Education

Indian mascot names stir outrage, pride

The older sign in front of Winters High School still displays a traditional American Indian logo. The school has a newer logo featuring a “W” with a feathered spear stuck through it, but residents are debating phasing out the spear, too, in deference to the Yocha Dehe tribe, which has given financial support to the schools.
The older sign in front of Winters High School still displays a traditional American Indian logo. The school has a newer logo featuring a “W” with a feathered spear stuck through it, but residents are debating phasing out the spear, too, in deference to the Yocha Dehe tribe, which has given financial support to the schools. hsangree@sacbee.com

For many years the symbol of Winters High School and its sports teams, the Warriors, was an Indian wearing a feathered headdress. The symbol still adorns the school’s sign and its gym floor, but it has gradually been replaced by a “W” and a feathered spear on helmets and jerseys.

Now even the spear is being phased out and replaced by a simple “W.” The change in Winters is part of a national movement by schools to shed American Indian names, mascots and symbols that are increasingly regarded as racist and anachronistic, such as Indians, Braves, Chiefs and the inflammatory Redskins.

In the case of Winters, the city of 6,600 in western Yolo County has an extra motivation to part with its longtime logo. The local tribe, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, has been a leader in the national Change the Mascot campaign. It paid for an expensive television commercial during last year’s NBA finals challenging the name of the Washington Redskins pro football team.

The owner of the NFL’s Redskins, Daniel Snyder, has vowed not to change the name even though the federal government recently canceled the team’s trademark protection for the term, calling it “derogatory slang.” Webster’s Dictionary says the word “redskins” is “usually offensive.”

“The r-word is as derogatory a slur as the n-word,” former Yocha Dehe Chairman Marshall McKay said in a video explaining the Yolo County tribe’s decision to get involved in the mascot campaign.

The tribal members, owners of the Cache Creek Casino Resort in the rural Capay Valley, also have donated about $600,000 to Winters’ schools in recent years for technology upgrades, including laptop computers for every middle school student.

Even without that help, the city would likely change the Warriors logo out of deference to the neighboring tribe, said Winters Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry.

“It’s out of sensitivity and respect,” she said. “Some of these symbols are part of their folklore and tradition.”

In many American Indian cultures, feathers worn in a headdress or draped from a spear are symbols of bravery that hold religious significance, she noted.

Many colleges and high schools in California have already changed their team names and mascots. Stanford University was among the first, dropping the name “Indians” in 1972 and later switching to “the Cardinal” in reference to the school’s official color.

Stanford’s name change came shortly after the National Congress of American Indians began a movement in the late 1960s to do away with stereotypical images of American Indians in sports and popular culture.

A series of changes flowed from that movement over the past 50 years, including in the town of Colusa, about an hour’s drive north of Sacramento. After 80 years of being called the Redskins, Colusa High School’s teams officially became the RedHawks in the 2011-12 school year.

Other schools with the Redskins moniker have refused to budge, saying the name is a symbol of local pride and school spirit, not a racist smear. They argue that decisions over school names should be left to local elected officials with input from local tribes.

“The Redskin mascot was selected in 1924 and has been a mainstay in our community for the past 90 years,” Michelle Nunley, principal of Tulare Union High School, told the state Senate Education Committee in June. “During this time we have not received a complaint or concern from any local individual or group regarding the appropriateness of the mascot.”

The committee was meeting to consider a bill to ban public schools from using the term “redskins” in school or athletic team names, mascots or nicknames. Residents of Tulare, in the southern San Joaquin Valley, have been among the most stubborn defenders of what they call the right to be Redskins. A few other high schools still use the name, including Calaveras High School and Chowchilla Union High School.

“When asked what it means to be a Redskin, terms such as pride, honor, tradition, respect and excellence are always cited,” said Nunley, who identified herself as a member of the Ottawa Indian tribe. “It is more than just being a student at a high school. It is being a member of a family – our Redskin family”

Sen. Marty Block, a San Diego Democrat, said he, too, believed in local school authority but feels the state has an obligation to step in and ban the term.

“You’re not saying ‘Native Americans,’ ” Block said. “You’re calling them ‘Redskins.’ I have a hard time understanding how you can rationalize this. It is clearly racist. It is clearly a racial slur. It is clearly something that goes well beyond local control.”

The bill, AB 30, was introduced earlier this year by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville. It passed the Assembly and is nearing a Senate vote. Whether Gov. Jerry Brown will sign the measure remains in question. A similar bill was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.

In Winters, local and school officials aren’t waiting for the state to act. They’ve begun a process at school board meetings to talk about how and when the Warriors’ logo should officially change.

Over the last few years, students and administrators have been quietly changing the logo where possible to a simple red “W,” including on the high school’s official website and the wrestling team’s Facebook page.

The mayor, Aguiar-Curry, said the process has been kept low key, in keeping with the town’s character.

“People were being very respectful,” she said. “They just took it off their uniforms. They didn’t make a big deal about it.”

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree

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