Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

What's in a name?


Sometimes political correctness supercedes logic.

Which is precisely what has happened with the Oregon Board of Education’s decision to prohibit Native American-themed nicknames at our state’s high schools.

The board voted 5-1 to force schools to change the nicknames by 2017 or risk losing state funding. Eight high schools with Native American nicknames — Mohawk, Molalla, Roseburg, Scappoose and The Dalles-Wahtonka (all Indians), Banks and Reedsport (Braves) and Rogue River (Chieftains) — will be required to change their nicknames.

In addition, seven schools that call themselves the Warriors — Amity, Lebanon, North Douglas, Oakridge, Philomath, Siletz Valley and Warrenton — must drop logos and mascots that depict Native Americans.

Evidently, other schools known as the Warriors — among them Aloha and Cleveland — are OK because the mascots are not considered to reflect Native American themes.

Thankfully, this issue is far from over. Sherrie Sprenger, a member of the Oregon Legislature, is working on a bill that would address the situation.

“I do not agree with the state board’s decision and a lot of the reasoning (board members) used to come to the decision,” says Sprenger, a Republican from Scio. “This is not the right way to do business.”

Sprenger is far from alone in her thinking.

While there are citizens — among them Native Americans — who support the ban, there are many who disagree with it for a variety of reasons.

“It seems like another government entity coming in and telling Indians how they’re supposed to feel and think about a certain topic,” says Banks Principal Jim Smith, a Native American.

“I don’t understand the logic,” says Larry Parsons, superintendent of Roseburg Public Schools. “We’re not done with this. We’re going to look at legal recourse.”

Two Oregon tribes — the Confederated Tribes of Siletz and Grand Ronde — came out with statements criticizing the board’s decision. Ironically, the Siletz Valley School, located on the tribe’s historical homelands, would have to change its Indian chief mascot.

During hearings on the subject, the board asked for input from Oregon’s nine tribes.

“Six of the nine chose not to respond,” says Brenda Frank, whose term as chairman of the board expired June 30. “Of the three that did, the Coos chose to support the ban; the Grande Ronde and Siletz” did not.

Frank, a member of the Klamath Tribe, stands firmly in favor of the board’s ruling.

“It’s a good decision,” Frank says. “It’s what’s right for all students in the state of Oregon. The issue is divisive, but it has been around for all too many years. I’m happy. I was fighting back my tears (with the board’s vote). It’s a difficult decision. It took us years to get to this point.”

In 2007, the board recommended schools eliminate Native American mascots by 2009 and remove related images by 2011. Some schools acceded to the request; others stayed the course, while meeting with representatives of local tribes to discuss the issue.

I am not Native American, but I am sensitive to the plight of our continent’s indigenous people, who have suffered indignities and faced racism in our part of the world for centuries.

I believe our schools have addressed issues of Indian caricatures and inappropriate examples that showed, however unintentionally, a lack of respect in recent decades. Most of the schools, in fact, have worked with local tribes to ensure a high measure of integrity and communication in terms of the mascots and nicknames.

Enterprise High changed its “Savages” nickname to “Outlaws” years ago, for instance. And though their tradition goes back nearly a century, I would be in support of a change of the NFL’s Washington Redskins to a different nickname that wouldn’t reflect skin color.

It’s a much different case with the nicknames the state board is banning, however.

Sprenger was present for most of the state board’s hearing and says she heard the majority of testimony.

“From those supporting the ban, what I heard was Native American communities have a higher rate of alcoholism and higher dropout rates, which is true,” she says. “They related terrible incidents of racism and oppression and making fun of Native Americans in school.

“Then we took a leap to where we can solve that by getting rid of mascots. We don’t have the same use of mascots that those terrible stories of 30 years ago relate. We don’t have people in disrespectful costumes running across fields. That should stop; it did.”

Frank speaks of the ruling ensuring the safety of the state’s Native American students.

“For us to look toward the best possible safety environment for all students,” she says, “we had to move forward.”

