The Teton (Idaho) School District 401 Board of Trustees decided to pump the brakes Monday night when faced with the decision to keep or change the Teton High School Redskins mascot.
Instead of deciding the matter after almost six hours of comment and debate, the trustees had unanswered questions and needed another week to decide.
They set a working session at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Driggs Elementary School to assess questions like the cost of the change and what the community might consider an appropriate alternative.
First, however, they listened to about 60 people speak during a meeting in the Teton High auditorium in Driggs that drew almost 200 people. The speakers filled a four-hour marathon comment period on a contentious issue that has divided Teton Valley.
“Everyone knows what ‘redskin’ means to the Native Americans. I can never understand why someone would think they are honoring the Native Americans with that word,” Mike Merigliano said. “It’s like calling a black person a n----r.”
Many who supported the change echoed Merigliano’s statement, though without the pointed language. They refuted the claim of many mascot supporters that the symbol honors Native Americans and the connections they had with Teton Valley’s early settlers. Instead, they insisted that the word is associated with genocide, the act of scalping and a history of cultural subjugation.
The contingent pushing for change made one thing abundantly clear: Those who support the mascot are not racists, but the symbol is. Several commenters said white people, who make up a majority of Teton County, Idaho, and the entire school board, cannot decide what a marginalized community considers racist.
Several commenters argued that since the local Shoshone-Bannock tribes had come to Teton Valley and said the mascot is a racist symbol, it was incumbent upon the community to listen and make the change. But people with the group Save the Redskins, the most vocal of the mascot supporters, said the national indigenous community is not in agreement on the term and that people moving into the valley were stirring up controversy.
“This is why it turns to us versus them,” Rachelle Fullmer told the board. “Someone moves in, gets a few years in and starts yelling orders for change.”
Save the Redskins representatives closely tied the idea that newcomers to Teton Valley were agitating for change to the assertion that the Redskins moniker is an integral part of the valley’s history. They said those who moved to the valley in recent years imported the stigma of how Redskins is used elsewhere without taking the time to understand its place in Teton Valley’s heritage and the intention of those who chose the mascot some 90 years ago.
Save the Redskins organizer Tracy Tonks was blunt.
“I’m averse to the idea that a few people can come into a community and say ‘we are morally superior,’” she said. “This is like when a parasite comes in and takes over, and the host just has to wait for it to move on.”
Both sides cited polls and petitions in trying to move board members. Save the Redskins representatives talked about a Washington Post poll that found 90% of Native Americans have no problem with the mascot (though several news outlets have pointed to problems in the poll’s methodology). They also talked about a poll on the Shoshone-Bannock Facebook page that found 70 percent were in favor of keeping the mascot, though tribal members have said many respondents were from outside the tribe, so it failed to represent tribal opinion.
Advocates for the change referenced psychological studies, including the work of Michael Friedman, who found that Native American youth shown stereotypical indigenous symbols had lower self-esteem, and that those outside Native communities who are shown the symbols have a worse view of indigenous people.
Around 10 p.m., after public comment and a break, the board began to debate the issue, and the crowd thinned considerably, with roughly 50 people sticking around. Board members first rehashed their thoughts, though Mary Mello wasted no time detailing the harm she thought the controversy was causing.
“I’m concerned about the fallout that has happened in our community,” she said. “It’s creating division in students and the faculty.”
By the end of the night, both Mello and Nan Pugh said they were ready to vote, but the other three board members weren’t ready to accede. One question raised by those in support of keeping the mascot was the cost of changing it, and the board wanted to know what that price would be.
According to the Teton Valley News, when this debate surfaced in 2013 school district estimates put the cost at $60,000 to $80,000, but Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme did not have a revised number at Monday’s meeting. Board member Jake Kunz in particular wanted to ensure taxpayers would not have to foot the bill, but he also expressed a desire to end the debate.
“I would like to see the numbers,” he said. “From a moral standpoint that has been clearly articulated tonight, I want to get it done, but we owe that to the public” to find out the costs.
Kunz, Mello, Pugh and Chairwoman Chris Isaacson all seemed interested in ending the debate soon, but board member Ben Kearsley kept returning to a request to replicate a process similar to the one the board used to pass a school bond in 2017. That involved several meetings with public comment, working groups and a lengthy public debate. Kearsley said that sort of process was the only way to ensure the community could support the board’s choice.
“I’m not afraid of the decision if we go through the right process,” he said.
Ultimately, the rest of the trustees’ desire for a quick resolution won out in setting next week’s working session. The board included a vote on the matter in its agenda, and all except Kearsley indicated they would like to vote if their questions are answered.
“This is not going to go away,” Mello said. “I think we need to put our big pants on and make a decision and move on.”