Home of the PHS Indians (Pocatello High School) sign

A sign in front of Pocatello High School that reads," Home of the PHS Indians."Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 has asked its board of trustees to consider retiring the Pocatello High School Indians name and mascot.

Editor’s Note: This is the final 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, Tuesday and Wednesday editions.

In 1946, the Pocatello High School yearbook had something new on its cover — a cartoon of an Indian with a mohawk and spear. The cartoon theme continues throughout the book. The Medicine Men are apparently gone, but the cheer club continues the tradition of wearing headdresses. Beneath their photo in large text reads, “Youuuu Redskins, Fight!!”

In 1951, the yearbook explained the cartoon figure, next to a composite photograph and cartoon of Oske as a student, the text says, “Hi! My name’s ‘Oske-ow-ow!’ I represent your school spirit.” The Indian character Oske had become a personification of school spirit.

It was 1958, though, when one of the more unsettling events occurred. The yearbook shows a photo with the caption, “Poky Hi’s spirit of Oske has become a reality.”

The black and white photo shows a female student wearing a mascot Indian head clearly modeled off the 1951 drawing. With a wide grin, arched eyebrows, a mohawk hairstyle and two feathers, the caricature is an obvious racial spoof.

While shocking to modern eyes, this was also the golden age of cartoons. During the 1950s, shows like “Tom and Jerry” and “Woody Woodpecker” were seen in theaters and on television. These cartoons appealed to adults as well as children, and so it is no surprise that cartoonish characters made it into yearbooks.

Indeed, cartoons were made not only of Indians, but also of poor white hillbillies and stereotypical European ethnicities.

It was also the era of Disneyland, and there was a thriving new economy for themed costumes. On opening day, Disneyland was full of cartoon heads like Mickey and Minnie. The idea that schools and sports teams would not mimic the cultural shift created by the media powerhouse is itself ridiculous.

What is different about the 1951 cartoons and the Oske head is that “the spirit of Oske” was changed from an ideal into truly a mascot — a good luck charm and cheerleader, a parody.

Prior to this date, the school toyed with mascots like the pony and horse, but the name “the Indians” was not a mascot at all. It was a nickname symbolizing who the team wished to be on the field. In the post-war era of prosperity and hope, things took a lighter tone and so, too, did the traditions at Poky High. After all, the Cleveland Indians had Chief Wahoo and they presented him as a cartoon, so why could Pocatello not have a cartoon Oske also?

Pocatello was not a city defined by racism, though. There were racists as in any town and there were problems over the years, but because of its blue-collar history and the college, the city had many minorities. In fact, in 1962 the Poky High student body president was an African American named Marvin Brown while the chief justice of the school court was Ray Yamauchi. Both positions were chosen by popular vote of the student body. In 1964 the first African-American semi-finalist for Miss USA was Poky High graduate Dorothy Johnson who competed as Miss Idaho.

However, perceptions of Indians were not improving along with that of other ethnic groups in America. The idea of the “vanishing race” was still broadly held and Indians were perceived as somehow frozen in time on the reservations. Again, Poky High had some of these same views, but not to the same extent as in other places. First, the long tradition of being “the Indians” and the significant work in the early years by Wayne Whitlow with the Medicine Men started the school off on a more respectful footing. Second, some students in the school came from Shoshone or Bannock backgrounds. Sadly, other schools and their teams’ fans took a less kind attitude and shouted harsh and racist epithets during games.

In 1969, the discontent of Native Americans erupted on the global stage when a group of Indian activists staged an 18-month takeover of Alcatraz to protest the violation of Indian treaties and other abuses by the government. Participating in the event was the American Indian Movement (AIM), a radical and militant organization that later led “the trail of broken treaties” caravan to Washington, D.C., and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That occupation resulted in significant damage to the building, removal of important documents, and delays in critical BIA operations. When AIM co-founder Dennis Banks arrived in Pocatello at the request of the Native American Students Association at Idaho State University, he pulled no punches.

