change their mascot name. They might see it as honoring, they understand how long it can take, or they do not have enough money. Replacing a mascot can come with changing a design on a football field, names on sports uniforms, logos on spirit wear, and floors or walls on the inside of the school.
Sometimes, it is unaffordable or they do not have enough time. On the other hand, some schools have voted to keep their Native American-related mascot because they see it as honoring.
Lemont High School in Illinois is an example of a school that went through this process about 15 years ago. They were called “Indians” until the 1960s, then they were the Injuns, which eventually led to controversy.
Ms. Christine Kump, a Minooka Spanish teacher, attended LHS from 2000-2004.
During this time, Kump said, “There was talk of changing the mascot to something completely different. If our sports teams got new uniforms, the name ‘Injuns’ was left off, and we did not use the Native American headdress logo either.”
It wasn’t until 2005, after Kump graduated, when Lemont finally made a change. Originally, it was supposed to be the “Titans,” which never made it to the sports fields or jerseys. During the school year 2005-06, LHS went without a mascot name. In the fall of 2006, they returned to being the Indians.
During the fall of 2004 when Kump was a student at the University of Illinois, she spoke at a Lemont High School board meeting.
“I was commenting on how ridiculous some of the new mascot choices were,” Kump said. “I encouraged the school board to keep Injuns as a mascot. After maturing and doing some of my own research, I wish I could talk some sense into 14-18 year old me. Lemont is a predominantly white community, and our high school mascot was a racial slur,” Kump said.
With compromise, and in order for the name to not be considered a racial slur, Lemont became the “Indians” instead of the “Injuns,” and left out the face and headdresses. All uniforms were to have the “LHS” logo with one single feather and flame, according to a 2014 article in the Chicago Tribune. This was to represent the Potawatomi tribe who inhabited their region. To this day, the “Indians” mascot remains.
Another local school, the Morris Redskins, is currently addressing the rising conflict with their own mascot.
“In the last four to five years, there have been decisions made that have made it easier for us to distance ourselves from the Redskin name,” said Ms. Kim Puckett, a Morris school board member. Puckett is also a special education teacher at Minooka.
“When sports uniforms have been ordered, they only say ‘Morris’ on them. We chose to not put the Indian head in the center of our new football field and kept the name ‘Redskin’ from appearing anywhere in the stadium,” she said.
“However, it is going to be a very long and costly process to completely change the name. The plan is to establish a community commission to tackle the issue,” said Puckett.
Morris has been considering changing their name for a while, but has had to take into consideration the cost and time it would take to do so. The administration and board have been listening to both sides of the discussion. And they have been sensitive to those who have opposed this idea. Many locals think the legacy overrides any racial slur and support keeping the mascot “Redskin.” This is because of their love and pride in their community’s history.
“There are many people that support the change — they feel that the ‘time has come,’” Puckett said. “Although, as I stated before, I do not believe that there is any disrespect in the hearts of the people of Morris, quite the opposite actually, there is an extreme pride in the name.”
A newly renovated football stadium reflected this issue.
“When we were looking at the design of the turf with the new scoreboard we were very conscious to not put our mascot on those so that we wouldn’t have to now be turning around and changing that,” Dr. Craig Ortiz, superintendent of Morris High School, stated in July to WCJS, a local news station in Morris.
Morris has not yet decided their next move.
Anderson High School in Cincinnati considered changing their mascot from the Redskins in 1999, 2003, and 2018, according to Fox-19. Each time they decided to keep it.
At a committee meeting on the issue at Anderson High in 2018, attendees “shouted down” committee members and “hollered at one another,” according to an article in the Washington Post.
After the school chose to keep the mascot, tensions rose, leading to opposing groups making their disagreement with the outcome known.
Later that year, vandalism occurred on school property. It seemed to be hateful and a sign of protest. Some messages read “CHANGE THE NAME!” and “Redskins? More like Whiteskins,” according to the Post article.
In following board meetings, there were attendees for both sides. People who supported the mascot wore shirts that said “Once a Redskin. Always a Redskin.” People opposing the mascot wore shirts that read, “Words matter.”
In July 2020, Anderson held another board meeting revisiting the mascot name. This time, there was a 4-1 vote to change the mascot and retire “Redskins,” according to Fox-19.
“We serve a passionate community, and the Board of Education respects the many different voices invested in the future of the mascot,” board president Forest Heis said, according to Fox-19.
Schools across the nation who are wrestling with the idea of changing Native American-related mascots have heard strong opinions from their communities. The processes they have undertaken in decision-making have taken time. Minooka will begin its own process in the near future.
Also contributing to the writing and reporting of this article were Meghan Angus, Leah Barys, Jonny Chamorro, Bradley Gambosi, Maddie Johnson, Emily Mepham, Abbey Petric, Tre Sangiacomo, Mia Sanchez, Miah Seloover, Katie Shields, P. Slater, and Toby Wright.