Frankly, I fail to see how nicknames such as Indians, Chiefs, Braves, Warriors and the likes impact the safety of students, or are derogatory or damaging in any way. They reflect the competitive spirit of the Native American culture and pay tribute to them on the athletic fields of our high schools.

A few years ago, Sports Illustrated conducted a national poll among Native Americans on the subject. Asked if high school and college teams should stop using Indian nicknames, 81 percent said no. And 83 percent said they were fine with pro sports teams using them — including the Redskins.

Examining a few of the points on the issue in regard to Oregon high schools:

Would schools choose to have their athletic teams go by a nickname they didn’t revere and respect?

“Of course not,” says Thurman Bell, football coach at Roseburg the past 42 years. “I’m awfully proud to have coached and represented the Roseburg High Indians. It’s a name you respect, you fight for, you compete for. It’s hard to imagine any other.”

Native American nicknames “bring to light the traditions and values of the chiefs and braves who were part of that culture, whether warring people or not,” says Smith, a member of the Assiniboine Tribe (an offshoot of the Sioux Nation) who will become athletic director at Canby High next fall. “I’m disappointed as a Native American that another government entity is coming in and telling me how to think.”

Frank says critics are missing the point.

“I hear what they say — that it’s an honor, a historical thing,” she says. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know that those school district officials actually know the contemporary tribe and can name a leader in that tribe and are able to tell me what type of area of expertise there is for that leader.

“Tribes are not historic. It’s a race issue. When you’re talking about race, you’re usually talking about discrimination and hardship and the underlying culvert of attention it brings. It usually ends up with, you have a name and an image, which brings about stereotyping. When you have that, you have this whole message of, it’s OK if it’s just a little bit. If it’s OK a little bit, why not go the next step?”

I’m not sure what Frank means by tribes not being historic. They’ve been around for many years, as have the high schools that have carried their names, at least in most cases, with honor and pride. Many students say they tried to convey that message at hearings, but that board members didn’t listen.

Frank is wrong about school district officials, who have spent many hours conferring with leaders of local tribes and are probably much more in tune to those leaders’ thinking than is Frank.

“The most important thing is that we recognize the Molalla Indians in the proper way,” says Molalla Principal Randy Dalton. “If we’re doing something that doesn’t accurately reflect the tribe, we’d be happy to modify it. There’s a lot of tradition here. We recognize it’s a sensitive subject.

“Many of the tribes are very much in favor of keeping the mascots and the nicknames. They’ve made that very public to the state board. It’s difficult to make everyone happy. The state board looked at the research behind the psychological effect of misrepresenting people, the stereotyping. We’ve done what we can to address all of that.”

“Roseburg has had a great spirit of teamwork with its area tribes, and the school district has been very supportive,” Scappoose Principal Eric Clendenin says.

Roseburg officials have worked closely with the Cow Creek band of the Umpqua Tribe, which supported a resolution to the state board allowing the school to remain as the Indians.

“We’ve done everything we were asked to do,” Parsons says. “Roseburg years ago got rid of the Native American mascot and logo. The only thing that’s left is the name Indians on our uniform.”

“Roseburg and the local tribe had issues several years ago,” Sprenger says. “They came together and solved them together. The state board should leave it alone.”

Many years ago, a logo of an Indian chief was removed from the basketball court and replaced with a feather at Roseburg. The feather has adorned football helmets for years, with no reference to Indians, Bell says.

“We’ve been the poster child in the state in terms of working with the tribe to do what’s right,” Parsons says. “We want to be respectful of our Native American population.

“My point to the state board was, show us some research that says with schools that have the nickname it hurts the efficacy and self-esteem of Native American children. I wouldn’t want to be a part of that. Children need to be protected. In this community, that has been a non-issue.”

The decision on which nicknames to eliminate is subjective.

“If you allow one race-based mascot, then you need to allow them all,” Frank offers. “You can’t allow that kind of institutional system to move along that bumpy road and be discriminatory.”

But what is race-based? Why is “Warriors” appropriate when “Braves” is not? And why are some Warriors satisfactory when others aren’t?

