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'Now is the time': High schools re-examining use of Native American mascots

Shannon Ryan
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – Nearly six years ago, Austin Allbert dressed in beaded pants, a fringed vest and a feathered headdress, and allowed his art teacher to decorate his face with "war paint."

Portraying the "chief," he stood with his arms crossed in front of him, stoically staring ahead as the band played at Morris (Ill.) Community High School football games.

Earlier this month, Allbert sat in a lawn chair in front of his former school with more than two dozen other protesters insisting the school change its mascot.

"It was something at the time I thought was respectful and a high honor," he said, recalling his senior year. "I desperately wanted to be that mascot. 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.' It's been a lot of years that I've sat and thought on it. I regret what I did and I wish I could go back and change it. I can't, but I'm here today to try to get the school board to change it."

Morris, a town of about 15,000 and an hour southwest of Chicago, is one of many local schools feeling heightened pressure to remove a mascot widely considered offensive among indigenous groups.

Following decades of protests by Native Americans, Washington's NFL team removed its Redskins name last month amid corporate sponsor pressure and the potential loss of billions. The move was significant, provided the stern resistance for years from team owner Daniel Snyder, who had said he would "never" change the name or logo.

It felt seismic even 700 miles away in Morris, whose mascot is nearly identical.

"I try to stay very neutral," said Morris superintendent Craig Ortiz, a former math teacher and 1991 graduate who started his new position last year. "It's not my place to say, 'Yes, we should,' or, 'No, we shouldn't.' I try to hear both sides. I think a lot of people thought, when Washington changes then we'd talk about it, thinking Washington would never change."

Like Morris, Illinois high schools Momence, Nokomis, Sullivan and Shawnee also use the Redskins name and similar logos. Forty-seven other schools in the state use Native American imagery or names, such as "Warriors," as mascots.

Chicago Lane Tech's Local School Council recently voted unanimously to eradicate its controversial Indian mascot. And the conversation continues to play out across the state.

Those who delay their decision may be forced to change if Illinois House Bill 4783 is passed.

Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, proposed the law this winter in response to a student-led petition to change the Hononegah Indians mascot – a mythical "Indian princess" who performs at games.

Schools using such mascots would need to receive written consent every five years from a Native American tribe within 500 miles. Schools also would need to conduct programs on Native American culture and offer a course on Native American contributions. Failing to meet the requirements would result in playoff bans.

While the bill has been put on the back burner amid the economic and public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, West remains hopeful.

"My goal is to ensure that it's a bipartisan effort," he said. "Some people tell me it needs to be a complete ban. I've had other people say a complete ban does not educate the students on the history of Native American people. Some people tell me where to go. It makes people mad. I get that. But people are opening their eyes to what's right and wrong."

Some teams have enacted mascot changes through state laws and sports-governing rules.

The University of Illinois removed its Chief Illiniwek mascot after a 2005 NCAA policy instituted a championship policy against "hostile and abusive" Native American mascots, names and imagery. The university has yet to replace it with an official mascot despite years of debates and occasional flare-ups.

Maine and Oregon laws prohibit public schools and universities from using Native American symbolism as mascots. California's Racial Mascot Act bans schools from using "Redskins" as a team name or mascot.

More than 30 national Native American organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, have called for the end of the Redskins mascot.

"The problem with these schools is they want to say they are honoring you when they know nothing about (indigenous) people," said Ted Trujillo, a Passamaquoddy tribal member.

For decades, he has spoken out against the Indians mascots of Morris and nearby Minooka, pleading for changes at school board meetings. He attended Morris in the 1970s and said he was teased with names like "Little Chief" as a child.

"They make us out to be stereotypical images of the 1800s," he said. "As a Native man, I've been threatened and told, 'Go back to where you came from,' to 'Shut up.' You've proven you can't honor us. We don't want you to honor us (with mascots)."

Change the name

Jennifer MonDragon Gallimore, who grew up in Minooka embracing her Apache heritage, passed out buttons with "change the name" and signs such as "There's No Honor in Racism" to protesters in Morris.

She lit white sage as a sacred smudging ritual meant to cleanse. She wore symbolic turquoise jewelry, a mask with "Redskins" marked out and a feather tucked into one of her two long braids.

Joining her: A former English teacher at Morris for 32 years. Recent graduates and band members. A man from Aurora who learned online about the protest.

