“As professionals, we are bound to recognize and implement the most current and relevant research in order to provide the best education and the best educational environment for our students.”
I made the above statement in my address at a school board meeting on Sept. 15. This statement applies to everything about my job as a high school principal. At this particular meeting, I was speaking in terms of the request before the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 Board of Trustees to retire the Pocatello High School Indians mascot. In a previous meeting on Sept. 8, I spoke about the intent versus the impact of our Indians mascot. I specifically spoke to the mistreatment some of our rival schools have inflicted on the Indians mascot over the years, but those abuses represent just one example of the negative impacts. Research conducted over the past several decades demonstrates crystal clear evidence: Native American mascots harm Native American students. This fact serves as the most compelling reason to retire the PHS Indians mascot.
It’s easy to consider that the most positive intent was had when the Indians mascot was originally chosen for Pocatello High School to honor Chief Pocatello, a great man and leader. Now, let’s also consider the fact that the individuals involved in making that decision could not possibly have foreseen the negative impacts it would yield. This recognition is essential to understanding the importance of focusing on our impact and not only our intent.
Our intent has been to represent Indians in a proud and respectful way. Our intent has been to celebrate and emulate positive and powerful characteristics. Our intent has accomplished its goal for many, and sadly, it has simultaneously inflicted harm for many. As often comes with cultural misunderstandings, the voices of those who believe no harm has been done are louder than the voices of those who have been harmed.
The number of people who believe no harm has been done should not be used as justification for continuing to cause harm, especially when faced with empirically proven findings that clearly indicate otherwise.
Although Pocatello High School and those who have represented her have worked diligently to be respectful of Native American culture in how we celebrate and portray the Indian mascot, I have learned that our focus on history and tradition has not allowed for a more cultural understanding of Native people and current Native students. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement regarding the use of Native American images and nicknames as sports symbols. Part of this statement reads:
“Even those (mascots) that purport to be positive are romantic stereotypes that give a distorted view of the past. These false portrayals prevent non-Native Americans from understanding the true historical and cultural experiences of American Indians. Sadly, they also encourage biases and prejudices that have a negative effect on contemporary Indian people. These references may encourage interest in mythical “Indians” created by the dominant culture, but they block genuine understanding of contemporary Native people as fellow Americans.”
Native American people constitute roughly 2 percent of the United States’ population. If Native American voices must outweigh the voices of those who want to retain harmful mascots, their battle will never be won. Rather than engaging in a heated, divisive debate, it is time to start listening to the research and the voices that have been drowned out for decades.
The research surrounding the use of Native American mascots warrants the attention of educators. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights statement continues:
“It is particularly disturbing that Native American references are still to be found in educational institutions, whether elementary, secondary or post-secondary. Schools are places where diverse groups of people come together to learn not only the ‘Three Rs,’ but also how to interact respectfully with people from different cultures. The use of stereotypical images of Native Americans by educational institutions has the potential to create a racially hostile educational environment that may be intimidating to Indian students.”
Divisive topics like this distract us from our core mission as educators, which is to provide the highest quality access to equitable education to the learners that live within the boundaries of our school district.
Among students voicing support for the mascot change, a current PHS student addressed the board to express the impact of seeing some of Poky’s traditions. “I experienced things I never could have imagined from my peers. I saw students disrespecting Native Americans. … Everyone should be treated equally and not mocked. I felt ashamed and embarrassed,” she explained.
This issue has repeatedly resurfaced over the past sixty years. It is not a stretch to imagine that the words “I felt ashamed and embarrassed” echo the feelings of other Native American students. It is time we change. We have an obligation as educators to discontinue any practice that could potentially create a racially hostile educational environment.
When Native American symbols, images, and replicas are present in the halls, on bulletin boards, or used to rally a team, the symbols and any practices surrounding them perpetuate stereotypes and can sustain negative images.
But what about schools who work to be respectful, to be positive and whose mascot is generally considered positive?
Researchers have shown that “images of Native Americans mascots, even those that are deemed by Native Americans as neutral or positive, result in harmful psychological effects. Not only do mascots have a direct effect on Native American self-esteem, mood, community confidence and sense of achievement, but they also perpetuate negative associations of and attitudes towards Native Americans among non-Native American groups” (Twenge & Crocker, 2002).
The tide is turning across our region, our state and our country to correct this and retire Native American mascots and other names.
For example, Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley Ski Resort announced it will be changing its name from its current “racist and sexist slur” (Los Angeles Times, 2020). A report from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) recently cited Pocatello High School among three other K-12 schools and university school boards who have voted to retire native themed mascots since the 2020-2021 school year began, including La Veta Jr./Sr. High School (CO) “Redskins”; Carthage College (WI) “Red Men” and “Lady Reds”; and Columbia River High School (WA) “Chieftains.”
The NCAI report also quoted Dave Spillet, Pocatello High School head football coach, who spoke at September’s Board meeting, “As a society, we shouldn’t choose what is offensive to other people: we should stop, listen, and try to understand…just because something has happened for so many years, that doesn’t make it right for it to continue to happen today.”
It is common for individuals who love Pocatello High School to sincerely believe the mascot is “honoring” Native Americans. I did. In fact, I began researching this issue so that I was prepared to defend our mascot if we were asked to change while I was principal. I intended to defend it and fight for it because I truly believed we were “honoring” Native Americans.
I read research that over and over confirmed the U.S. Civil Rights Commission statement:
“Schools that continue to use Indian imagery and references claim that their use stimulates interest in Native American culture and honors Native Americans. These institutions have simply failed to listen to the Native groups, religious leaders, and civil rights organizations that oppose these symbols.”
I confirmed what I read in dozens of scholarly articles and research findings by speaking with many Native American parents, students and community members. I learned that I was wrong. I was wrong in believing our mascot “honored” Native Americans. This knowledge has caused an emotional rollercoaster inside of me. I have experienced immense sadness and mourning knowing that one day I would stand and advocate for the retirement of a symbol that I have been so proud of and loved so deeply. I have grappled with feelings of disappointment knowing that I have unwittingly been part of something that has hurt others, especially students.
As a lifelong educator and current principal of Pocatello High School, it is my responsibility to pay attention to the research I reference here, as well as the dozens of other articles, decades of scholarly publications and personal testimony that validate and confirm the need to retire the Pocatello Indians mascot. As an individual who deeply loves Pocatello High School, it is my privilege to stand proudly with our Native American neighbors and fully support the opportunity to align our impact with our intent by asking for this change. I look forward to working with our community to name a new mascot that positively builds upon the legacy of our great school.
Lisa Delonas is the Principal of Pocatello High School. She is a native of Pocatello and graduated from PHS in 1984.