What about other ethnic-based nicknames such as the Vikings of North Salem, Forest Grove, Siuslaw, Mazama, Umatilla, Vale and Colton; the Celtics of McNary; the Scots of David Douglas and McKay; the Irish of Sheldon and Riddle; the Trojans of Wilson and Douglas, and the Quakers of Franklin?

“That was brought up at a meeting,” Sprenger says. “The response (of the board) was something akin to they weren’t including that in this ruling. But if you’re logically thinking this through, if you’re interested in stamping out racism, then why aren’t other ethnic groups included?”

Are those with a religious bent offended by the Lowell Devils?

“If I’m a Muslim kid,” Clendenin offers, “do I have a problem with Crusaders?

“Where does it stop? I don’t have that answer.”

Is the school board acting for the beliefs of the majority of citizens?

“No,” Smith says. “It’s a very small minority of people guiding this thing. Years ago, my superintendent saw the writing on the wall. We don’t like (the ban), we don’t want it, but we don’t have the money and resources to take on the people who are pushing this through.”

“In our society these days, it appears there is always a minority calling the shots,” Bell says. “It takes one small group of people to stir the pot. It’s really disheartening.

“I’m sure there are some who consider it offensive, but I have acquaintances who are of Indian descent, and they’re like, ‘You’re kidding.’ That’s the reaction I get here.”

“There is a great tradition in our community,” Smith says. “The people who live here have parents and aunts and uncles and grandfathers and great-grandfathers who have been the Braves. We have kids who grow up and want to be Braves.

“In any small town like ours, the school is an essential place that thousands of people have a connection to. To take that away, to make them change that over rules set by what I think is a narrow-minded minority, is very sad.”

Does the state board have the authority to mandate this?

“They have the legal authority to make administrative rules, which is what they’ve done,” Sprenger says. “They have the authority to provide a safe learning environment for kids, and to set in place policies that do not condone racism. I agree with all of that.

“I believe they’ve taken that a step further and defined what racism is. Racism is a yearbook with an Indian head in it. They are saying the use of these mascots by the ruling has defined racism. I don’t agree with them.”

Making the nickname change won’t be cheap. For some schools, which have been moving toward a switch for years, it won’t be as costly. At Banks, Smith estimates it can be done for as little as $25,000 to $50,000.

At Molalla, where changes in uniforms at the freshman, junior varsity and varsity levels, along with courts and scoreboards and fields, will be necessary, it will be more expensive.

“All totaled,” Dalton says, “it will be in the area of a half-million dollars.”

Are mascots and nicknames a subject the school board should be spending so much time dealing with?

“They have bigger fish to fry,” Smith says. “This shouldn’t have happened.”

“The state board has spent an incredible amount of time, and a lot of money, on this issue,” Sprenger says. “Meanwhile, we need more meaningful discussion on the dropout rate for all of our students in this state. We need to be focusing how many of our students are going on to further education.

“This was not the place for all this time to be spent, when you have tribes coming forth and saying they have no problem with the issue.”

Even Frank agrees, to a point.

“There are a hundred other things that may be as important or more important than we’re dealing with here,” she says. “On the other hand, when you’re talking about equity and safety and social justice for American Indian students, there can’t be anything more important than voting on that ban.”

In towns throughout the state, from Roseburg to Molalla to Scappoose, the mascot/nickname issue has been a major topic.

“It’s all I’ve talked about for two weeks,” Parsons says. “I go to a poker tournament and the dealer wants to talk about it. I get a haircut and the barber wants to talk about it. I can’t get away from it.”

If it’s an exercise in critical thinking, the state board has failed miserably.

“If we clearly define what the issue is -- and I don’t know that the state board has -- I don’t think this is the remedy,” Sprenger says. “Before you come up with an adequate and good solution to any problem, you need to define what the problem is. They never did that in a clear way.”

For some, it’s the last straw.

“I can’t imagine Roseburg being called the Feathers or other names that have been suggested,” says Bell, 69. “People here are in shock over the possibility of the change.

“I know I’m not going to coach for anybody else but the Indians. If and when that change is made, I’ll retire.”

Kerry Eggers is a columnist for the Portland Tribune. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..