Home of the PHS Indians (Pocatello High School) sign

A sign in front of Pocatello High School that reads, “Home of the PHS Indians.”

The Gate City’s oldest high school will adopt the Thunder as its new mascot.

After what will be 129 years in June 2021, Pocatello High School is officially retiring its Indians mascot and replacing it with the Thunder.

The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 Board of Trustees approved the new mascot at its meeting on Tuesday evening at the district’s main office on Pole Line Road in Pocatello.

Though the board selected the Thunder as the new mascot for Pocatello High School, it left the process of designing a logo, imagery and other school materials up to Pocatello High School staff, with plans to solicit proposals from various graphics and design companies.

School District 25 provided the Idaho State Journal with a prepared statement after the meeting. The statement said, “The board plans to call for proposals using the criteria set forth by the mascot selection (advisory) committee to gather potential artwork and imagery for consideration. Details for the design process will be released once they are finalized. Pocatello High School will maintain its red and blue school colors.”

School District 25 has set aside $75,000 to complete the rebranding of Pocatello High School, though the district estimates the endeavor will be closer to $25,000.

”Currently, the district projects the total cost will be closer to $25,000, excluding uniform replacements, School District 25 said in a statement to the Journal on Thursday. “This projection is far less than what has been reserved. The district expects that the majority of projects will be completed during the upcoming summer. Any funds not utilized will be reallocated back to the School Plant Facilities Fund, following the district’s standard operating procedures.”

A significant number of projects include repainting walls that have the Indian logo located in gyms, athletic team meeting rooms and practice areas and the cafeteria. The district has a robust annual repainting schedule across all schools and these projects will be folded into that annual schedule, District 25 said in its statement.

The school board had decided to retire Pocatello High School’s Indians mascot less than two weeks after the School District 25 administration on Sept. 3 made public its plans to recommend the mascot be retired.

It took the board exactly three months from Sept. 15, the date the Indians mascot was retired effective June 1, 2021, to survey the public and ultimately decide on Pocatello High School’s new mascot.

The top three mascot suggestions discussed during Tuesday’s meeting included the Phantoms, Bison and Thunder. The Phantoms mascot was the favorite among 28.6 percent of 1,163 people who completed a recent School District 25 feedback survey. The Bison with a bison mascot option was the favorite among 26 percent of respondents and the Thunder with a bison mascot was the favorite among 21.6 percent of respondents.

Spokesperson for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Randy’L Teton, commended the school board for making what she described as a difficult decision to part ways with the Indians mascot and moniker, adding that the Tribes supported all of the top mascot suggestions.

”I wanted to reiterate to all of you that we are in support of your guys’ decision to make those changes as necessary for the betterment of our school,” Teton told the board. “... I do appreciate all of you. I know that it’s been a long road. There have been a lot of comments, both negative and positive, but I just wanted to let you know that we are standing behind you guys to make these changes, so thank you.”

A Pocatello High School junior debate student and football player, Luke Smith, thanked the board for retiring the Indians mascot and then strongly advocated for his favorite choice, the Phantoms.

Smith argued the Bison mascot wouldn’t be the right choice because it doesn’t represent this region, isn’t distinct enough from Native-themed mascots and could still enable other schools to continue pep assemblies with racist connotations.

”Bison just don’t represent us,” Smith said. “Bison have not lived in Pocatello naturally for over 300 years. The white settler colonialists hunted them out of the area almost the second they got there. If anything this is anti-representation. I fear that Bison as a mascot will only serve as a monument to the mass genocide early settlers committed against them.”

Smith continued, “The Bison would still have racist connotations as a mascot. One of the biggest issues with the mascot isn’t necessarily the mascot itself, but rather with the ways other schools treat it. When you choose Bison as a mascot, you do not take away any of the power from these other schools to continue to be racist. With a Phantoms mascot, their ammunition would be completely taken away.”

Smith also argued the Phantoms would make a great mascot because of the school’s haunted history.

“Being haunted is our thing,” Smith said. “It is one of our many characteristics that sets us apart from any other school. There is the perfume smell story, the piano mysteriously playing on its own and many more bits of lore that make our school special. We have hosted tons of haunted houses, hired actual ghost busters in the past and had the (A&E’s) “Ghost Hunters” TV show premiere here. This is our history.”

Smith sold 100 “Pocatello Phantom” T-shirts at $5 each in the weeks ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. After the meeting, he said Pocatello High is always going to be his school — no matter the mascot.

“I guess I just accept it and be a little angry,” Smith said, “But I’ll just keep moving on. It’s still going to be my school.”

Native-themed mascots have been on the outs for several years nationally — as evidenced by the Washington Redskins dropping its nickname and a similar recent announcement from the Cleveland Indians to do the same. Other professional sports teams, including the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Chicago Blackhawks, have said in recent months they have no plans to change their names.

In Idaho, the conversation was thrust into the forefront in late 2019 and into 2020, when Boise, Teton and Nez Perce high schools removed their Native-themed mascots.

The issue with the Pocatello High School Indians name and mascot is not new, but was reinvigorated when the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes authored a letter to the Idaho Legislature and State Board of Education last year calling for the state “to take a stand and establish state policy to prohibit public schools from using (Native American-themed) names as school mascots.” The Tribes argued in its June 2019 position paper and letter that using mascots with names like “Redskins,” “Indians,” “Savages,” and “Braves” amounted to racial misappropriation.

The use of Native American groups, people or caricatures as mascots is controversial, and many studies suggest they have a negative impact on Native American students’ physical and mental well-being and can also perpetuate stereotypes about Native Americans. Proponents of the mascots, however, say such team nicknames are part of communities’ histories, that the mascots are a pledge or show of honor and people have developed strong attachments to them.

The decision to retire the Pocatello High School Indians mascot was highly controversial and was one of the catalysts for a local group of concerned parents to launch an effort to recall school board chairman Dave Mattson as well as board members Jackie Cranor and Janie Gebhardt.

The parents’ gathered enough signatures to hold a recall election on the three board members, a first in Bannock County history. State election laws give Mattson, Cranor and Gebhardt until Thursday to voluntarily resign or face a recall election on March 9.

Gebhardt told the Idaho State Journal last week that she had no plans to resign. Following the board meeting Tuesday, Cranor, too, said she will not leave on her own volition. Cranor also spoke to one primary point of contention from the group of parents leading the recall — that the school board doesn’t listen to its constituents.

“The issues that this group has brought up are issues in which the community is divided on,” Cranor said. “We listen, we hear and we read, and I just think that we try to do our best for the students, for the district and the staff. It’s hard sometimes and half of the people aren’t going to agree with us either way. But that’s part of the job. When they say we don’t listen, it really depends on what half you’re on.”

Mattson also said he won’t leave voluntarily. He also expressed caution when speaking about the current recall effort against him and his embattled colleagues.

“Hell no, I’ve got a job to do,” Mattson said when asked if he plans to resign. “I’m disappointed because we do listen to everybody. I don’t know how many emails and calls we get. This group has every right to do this, but we’ve done nothing wrong and this is a tough job.”

Mattson continued, “What the real problem will be is if this (recall) happens, nobody is going to run for the board — nobody — and that’s a bad thing.”