The debate about Native mascots gets heated in Paw Paw

Walking into the Paw Paw High School auditorium, one is faced with hundreds of people who are here for one of two final special meetings to discuss whether to change the school's Redskins mascot and the tension is thick. 

Police officers from several agencies stand against the walls, and community members in red shirts that read, "WE ARE THE REDSKINS," fill two-thirds of the auditorium. The other third is taken up by those opposed to the Redskins mascot -- many are Native people from the surrounding community, some of whom are there to offer a presentation on the ways using Native imagery and language for school mascots is harmful. 

The issue of changing the Redskins mascot in Paw Paw has escalated since last August when the new superintendent, Sonia Lark, was asked to investigate the mascot issue and report back to the school board. The board votes Feb. 8 on the matter. But this isn't the first time the issue has come up for Paw Paw. 

From a timeline of events presented at the Nov. 9, 2016, school board meeting, the matter dates as far back as 1994, when the school yearbook is quoted as saying, "PPHS is slowly pushing toward a more politically correct mascot but no one knows how long it will take."

The issue didn't take on much traction until 2013 when the Michigan Department of Civil Rights filed a complaint concerning Paw Paw's use of the Redskins mascot. The federal department dismissed the complaint because MDCR did not provide any specific incidents of race-based discrimination to support their complaint. 

Then in July of 2015, the School Board accepted a donation from the Paw Paw Athletic Boosters to use the side-facing Sioux image in full headdress on a new High School baseball field scoreboard. In August of that same year, the school board discussed the use of the Redskin name and approved using the same Sioux image as the district's mascot.

Public comments requesting to change the school mascot were received at school board meetings beginning in March of 2016 and five months later the Board officially began their assessment of the appropriateness of the Redskins mascot. We asked Superintendent Lark for comment, but she declined to comment until after the school board makes a decision about the mascot Feb. 8. 

Presentations at the special board meeting on Jan. 18 from those who support removing the Native mascot included two Council Members and the Director of Education from the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi, and Tribal Council Chair, Jamie Stuck, from the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi. Many of the presenters discussed the harms that come from using Native imagery as school mascots, most pointing to the rights of students to have equal access to positive, supportive learning environments.

What is the harm of using Native mascots?

In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) called for "the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations." Their position was based on a growing body of research that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including those of Native mascots. 

According to the APA, research has shown that such portrayals teach it is acceptable to participate in culturally abusive behavior. By establishing an unwelcome and sometimes hostile learning environment there are negative effects not just on Native students, but all students. 

Jacqui Faust is a Native woman, approaching Elder status, who lives in Comstock. She says she sometimes gets pushback for her involvement in petitioning Paw Paw to remove their Native mascot because she does not live in there. But, she explains:

"We do not live in isolated villages -- we are a global world. We move in and out of each other's communities, especially within the public school system. I had children in sports and in band, and they traveled to schools with offensive Native mascots -- just as students from those schools come into ours. I've often heard people in the communities with these mascots say that those of us from outside their school system have no right to voice an opinion on their mascots, and we've tried hard to explain that they take those racist images with them when they interact with other schools."

Faust says it's not just Native students and families that have a stake in this, though. She says that non-Natives also are at risk because kids in schools with Native mascots are learning that it is OK to demean, mock, and disrespect other cultures. Faust says that often when she brings this up, the response she gets is, "We aren't disrespecting Indians! We're honoring them!" But Faust says she does not feel honored by the use of Native imagery. 

Honor vs. sentimental racism

Monica Washington Padula agrees. Padula is an Ojibwe woman and member of Michigan Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media and Black Lives Matter Kalamazoo. She says she became involved in the efforts to change the mascot in Paw Paw after she worked and lived in Paw Paw. Initially, she was unaware that her daughter was attending the local preschool in a school district that had a Native race-based mascot.

Monica Washington Padula 

Padula says, "by upholding the mascot as an 'honor' it provides the ability to assuage those who are in power and control of the imagery and how it is interpreted by others (like students) and celebrated (by dressing up and misappropriating Native customs, culture, and mannerisms) from any responsibility towards rectifying the wrongs of history." 

She calls attempts to label Native mascots as an honor, "a way of manipulating what is actually sentimental racism," and goes on to call it a "selfish motive of preserving the upholding of ego and entitlement."

Padula calls the term, "Redskin," (which she types, "R-sk*n"), "the most offensive pejorative term associated with a painful genocidal period in Native and American history." She says these efforts are

• a fight to reclaim Native identity after genocide and colonialism sought to eliminate those identities and ways of life, and

• a request for respect by relinquishing what she calls, "disrespectful and racist mascots."

The opposition Padula has endured in her efforts have been vast. She says at school board meetings she has experienced taunting and intimidation through yelling, condescending, belittling, and other-izing comments from non-Native individuals in the Paw Paw community. She says she has also endured online bullying and harassment on Facebook and online news websites. 

The community's funding of an oversized mascot banner displayed on 1-94 and also hung across a semi parked in the school lot during a board meeting, and the distribution of pro-mascot shirts that were then worn by supporters during board meetings are inflammatory tactics being used, Padula points out.

