Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a four-part series on the history and origins of the Pocatello High School Indians mascot. Previous articles in the series were printed in the Sunday and Tuesday editions. The series will conclude with an article in Friday’s newspaper.
Pocatello did not stay small for long — 1902 was the land rush and the city boomed. As early as 1907 Pocatello High School had enough students to field sports teams in baseball and football. By February of 1910 Poky High expected to graduate more than a dozen students in the spring. The city had a total of 1,240 pupils under the care of 40 faculty. Of those, 125 were in high school and they were definitely playing sports. Poky High played not only against other high schools, but also against private clubs and the Academy (later to become ISU).
As the decade wore on sports continued to grow in importance. High school leagues played full seasons, but sports were still not managed by a governing state body. And Pocatello High was still not called “The Indians.”
The city’s Pocatello Indians baseball club continued to play throughout the region against clubs in other cities within various leagues such as the 3-B League and the Yellowstone League. On May 22, 1913, they appeared alongside a separate article for the Pocatello High School team. In August of 1915 Blackfoot “walloped” them 14-4. In June 1920, the “Pocatello Indians administered a gentle little scalping to Kelly’s Bronx” in Blackfoot.
In 1922, Poky High first published its fight song. It was blatant plagiarism of a University of Illinois loyalty song, but it included a nonsense phrase that would play a larger part in Poky High’s history. The line read, “Shouting defiance, Oske Wow-Wow!” (the first wow would eventually lose its initial w in the Poky version). “Oske Wow-Wow” is nothing more than an invention like “sis boom bah.” College students often made up such nonsense words for cheers and songs during the first part of the 20th century. “Oske-ow-wow” had no meaning at all, but it was catchy.
In 1923 baseball games were worthy of full-page advertisements in the local paper. That year Pocatello had two teams in the regional league, the Indians and the Bears. Neither was the school team.
The 1925 yearbook opens with two illustrations. On one is an Indian riding a horse over “Ex Libris.” On the next page is an Indian sitting on the ground in front of a fire smoking a pipe. The smoke drifts over and around an image of the school. The message is not clear until the last page of the yearbook marked “Finis.” There an Indian on horseback with three arrows sticking out of his chest falls backward off his horse.
In 1927 Poky High’s football team went undefeated, but they were not the Indians. Two years later the Pocatellian yearbook’s dedication was to the railroaders who “struggled westward against insuperable obstacles, braving arrows and bullets to lay track through an Indian infested tract of desert and mountain.”
In 1930 something new happened. The yearbook’s basketball page is titled “Indians” beneath the team photos, and the text calls the athletes “warriors.” The moniker did not seem to stick. There is no mention of Indians in the 1931-1932 yearbooks or newspapers. Whether “Indians” was used informally prior to 1930 is unknown, but there is no mention of the name in Poky High yearbooks nor in newspapers.
Then it happened. In January 1933 Pocatello High School appeared in the sports pages as “the Indians” and declared themselves “the fighting Indians” and “Pocatello Indians” in their yearbook. The reason for this is not entirely clear, however team names were becoming far more popular at the time. Idaho Falls was already the Tigers and Buhl had been known as the Indians for some time. There was also a build-up to the 100th anniversary of Fort Hall in 1934 that Pocatello was anticipating. What is clear is that Poky High did not use the name “Indians” from the beginning or throughout its entire history as is often claimed by alumni. The best evidence is that it informally began using the name in 1930 and made it official in 1932-1933.
In 1934 the yearbook mentions a new activities club called “the Medicine Men’s Club... just organized this year to create more pep.” What brought about this change is detailed on page 76, “About the middle of November the Pep Club disbanded and reorganized into a new group for the purpose of arousing more pep at the games. So far it has been successful as there has been more pep shown in the last half year than there was in the first half. After initiation every member must make a headdress and a breech cloth and must not be afraid of being noticed. It is a popular belief amongst the students that on account of these unique costumes it has become one of the most popular clubs of the year. Big Chief Wayne B. Whitlow is the advisor.” On the next page are nine boys and Mr. Whitlow dressed in breach cloths and well-crafted headdresses. The Senior Class Prophecy page is a story about a “medicine man” seeing what happens in the future lives of graduating seniors. Both pages are filled with Indian tropes that do not bear repeating.
In 1935 it was clear Poky High was now known as “the Indians.” The basketball page of the school’s yearbook mentioned back to back losses that “started the Indians on the warpath for they scalped” five teams in a row. Seven times in the five summary paragraphs the team is called “the Indians”. The Medicine Men again make an appearance, this time the club has 24 members. Mr. Whitlow is shown wearing the same outfit as the boys and participating in the fun. In a separate photo the Medicine Men in full regalia stand proudly beside what was perhaps the first Pocatello High School mascot — a small pony.
The next year Mr. Whitlow shows up again in the yearbook in a massive headdress with horns. The Medicine Men also appear as “one of the most original organizations in school. The costumes made by the members themselves add a great deal to the personality of the club. Mr. Whitlow, noted for his enthusiasm and loyalty... supplies the zest and inspiration.”
In 1938 we gain a greater understanding of Mr. Whitlow. As the yearbook says, his “pet hobbies are truly mannish” including fishing, hunting, archery, collecting tropical fish, taxidermy, hand-tinting photographs, finding fossils, advisor for the Medicine Men and the Yell Leaders, Boy Scout leader, and in his spare time he taught biology at the school. On the same page a change in the Yell Leaders’ club indicates the addition of “two charming Indian maidens to lend a more feminine touch.”Whitlow was clearly an avid outdoorsman and biologist. That he befriended a number of people on the Reservation is no surprise. Nor is it surprising that they explained to him the proper way to make things and explained cultural customs. Undoubtedly those friends saw no problem with sharing those things even for use by the school. However, no tribal vote or statement from the 1930s has been found that explicitly gave Whitlow permission to copy tribal customs for school activities. In 1939 the Medicine Men make another appearance, but with the addition of bows and arrows along with the phrase, “Oske-Ow-Wow!” from the school fight song. That year the city was also beginning to embrace the idea of an “Indian heritage” with the impressive new Chief Theater on Main Street. Again, a pony appears with the Medicine Men in the yearbook, but this time standing next to it is a girl dressed in buckskin while one of the boys sits atop a horse. The freshmen’s page is titled, “The Papooses Ride Again.”
In comparison to other photos of the period, the portrayal of Native American culture by the Medicine Men at Poky High was carefully presented with an impressive attention to detail and avoidance of stereotypes. As is often said, the students clearly were attempting to be respectful of the traditions of Indians. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of how some other minorities were treated in school events. For instance, from the 1920s through the 1950s students appear sporadically in blackface. Still, the Pocatello schools were not segregated and minorities as well as foreign exchange students appear regularly in the yearbooks as members and leaders of school clubs.