They sat in a single row facing Union Street, holding their signs and waving as cars occasionally passed by. Many honked in support or gave a thumbs-up.

One woman yelled out the passenger window, "Keep the logo." A neighbor crossed the street and protesters said he told them he believed in the second amendment and was a "good shot" before returning home.

About 10 police cars, including K-9 units, surveilled from the school parking lots.

"We have momentum with Washington's change," Gallimore said. "A place like Morris, a small blue-collar town, (mascot supporters) find it as an attack on their personage and feel they're being blamed for things in the past. That's not the case."

The school student body is 76% white with less than 1% Native American representation.

A prominent sign sits at an intersection near the school reading "You Are Now Entering Redskin Country." A fence along the football stadium is decorated with two Native American heads facing the words "Redskin Country." An awning and press box bear the logo and name.

On the school's website, the second image on a school spirit video shows a student in historically inaccurate "chief" regalia and ends with the message: "It Takes More to be a Redskin"

But those images appear to be phasing out at the school.

A current stadium renovation did not include the Redskins logo on the six-figure scoreboard or as part of the turf as originally planned. An "M" inside a circle is used more frequently. The band's name in recent years changed from Marching Redskins to Marching Maroon and White.

Sports teams cycle through uniforms every three seasons, which could dictate a timeline for potential removal.

Ortiz said if West's bill passes, Morris needs to be cognizant of costs toward changing logos. The school board had placed the mascot issue on its agenda for discussion earlier this month, but tabled it to focus on return to school plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There are people who definitely have changed their perspective," Ortiz said. "If you go back 10 years, if you were offended you probably did not bring it up because you'd think, 'Nobody will listen to me.' Now there's a heightened awareness going on."

In nearby Minooka, nearly 17,500 – including hometown actor Nick Offerman – have signed a petition to change the name of the Minooka Indians. An online petition to keep the mascot has gained less than 100 signatures.

As a former graduate of Minooka, Gallimore said she and her sister were bullied for their indigenous and Mexican backgrounds. She said a medicine bag her father made her was ripped off her neck. They were called "savages" and Satan worshippers.

Gallimore wants non-indigenous people to understand the pain mascots such as Redskins can cause. The term is a dictionary-defined slur and some root its offensive use to white people scalping Native American for bounties.

"Now is the time to make these changes," she said. "Not only to Native youth but to non-Native youth. It's psychologically damaging."

A study published in June found negative psychological effects from these mascots on indigenous students, noting "lower self-esteem, lower community worth (and) less capacity to generate achievement-related possible selves."

It followed a February study revealing half of respondents in a sample of 1,000 Native Americans – the largest survey of its kind – were offended by the tomahawk chop or mascots in headdresses, and that number rose the more closely the respondents were connected to their tribal customs.

The study stressed media invisibility of Native Americans coupled with mascots prominence in society further reinforces negative stereotypes.

"The only way to reduce the negative impact of these constraining American Indian mascot representations is to either eliminate them or to create, distribute and institutionalize a broader array of social representations of American Indians," the study concluded.

‘It made me think’

About an hour into the protest, two teens in Morris T-shirts awkwardly approached the group.

Patrick McPherson and Cody Bledson, both 17-year-old multisport athletes at Morris, heard there would be a counter protest. They didn't find one.

But they said they mainly showed up to learn more about the opposition to an image they wear with pride. A dialogue between them and a few protesters lasted more than an hour.

"If I put a sign up that said 'Morris N-words,' are you OK with that?" Gilbert MonDragon, Gallimore's dad, asked the boys. They shook their heads no.

"If I put up a sign that said 'Morris honkies', are you OK with that?" he asked again. Probably not, they said.

McPherson countered with stories he learned from his dad and asking if perhaps a varied version of the Redskins mascot would make it acceptable.

"It's been here forever," McPherson said. "Maybe we could go to the local tribes (to get permission). Ever since we were little, we've seen it. Nobody is sitting there and sees an Indian and says 'F that Redskin.' When the (mascot) comes out (at games), everyone is quiet and respectful."

Said Bledsoe: "Growing up in Morris, I've always heard Redskins pride. (Talking to the protesters), it made me think."

MonDragon and Trujillo thanked the teens for engaging in a difficult conversation before the protest ended. MonDragon wasn't sure if they got through, but he said discussions like that can create change.

"Understand the history," he said. "Understand the word (Redskins). Then you'll understand what we're trying to do."