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As momentum moves toward Native American mascot ban, feedback shows opposition to change

Debate continues as State Board of Education prepares to rule on proposed prohibition
by: John Brewington Will Sprute (above) and others on Scappoose High School's varsity baseball squad wear hats featuring an image nearly identical to the controversial Cleveland Indians mascot Chief Wahoo. Coach and school Athletic Director Robert Medley said those hats were ordered more than a year ago before the recent debate over the appropriateness of American Indian-related mascots and logos gained traction at the state level.

A majority of feedback to a proposed public school ban on Native American mascots received by the Oregon Department of Education is in opposition to such a change, with many feeling it is unnecessary and potentially costly.

Public hearings on the matter continue April 19. This is the closest the state has ever gotten to a ban on such imagery at the public school level, said Department of Education spokeswoman Christine Miles. Most members of the State Board of Education - including its chair and vice chair - have publicly declared what they believe to be a need for ending the longstanding practice in some schools of using American Indian imagery to brand their athletics programs and institutions.

Those supporting a ban agree with numerous published studies that proclaim American Indian-derived mascots to be potentially harmful and discriminatory.

As early as its May 17 meeting, the Board of Education could pass a proposed rule giving schools like Scappoose High - with its Indians mascot - until July 1, 2017, to find new icons or risk losing funding.

The Scappoose School District is continuing its 'wait-and-see' approach to the issue as community members continue to discuss the pros and cons of the potential prohibition.

'It's hard to take a stance when we really don't know where the state's going to go,' said Scappoose High School Athletic Director Robert Medley. 'We have to be very proactive and very positive about the situation. Our original stance is we would love to stay how we are, that's not a surprise to anybody.'

Scappoose's current mascot is a muscular man with an armband, feathered headdress and a stern gaze. School officials have argued this mascot is respectful, unlike other goofy depictions of Native Americans present in sports. However, that's not the only American Indian imagery present on the campus.

This season - as in prior years- the varsity baseball team wears caps on the field with what coach Medley says is the 'throwback smiling Indian.' That image is nearly identical to the controversial Cleveland Indians mascot Chief Wahoo, now considered by many to be a stereotypical cartoonish caricature of a Native American.

Those hats were picked more than a year ago, Medley said, long before the issue was brought up again at the state level.

'I don't think it depicts anything negative at all,' Medley said. 'It's a throwback-type thing.'

Scappoose City Manager Jon Hanken said the city would back any position the school district takes on the issue, but he said district officials should make their opinions clearer so the city can follow their lead.

'We will back whatever the school decides to do,' Hanken said. 'I personally don't think the mascot was ever intended to be offensive, but you know what? Times change, and I see the handwriting on the wall.'

Some of the most vocal criticism of the proposed ban has come from the Lebanon School District, where school officials and students have publicly argued their Warrior mascot- of a Native American man riding a horse - is honorable.

The Lebanon School Board will consider a resolution April 19 to officially proclaim the district's desire to keep their mascot. Superintendent Jim Robinson said the resolution requests that if the state bans such icons, the Department of Education should find a way to cover the potentially high rebranding costs for schools.

There are 15 high schools in the state that have American Indian-themed mascots. Those using the 'Warriors' name would still be able to retain the moniker under the drafted Board of Education administrative rule. That's if they do not combine the name with 'a symbol or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian Tribe, individual, custom or tradition.'

Medley said Scappoose High would comply with whatever the state decides. At the end of the day, he said, the quality of the school and its athletics program isn't related to its mascot.

'The students will follow the lead of the school itself, and if we create as much of a positive atmosphere as we can, I think it will be a positive change experience,' he said.