Historical context

Eunice Davidson flew in from North Dakota just to be at the special school board meeting. Davidson is a member of the Great Sioux Nation and has been working for the past 10 years on efforts to retain Native school mascots. She prepared a presentation in support of keeping the Redskins mascot.

"We don't want these Native American names and images to disappear because we think it's a genocide," she said. During her presentation, a white man in a Redskins shirt yelled out, "We're proud of you!"

Andre Billeaudeaux is the executive director of the Native American Guardian Association and he was the only presenter that did not give any personal Native descent. His presentation centered on Native history and the history of the term "Redskin." Billeaudeax insisted that the origin of the term was more neutral in nature, originating instead back to pre-Columbian "Red Paint People," which were apparently named for the way that they covered their dead with red paint. 

His historical interpretation of the term "Redskin," conflicted with the interpretation and connotations that were shared earlier in the evening from Sam Morseau, Director of Education for the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi. Morseau said the origin of the term "Redskin" is associated with bounty hunting and "rounding up Redskins" and offering their scalps. 

Charged emotions

Notably, the greatest outbursts at the meeting occurred during these history lessons. During Morseau's presentation, two white men in Redskins shirts standing against the back wall began loudly jeering when Morseau's presentation featured examples of historical, racist imagery. Later, these same men yelled, "Can we move on?" repeatedly, before the board chair warned they would be removed. And during Billeaudeax's talk a Native person, who was clearly offended by the presentation, exclaimed, "He's telling us about our own history!" 

Amber Beer runs a pro-Redskins facebook page, called, "We are the Paw Paw Redskins." Beer graduated from Paw Paw in 2014 and she is registered member of the Pokagon Band. She says that education is the answer, not changing a mascot. 

"Basically, it's 2017. I would never want to disregard the pain my elders went through by any means. But I believe that if you can forgive, make a change, and move on, then the world will keep moving in the right direction (towards unity and away from segregation)." Beer sees the discussion about offensive mascots as "going backward and taking steps towards segregation."

"If you give a word negative power it's going to be hurtful. If you ask any of the students, I bet they will respond with how they didn't know the word was racist until this anti-mascot group came along." 

Indeed, when Billeaudeax asked during his presentation, whether any students learn about Native history at all, there was a resounding "no" from Paw Paw families. 

During the public comments period, a freshman student stood up and challenged the board to listen to community members, not others from surrounding communities. He referenced a petition he started that had over 500 signatures and even more supporters in online forums that support the mascot. He went on to say that he would make sure that board members who voted in favor of a mascot change would be removed from the board.

An educational and financial solution

James Stuck is the Council Chair for the Nottawaseppi Band of the Potawatomi. He was asked to speak at the school board meeting because a new amendment in their state compact allows for up to $500,000 to be put into a new Native Heritage Fund. And those funds could be part of a solution to schools facing a mascot change dilemma.

While the Tribe has not taken an official position or been involved in the specific case of the Paw Paw mascot, the Tribe has been upfront, in general, on their position that harm that comes from using Native mascots.

"We didn't want to be proactive as far as the stance we took on negative imagery," Stuck says, "but we wanted to be proactive as far as being part of the solution and eliminate the barriers there are sometimes when it comes to school districts having to bear costs associated with the changing of the mascot." 

Any initiative that promotes positive relationships between schools and local government and the federally recognized tribes within the state of Michigan may qualify for these new funds. That includes costs that may be associated with changing over from Native mascots. 

Stuck says, "Sometimes you don't think of it, but you could have anything that bears the imagery that could be deemed negative -- it could be signage, it could be scoreboards, it could be gymnasium floors, it could be apparel. There are lots of different costs that come along with changing a mascot that you don't even think about until you see what the actual school districts may bear as far as costs associated with it." 

While the Native Heritage Fund is still in the process of developing its board and bylaws, Stuck says he expects the fund to be up and running and available even to those districts that have already made decisions to change their mascots but have not yet incurred the associated costs. 

'When you know better you do better'

"You can't fault someone for not knowing about a person's history or what they've went through," Stuck says. "That's one of the major components of educating non-native communities--you have 566 different Tribal Nations in the U.S. We're all different. We have different constitutions, different languages, different history. And you have 12 federally recognized tribes in state of Michigan -- again, just here locally, you have 12 different nations, 12 different constitutions, 12 somewhat different languages, 12 different homelands. Education's a big aspect of learning about all these different cultures and all these different communities."

Joyce Van Sickle taught at Paw Paw Schools for 19 years. She's been retired for three years now and came out to the special board meeting with no strong feelings about the issue. After listening to all of the presentations, she found herself feeling very strongly, and she was the first person to speak during the public comments.

"Our neighbors find it offensive," she said. She urged the board to listen to Native concerns and to change the mascot. "When I was a child and I said a word that I didn't understand and my mother said not to say it, I stopped...when you know better you do better," Van Sickle concluded.  

Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer, living in Kalamazoo. You can find her at her website, kathivaleii.com.
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