A renewed effort to replace Columbia River High School’s chieftain mascot has garnered support from students and alumni who decry the image of a Native American as derogatory.
More than 1,300 people have signed an online petition calling for the replacement of the mascot.
“We believe that the chieftain mascot trivializes Indigenous people, their personhood, their cultures, and the trauma they’ve endured at the hand of colonialism and white supremacy,” the petition reads.
A group of students attempted but failed to replace the mascot in 2019. Now, civil rights protests across the United States have prompted a reexamining of names and mascots steeped in racial stereotyping or racist history. The Washington NFL franchise on Monday announced it would be retiring its name after pressure from corporate sponsors.
Vancouver Public Schools reviewed the mascot in 1994 after the Washington State Board of Education adopted a resolution calling on districts to evaluate their use of Native American imagery in mascots. The Board of Education reaffirmed its position in 2012.
The high school, which serves Hazel Dell, opened in 1962. In 1993, education officials asked schools around the state to reconsider their use of Indian names for mascots. Students heard American Indian speakers and discussed the issue. After months of review, they were asked to decide whether to keep the mascot. In 1994, students overwhelmingly decided to stick with the chieftains mascot, saying the name represented tradition and respect for Indians. Some usages were changed, though.
Jennifer Benitez Valle, 16, is a junior at Columbia River High School. She is Indigenous Mexican, and it frustrates her to see Native American imagery used at her high school.
“Seeing the ‘chieftain’ mascot only reminds me of the history of injustice and evil that has targeted Indigenous peoples,” she said. “It’s disappointing seeing the mascot logo plastered all over school, from the walls, clothing, and other objects.”
The American Psychological Association in 2005 called for the retirement of all Native American mascots, reporting the use of such images can create an unwelcome and hostile learning environment.
“This kind of ‘honoring’ is harmful and offensive to natives and is deeply connected to the history of racism and bigotry of this country towards native peoples,” Benitez Valle said. “Not to mention how these caricatures can have a negative psychological impact on native youth.”
The issue has caught the attention of the Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors, which briefly discussed reviewing its mascot policy at a June workshop as part of its broader equity policy. Board President Wendy Smith said the board will revisit the issue at its August retreat.
Smith, a Columbia River High School alumna and history teacher at Heritage High School, declined to say whether she personally supported replacing the mascot.
“I understand the conversation and the debate,” she said. “A lot of times that’s where the conflict comes from: the tradition of the school and the history of the school. That makes the conversation a little more challenging.”
Noel Sims, who graduated in June, is among those leading the effort to replace the mascot. Sims and Arianna Bollens, also a 2020 graduate, plan to testify on the issue to the school board next month.
Sims said it’s hypocritical for Vancouver Public Schools to claim it’s interested in pursuing equity for all students yet retain the chieftain image.
“A lot of Indigenous students feel uncomfortable participating in things” because of the mascot, she said.
Bollens noted the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in police custody in Minneapolis, has prompted new understanding of racial tensions in the country, she said.
“We wouldn’t have gotten 1,300 signatures a year ago,” she said. “This petition and this motivation stems from the social revolution that is taking place right now.”