Heritage or racism? Education or eradication?
The Teton School District 401 Board of Trustees will grapple with these dichotomous questions during its next meeting, which will start at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the Teton High School auditorium. It will hear comments on a contentious issue that has split the Teton Valley, Idaho, community — whether to change the Teton High mascot from Redskins.
Stephanie Crockett, whose children attended Teton High in Driggs, asked the board to consider changing the mascot because it was a cultural misappropriation during a March 11 board meeting, according to the Teton Valley News. The debate has stirred strong emotions on both sides.
“We’re fighting for our heritage, for this school and for what it’s stood for the last 90 years,” said Tracy Tonks, an organizer of Save the Redskins, a group that actively campaigns to keep the mascot.
Part of the debate over whether the mascot is inappropriate is etymological. Redskins can be found in history as both a reference to scalped Indians and to indigenous warriors who painted themselves red.
Opponents of the change like Tonks argue that Redskins is meant to honor Native Americans and is part of Teton Valley’s heritage. Save the Redskins hosted a forum with national advocacy group Native Americans Guardians Association on June 5, when Native American representatives from the organization spoke of the need to keep the mascot. The group’s argument is “educate, not eradicate.” It says that if Native American mascots are removed, then awareness of indigenous people and their history will decrease.
Proponents of the change argue that the mascot, even though the high school no longer has someone dress up as an Indian for sporting events and assemblies, is racist, a term grounded in cultural subjugation of indigenous people.
“It is inappropriate imagery,” said Randy’L Teton during a June 26 panel with Native Americans who support changing the mascot. “We’re not disappearing and vanishing. … Maybe we can work with the school district on what is culturally sensitive.”
Teton spoke alongside Larry Teton, her uncle and a Shoshone-Bannock elder; Michelle Beitinger, who lives locally and is a descendant of Washington state’s Colville Confederated Tribes; Amanda Blackhorse, an activist and member of the Navajo Nation; and Northern Arapaho member Sergio Maldonado.
“The Shoshone-Bannock officially oppose the use of racial misappropriation of terms referring to Native Americans,” Randy’L Teton told the News&Guide.
According to the Teton Valley News, the debate over changing the mascot surfaced in 2013, when Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme met with Shoshone-Bannock tribal members to hear their opinions on it. He returned from that meeting and announced he would change the mascot because the tribes found it to be culturally insensitive.
Community outcry prompted Woolstenhulme to hold a school board meeting to gat her comment, and eventually he delayed the change. This time Woolstenhulme is staying out of the decision.
“It is completely up to the school board,” he said. “What they choose is up to them.”
Advocates with Save the Redskins contend that a vocal minority is driving the push to change the mascot. Tonks pointed to a 2016 poll done by The Washington Post that found 90% of Native Americans were not bothered by Redskins as a mascot. Though some news outlets like “The Nation” decried the poll’s methods, saying it was not strict enough in determining whether the respondents were enrolled tribal members, it had similar results as a 2004 Annenburg Center poll.
During the June 26 panel, some community members asked about a poll on the Shoshone-Bannock Facebook page that showed 72% of respondents in support of the mascot. Randy’L Teton dismissed the findings, saying the poll had been shared far outside the tribe due to the nature of social media and did not show the opinions of the tribes.
Representatives of Save the Redskins, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and the Teton Valley community will be on hand Monday as the school board weighs the issue. However, Woolstenhulme cautioned that neither side may get the resolution it wants because the board could continue the decision.
Some long-time valley residents with Save the Redskins see the push as a drive to erase the rural, agricultural valley’s history. Clair Hillman, a rancher who has lived in the valley for 87 years, said being a Redskin is ingrained in his family.
“It’s one of the biggest parts of the valley for those who’ve lived here a long time,” he said, “and I sure do hope they save it.”