The mascot question that Kalama and Toledo school districts have been grappling with in recent months may soon come up against a legal deadline.
House Bill 1356, which recently passed the state House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support, would prohibit public schools from using Native American names, symbols or images as school mascots, logos or team names by 2022, with a few expectations.
The bill had a Senate Committee on Early Learning & K-12 Education hearing Friday, and will be considered for referral to a Senate vote in a March 15 executive session. Eight people spoke in support of the bill on Friday, March 12.
Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a First Nations member from the state’s 40th District, sponsored the bill, saying she finds the practice of stereotypical chants, war whoops, costumed mascots and regionally incorrect Native American imagery to be both harmful to people and an impediment to improved relationships between sovereign nations.
At the Friday senate hearing, Lekanoff said the bill “isn’t to say you’re doing anything wrong,” but is about relationship building and “coming together to say we’re going to do something better.”
If school districts do want to have a mascot to honor “the first Washingtonians and the first Americans,” Lekanoff said they should work with their closest federally acknowledged tribe to say “how can do we this and how can we do this with respect?”
Lekanoff said in an October interview with The Daily News that she realizes some schools may feel they are honoring Native Americans with current mascots, but when mascots are not accurate and collaborative, it’s damaging and is “teaching these little ones from the next generation that this is who Native Americans are.”
At the Friday hearing, Spokane junior Ivy Pete, a member of the Paiute Indian Tribe, said “I was the humiliated little girl in the football stands. I do not feel honored and I do not feel proud.”
She asked the committee to pass the bill forward to the full Senate “to protect me and all other young people like me whose education systems have failed to listen.”
If passed, the bill would take effect Jan. 1, 2022. The law would not apply to public schools located on or partially on tribal reservations, as long as the usage is authorized.
Locally, Toledo used to use headdress imagery, the tomahawk chop and a caricature mascot costume, but has been working with the Cowlitz Tribe to make changes.
Most recently the tribe asked that students not wear headdresses at games, as they aren’t part of the local culture. Toledo agreed. The school also agreed to phase out its Indian mascot costume, along with the three Chief Wahoo logos that adorned the baseball field.
The Cowlitz Tribe also approved the school’s use of its current dreamcatcher logo — a stylized T inside a circle with feathers draped to one side.
However, Toledo Superintendent Chris Rust said that as the school district does not include the Cowlitz’s current tribal lands, which are in Ridgefield, the school’s mascot will have to change if the bill passes.
“It was our hope and our intention to do exactly what Representative Lekanoff wants as a result of this bill,” Rust said. “She wants local school districts and the tribes to collaborate in exactly the way that the Cowlitz Tribe and our school district have been, so that’s going to continue regardless of what our mascot is because we’re on Cowlitz ancestral lands and we have built a great relationship with the tribe.”
Crossroads for Kalama
Kalama formed a committee in September after community complaints that have been around for decades around Kalama’s “Charlie Chinook” mascot came up again. Charlie Chinook, a caricature of a native person without a local tie-in, used to have a hatchet in one hand and a scalp in the other.
Over the last 20 years Kalama redesigned Charlie, most notably by removing the scalp and replacing it with a diploma. It also did away with tomahawk-chop-style chants at games and has essentially abandoned the Charlie Chinook logo on its uniforms.
Kalama spokesman Nick Shanmac said the district sent out a survey this week to community members asking if the mascot committee should continue to plan for a mascot that complements the Chinook name even if it has no connection to the tribe, like a salmon, or should the committee should develop a new mascot and name that represents Kalama’s identity.
“The committee arrived at this crossroads and felt like we want to be guided by our students, our community members, our alumni and our district staff,” Shanmac said.
Shanmac said so far, there have been about 450 responses and 70% are in favor of remaining the Chinooks, even if it means the mascot cannot be connected to the Chinook Tribe, which is not federally acknowledged.
A separate student vote several weeks about had 80% of the student body in favor of remaining the Chinooks, Shanmac said. He said the Chinook Tribe has expressed support for the district to keep the name, as long as the mascot represents them well.
He said for now, the committee will keep working with the Chinook Tribe to develop a mascot, but “at the same time we realize there is really strong support for this house bill, so they’re thinking about how can we plan this process for however it plays out.”