Native American mascots
under increasing scrutiny
By Steve Ruman
The Cleveland Indians made news which transcended the sports world in January with the announcement that the Chief Wahoo logo, which has represented the team since 1947, will be phased out beginning in 2019. The team will no longer feature the logo on uniforms, and the cartoon-like caricature will be removed from signs and banners at Progressive Field.
At the same time, the franchise announced that it would maintain its “Indians” nickname.
As far as Girard City Schools Board of Education President Mark Zuppo is concerned, the decision was long overdue.
“I’m a big Cleveland Indians fan, but I have to say, if I was a Native American, I would probably be disgusted with that logo,” Zuppo said. “I can understand the outcry. I can understand why there was a call for change.”
The way Zuppo sees it, there are more appropriate ways to pay homage to Native Americans, and he believes the Girard School District does so with honor and respect.
Girard — the home of the Indians — is one of six area school districts whose sports teams are represented by Native American-themed mascots, logos or nicknames.
Others include Southern (Indians), Brookfield (Warriors), West Branch (Warriors), Badger (Braves) and Warren G. Harding (Raiders).
School officials in all six districts believe their use of Native American names and imagery reflects a sign of respect and admiration.
“Our use of the Indians nickname is done so with extreme pride, with great appreciation for the history of the Native Americans,” Zuppo said. “We believe the Native American represents strength, determination and courage. I think that’s why so many teams use an Indian logo.”
Southern also uses the “Indians” nickname, recognizing the historic tribes of Columbiana County. The image of an Indian is widely used in connection with the district’s athletic teams. So too is the image of a spear. “Fear the spear” is a popular chant at sporting events.
“In my six years as superintendent, I’ve never received any complaints about our mascot,” said Southern Superintendent John Wilson. “There’s never been any formal discussion about a possible name change, because really we’ve never had the need. I think everyone in the community understands and is comfortable knowing why and how we use the mascot.”
Brookfield uses what athletic director Tim Taylor describes as “a basic warrior head” as its most recognizable symbol. The warrior — featuring a Native American feathered headdress and with his face painted in school colors of blue and gold — is prominently displayed throughout the high school. The image is also prevalent on the district website.
“I’ve been here for over thirty years, and I have never received a single call suggesting that our nickname or mascot is offensive,” Taylor said. “When it comes to Chief Wahoo, I can understand the Native American point of view. I think the [Cleveland] Indians’ compromise to get rid of the mascot but keep the name was a good idea.”
Yet despite its own affiliation with a native mascot, the Brookfield school district faced scrutiny in 2016 when cheerleaders displayed a sign which read, “Get ready to leave in a trail of tears.” The sign appeared at a basketball game against the Girard Indians.
After images of the sign were posted locally on social media, several news outlets across the country picked up the story.
Trail of Tears was the name given to the 1800s forced relocation of over 100,000 Native Americans from their ancestral homelands in southeastern United States to areas west of the Mississippi River. During the relocation, thousands suffered from exposure, disease and starvation, and many died before reaching their destinations.
“The [sign] incident was extremely unfortunate, and it was an eye-opener for all of us in the district,” said Brookfield superintendent Velina Jo Taylor. “The cheerleaders who made the sign meant absolutely no harm and no disrespect whatsoever. They had seen the sign on the internet used by another school, and just went with it without knowing its true meaning.
“The fact that the cheerleaders were completely unaware was alarming, because it was such a dark part of our past.”
To address the issue, school officials sponsored several diversity training sessions with the cheerleaders. The school also held an assembly for the entire student body that was hosted by an organization which assists in advancing positive interaction and communication across racial and cultural boundaries.
West Branch uses the portrait of a “warrior” dressed for battle as its mascot. The high school gymnasium features a giant mural of the warrior, wearing a full-feathered headdress while holding a spear in one hand and a shield in the other. The district also uses an arrowhead with the letters “WB” as a predominant symbol.
West Branch maintains a 54-year tradition of electing students who serve as the school’s Warrior Chief, Warrior Assistant Chief and Warrior Princess. Each year, the recipients are announced at a school assembly which, in part, reenacts a traditional tribal ceremony.
“Our mascot image is that of a generic brave warrior, it doesn’t single out any Native American tribe,” said West Branch Athletic Director Ellie Geiger, a third-generation alum of the school. “Our mascots are not derogatory in any way. We don’t do anything to mock the image. We have great admiration and take great pride in who they represent.”
