Calhoun County

Native American Heritage Fund grant awards go to six Michigan organizations

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.

A decision approved earlier this year by the Paw Paw Public Schools to change their nickname to the Red Wolves came with a price tag.

To help cover those costs, school officials were informed in late October that they are receiving $216,045 from an organization in Athens that played an important, but behind-the-scenes role, in getting that nickname changed from the Redskins to the Red Wolves. 

Paw Paw Schools was one of six recipients of the annual round of grant funding from the Native American Heritage Fund headquartered at the government offices of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi in Athens Township. The grant to the Paw Paw schools will be used to help implement the new Red Wolves nickname and brand on signage, facilities, and athletic uniforms, says Jamie Stuck, NAHF Chairperson, and NHBP Tribal Chairperson.

“We were thrilled and grateful to get the news that NAHF had supported our grant request with such generosity,” says Corey Harbaugh, Director of Curriculum/Instruction and State/Federal Programs with the Paw Paw Schools. “This will allow us to make changes immediately to make sure the new nickname and new Red Wolves brand get successfully deep-rooted in our district the right way.

“These funds will help us to make these changes without having to affect general fund monies set aside for instructional programs.”

Paw Paw received 80 percent of its request. The grant to Paw Paw Schools was one of six made this year. Ten organizations applied for the NAHF grant funding and altogether more than $482,000 was awarded. 

The move to adopt the new nickname came after ongoing conversations. In 2019, Paw Paw Schools Superintendent Rick Reo asked his administrative team to look at the current mission statement which resulted in a new mission statement that reignited the mascot debate.

Harbaugh says it was the focus on the mission statement that really changed the dialog in the community.

“We started to have conversations about race, history, and culture,” he says. “To stay true to that mission you can’t have division or community division if you’re going to represent all students in our schools. We started having community conversations about how best we could serve our students and live up to the ethics and higher calling in that mission statement. We realized we could not have kids walking our halls who could not be true to the nickname.”

Out of the 2,300 students who attend Paw Paw schools, about 650 at the high school, less than 10 percent are Black, Brown or Indigenous, Harbaugh says.

The word “Redskin” is a racial slur as defined by Webster’s dictionary, and the term is not permitted or socially accepted when used and does not belong in an educational setting, Melissa Kiesewetter, Tribal Liaison for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and Treasurer of the NAHF Board of Directors, said in an earlier story.

“All 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan unanimously approved a resolution calling for the elimination of the R** word in Michigan schools and there are a significant number of resolutions from throughout the country at all levels and from all types of organizations and institutions that support such removal,” Kiesewetter says.

“It is the position of this department, supported by national NA (Native American) organizations and supported by psychological studies, that such mascots and imagery do harm; Native Americans are not mascots and their cultural/spiritual items should not be appropriated for other’s use.”

This past summer, the old nickname was removed from the floor of the Paw Paw Schools middle school gymnasium floor and replaced with the Red Wolves logo at a cost of almost $20,000 for the re-branding and painting, Harbaugh says.

“We normally budget $4,000 annually for routine maintenance of the gym floors during the summer,” he says. “Because of the cost to do the re-branding work at one of the major gyms we couldn’t afford to do both the middle school and high school floors right away. The high school floor will be done next summer.”

Harbaugh says leadership with the school district decided to begin the work immediately because they want to ensure that visitors and members of the community understand that “we are the Red Wolves. We wanted to do it right away because we didn’t want there to be any confusion or folks holding on to that old nickname.”

The Native American Heritage Fund grant funds will be applied to the cost of re-branding the gym floors at both the middle and high schools, in addition to art projects and the integration of a curriculum that promotes a more accurate and better understanding of Native American history. 

“When it comes to students, it’s really about providing a safe and comfortable learning environment,” Stuck said earlier. “People that are non-Native Americans, that don’t have the correct education as far as our history, culture, values, and traditions, think these mascots are honoring us and that’s not up to them to determine.

“There’s a bad meaning behind many of these mascots that are associated with bounties on our heads during the removal of Native Americans from their land.”

The original birth certificate for Stuck’s grandfather who was born in 1902 and among those whose ancestors were driven from their land lists “Red” as his race. For Stuck and all Native Americans, the choice of mascot nicknames like “Redskins,” which had previously been used by the Belding and Paw Paw school districts, is offensive to them and demeans their history and heritage.

Since 2016, the Native American Heritage Fund has been providing information and funding to promote positive relationships between public and private K-12 schools, colleges, universities, local units of government, and Michigan’s federally recognized Native American Tribes.

The NAHF’s work has supported the efforts made to retire school mascots in the school districts of Belding, Clinton, Godfrey-Lee, and Paw Paw. The NAHF also provided funding to assist with the removal of the “Fountain of the Pioneers” installation at Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park.

Stuck says “It is an honor and great opportunity for the NHBP and NAHF to partner with communities and organizations to improve curricula and replace mascot imagery in the state of Michigan. Collaboration with schools and local governments not only strengthens our relationships it shows what working with a good heart and an open mind can do in times when inclusion and understanding are vital to our entire society.
 
“On behalf of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Nation, I want to commend the consideration and commitment of these new grantees and past partners who have already shown success stories in their communities.”

One of those successes was readily apparent at a recent Paw Paw High School football game. 

“We have a great football team that’s headed to the playoffs. The players have the new Red Wolves logo on their helmets and people in the stands were shouting ‘Go Red Wolves’,” Harbaugh says. “What I love about this is that we’re sending a message that we are working to fulfill our new mission statement and it’s about the kids. We started with students in mind and we are now starting to see that pay off in the pride and unity being shown by our students and community.”

Additional 2020 NAHF Recipients

Applicants granted 100 percent of their requests:

• Suttons Bay Public Schools was granted $20,000 to help develop a new land-based education curriculum.

• Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College was granted $30,000 to partner with the Native Justice Coalition to offer and expand the Annual Anishinaabe Racial Justice Conference.

• Petoskey Public Schools was granted $58,665 to help remove unacceptable Native American imagery on infrastructure, uniforms, and equipment across the school district.

Applicants granted 80% of their requests:

• Clinton Community Schools was granted $100,000 to help rebrand and adopt a new mascot, replacing existing imagery with a new logo.

•A 50% award, $57,500, was made to the City of Marquette to help develop an interpretive Anishinaabe Public Art Project and companion trail curriculum along the lakefront as part of the City's larger Cultural Trail project.

More about the NAHF 

The Native American Heritage Fund, approved in 2016 as part of the Second Amendment to the Tribal-State Gaming Compact between the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (NHBP) and the State of Michigan, allocates a portion of NHBP’s state revenue-sharing payments from its FireKeepers Casino Hotel to the Fund. 

The NAHF grants resources to schools, colleges, universities, and local units of government to promote positive relationships and accurate information about the history and role of Michigan’s Indian tribes and Native Americans, including mascot changeovers and curriculum development.
 
Those serving on the  NAHF Board are Chairperson Jamie Stuck (NHBP Tribal Council Chairperson); Vice Chairperson Dorie Rios (NHBP Tribal Council Vice Chairperson); Secretary Elizabeth Kinnart (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Citizen); Treasurer Melissa Kiesewetter (Michigan Dept. of Civil Rights Tribal Liaison/Native American Specialist); and Board Member Kimberly Vargo (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Vice Chairperson).

To learn about past recipients, or about future application requirements, visit nahfund.com or calhouncountymi.gov.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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