“The real reason we’re here in Pocatello,” he said in 1972, “is about that mascot.” He then pointed out a parallel complaint against the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins. “I’d like to include Pocatello in a class action and take this board of education to task.”

He added, “If they’re willing to go out there and be Indians for that one hour it takes to play a basketball game, let them come out and live on the reservation.”

The Fort Hall Business Council found themselves in a tenuous position. They did not want to be associated with AIM and their militant actions, but they were well aware that some tribal members had participated in AIM activities. The Business Council also did not wish to antagonize the federal, state and local governments. Nor did they want to create hard feelings with local businesses whom they relied on for trade relations.

Their concerns were warranted. J. Edgar Hoover had just died in May of 1972 and the FBI was still aggressively hunting ’60s radicals. Dennis Banks’ speeches and comments in Pocatello were dutifully copied from the Idaho State Journal and wired to Washington to be placed in Banks’ FBI file. Moreover, tribes across America were just beginning to realize self-determination and self-government. Any ties to radical movements could put that in jeopardy. Even the appearance of giving quarter to radicalism would have been seen as giving in to communists and terrorists by the FBI and probably by the reservation’s white neighbors.

At the same time, a number of tribal members found the practices of Poky High deeply offensive. They expressed dismay that their cultural and religious traditions were being used by people who were not members of the tribe. A few supported AIM and were associated directly with them. Many agreed with the problems that AIM pointed out, but they did not agree with the tactics of Dennis Banks and his fellow militants. Others thought it best to stay away from controversy entirely, fearing that government violence would return to the Shoshone and Bannock people if a change were implemented.

Also caught in the political firestorm, Poky High Principal Dale Hammond and other school district leaders attended a meeting at Fort Hall with the Tribal Business Council on Nov. 14, 1972. Hammond returned declaring that Poky High would remain “the Indians” and “The general feeling (in the meeting) was they thought it was uplifting, an Indian image building thing.” He further stated that the school leadership would not bow to threats from the likes of Dennis Banks. It is unlikely that Hammond understood the tightrope the Business Council was walking at the time.

The school and the Tribal Business Council did come to an agreement that the Oske mascot was clearly a cartoonish racial stereotype. Hammond stated there was broad support in the school for doing away with Oske and the accompanying cartoon painted at center court in the school’s gymnasium. So Pocatello High’s mascot was permanently retired. The city of Pocatello, Poky High and the Fort Hall Business Council breathed a sigh of relief.

Banks did not return to fulfill his threat to sue the school board. Instead, on Feb. 27, 1973, AIM participated in an armed rebellion on the Pine Ridge Reservation after the Oglala Sioux Tribal President outlawed all AIM meetings. The end result was a reservation ravaged by fighting and political turmoil for years.

Following the Oske retirement, the Fort Hall Business Council issued a resolution on Sept. 7, 1973, stating, in part, “Whereas, the (Tribes) have an abiding respect for the symbol ‘Indian’ inasmuch as it designates their race and represents a traditional and historical background to the Tribes … the (Tribes) have viewed the use of the name ‘Indians’ by the Pocatello High School as one of respect and regard for the Indian people and feel honored that the School selected the Indian name as a means of building honor, pride, dignity and competitive spirit among its students. The (Tribes) oppose those minority groups viewpoint that the use of the symbol ‘Indians’ by the (school) is disrespectful to the Indian people, is unjustified, and therefore should be discontinued. … Now therefore, be it resolved by the Business Council of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes that the Tribes support the Pocatello High School in the use of the symbol ‘Indians’ as a school name, and the use of ‘Indiannettes’ for the school drill team … that the Tribes deem the use of the name ‘Indians’ and ‘Indiannettes’ by the (school) as one of respect for the Indian people.”

While the Fort Hall Business Council had the authority to issue the resolution, they did not unilaterally sign away a perpetual right to Poky High students to pretend to be Indians. Nor did the well-respected LaSalle Pocatello (Chief Pocatello’s grandson) have inherited authority by which his stamp of approval could overrule the Business Council and the Fort Hall community. There were hard feelings by some on Fort Hall who felt they had not had their concerns adequately addressed. That the vote for the 1973 resolution was four in favor, two absent and one not voting caused additional concern among tribal members that not all voices were heard.