When four school districts consolidated in 1960 to form the Joseph Badger School District, the Indian Brave was chosen to be its mascot. A district publication says, “Our Indian Brave has never wore war paint, and has never expressed hostility or aggression. Our Indian Brave shows pride and strength. The single Eagle feather in his head-dress represents honesty, truth, courage, wisdom and freedom.”
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Badger Board of Education member Jerad Sutton says the community has always stood behind the mascot.
“I think that everyone takes great pride in what it stands for,” Sutton said. “We actually discussed this as a group not too long ago. Everyone is supportive and believes we use the mascot in an honorable way.”
Ed Miller graduated from Badger in 1977. While a student, he created a brave caricature image which hung on the wall of the gymnasium for several decades. The design was loosely based on the artwork of Don Martin, who at the time was known for his work in “Mad” magazine.
“It was comical, it was fun, it was meant to make people smile,” Miller said. “Eventually, some administrator decided it didn’t belong, and it was taken down. All of this call for change, I don’t understand it. I’m part Indian, and I just don’t get it.”
WARREN STUDENTS BACK RAIDER
The Warren Harding Raider mascot has been in existence since 1967, when it belonged to Warren Western Reserve High School. The district kept the Raiders nickname when the two schools consolidated in 1990.
“Everyone in town is passionate about the Raider, and they are just as passionate about being respectful of, and honoring the history of what it represents,” said Warren Board of Education President Patty Limperos.
The current-day Raider logo — the image of a Native American — was designed by Emil Perunko, a longtime former Warren art teacher. Limperos said that for several years, the district moved toward using a “W” as a predominant emblem, however at the request of the student body, the Raider is once again widely displayed throughout the district.
The district also has a letter on file which was written by a Native American organization expressing approval of the usage of the Raiders mascot. The letter was written in response to an inquiry made by then-Superintendent Dale Frederick, who is Native American.
Like West Branch, Warren incorporates living mascots who attend athletic events and other school functions.
“Because of the nationwide attention on native mascots, we’ve had some serious discussions ourselves,” Limperos said. “We have had some very constructive debate. We’ve just always gone back to the belief that we feel our Raider representation is one of dignity and honor.”
OHSAA STAYS NEUTRAL
Some states have taken action against the use of Native American-themed mascots at the high school level. In 2012, the Oregon State Board of Education adopted a rule prohibiting Oregon public schools from using Native American names, symbols or images as mascots. In 2015, the state of California signed into law a bill which prohibited schools from using the “Redskins” nickname.
At least 10 other states have formally considered, or are considering placing bans or regulations on the usage of Native American-themed mascots at the high school level.
Throughout Ohio, 78 school districts — more than any other state in the country — use a Native American-themed nickname, mascot or logo.
“As an organization, we’ve never gotten involved with any mascot controversy, and we’ve never been asked to do so,” said Tim Stried, the Director of Communications for the Ohio High School Athletic Association. “It’s always been our belief that it is not our place to tell school districts how to act on such matters.
“We’ve been asked from time to time to share our thoughts, but there has never been any push for change.”
ACTIVISTS AREN’T FINISHED
However, change is exactly what Philip Yenyo is looking for when it comes to the use of sports-related Native American nicknames.
Yenyo is a Native American civil rights activist. He is also the executive director of the Ohio chapter of the American Indian Movement — an organization which strives to educate the public on issues affecting the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.
For years, Yenyo has organized and led the protests at Progressive Field, seeking the removal of the Cleveland Indians’ nickname and mascot. He is now ready to take his message to the high school level.
“The argument that schools use is, ‘We’re honoring your people,’” Yenyo said. “That’s just not true. It’s a dishonor, and it’s hurtful. This is institutionalized racism, and for it to be accepted and even encouraged at the high school level is a disgrace. It is a form of bullying.
“We aim to bring the mascot issue to the attention of state representatives and state school boards. We just want them to understand that by allowing the use of these mascots, they are sending a hurtful and dangerous message to our youth.”
Yenyo insists that even when schools feel they are paying tribute to Native Americans, they are doing just the opposite. He points out that school officials have told him that they use images such as a feather rather than an Indian image, “but they don’t realize that an eagle feather is a sacred item in our culture. I would never dare desecrate the symbol of the cross.”
Nationwide, more than 2,100 sports teams from high school to the professional level include a Native American reference in their nickname, mascot or logo.