Retiring Oske was not simply a token gesture by the school and students. In 1974, the school yearbook was dedicated to the Tribes and included a special section at the front designed to educate. The section was also reprinted and distributed to other local schools. The students wrote thanks to Ashton Henderson, Maxine Edmo, Evelyn Gould, LaSalle Pocatello, Gene Van Houten, Bob Jensen, Mike Sakelaris and Jimmy Dann for their assistance with the section. Jimmy Dan, a sitting member of the Tribal Council, even repainted the circle at center court in the gym with a portrait of a Shoshone Chief to replace the Oske cartoon that had been there before.

The retirement of Oske, issuance of the resolution, and inclusion of Mr. Pocatello, Mr. Dann and others from the tribes was a welcome change in relations between the communities. However, those same events wrongly conveyed the idea that the overall Sho-Ban community was fully accepting of appropriation of Native American practices by Poky High. The Native American Student Association as well as some Tribal members expressed frustration that the headdresses and other practices would remain. Their concerns were brushed off by the school district, Hammond and students at Poky High. Retiring Oske, they believed, was enough.

The question of using headdresses came to the forefront again in 1992 when Gov. Cecil Andrus was depicted on the Idaho Department of Commerce’s quarterly newsletter wearing a turkey feather warbonnet as part of a Pocatello Chamber of Commerce/Pocatello Chiefs event. The Tribes charged in a January 1994 resolution that the former secretary of the interior and two-time Idaho governor should have known such behavior was offensive to Native Americans.

The Tribes called the governor, state and Chamber of Commerce of Pocatello “bigots in their continued practice of using the headdress and/or depictions of the American Indian.” Pocatello High School was also included in the scathing resolution: “Pocatello High School and other schools within the State, flaunt their use of the term ‘Indians’, or other depictions of the American Indian, with disregard and lack of respect for the feelings on the Tribes and its membership and … the attitudes portrayed to the local Tribal members by the Governor, many state agencies, the Pocatello Chamber of Commerce, the schools, and some businesses, is nothing to be proud of.”

The governor quickly apologized and promised to never again make the same mistake. In Pocatello, members of the community felt the charges by the Tribes were over the top. They believed a headdress was simply a sign of respect. However, in Native American culture warbonnet feathers are similar to medals awarded to soldiers such as silver stars and the Medal of Honor. In instances of public service, a feather might be awarded in a similar manner as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For the Tribes, not only was the use of headdresses culturally disrespectful, but they also considered it a type of stolen valor.

At Pocatello High, the issue was largely a nonstarter. Then, as today, alumni and others stated the question had already been resolved by retiring Oske, the headdresses were not “real,” and “the Indians” on Fort Hall had given the school permission to use the nickname, and the use of the name “Indians” intended only to honor the Shoshone-Bannock peoples. Contradicting the Fort Hall Business Council was Clyde Hall, a Fort Hall magistrate judge. He said Pocatello High students “have been sensitized. The Oske-ow-wow controversy did that.” While he did not personally see a problem with the faux headdresses, he admitted other members of the Tribes viewed it as a red-face minstrel show.

This week, the Pocatello/Chubbuck School Board considered a new request from the Fort Hall Business Council. In it the Tribes argued the continued use of the “Indians” name, headdresses and other practices are not only culturally insensitive, but also have subjected their children to bullying and feeling outcasts while attending Pocatello High. Once again, community opinion has been loud and angry. Once again, members of the Tribes voiced differing opinions. Once again, the school faced the judgment of not only the school and city, but also their neighbors on the reservation. Once again, the school was forced to consider whether the intention to be respectful of the shared history between the school and the Tribes was being fulfilled by the students of Pocatello High, their fans, and their sports rivals.

This time the school board voted 4-1 to retire the “Indians” name for Pocatello High School. The one board member opposed to the motion wished for the change to be made immediately rather than wait for the end of the school year. Pocatello history has been made once again.