Billie Johnson

Billie Johnson

I first encountered Pocatello High School Principal Lisa Delonas at a funeral in January of 2014. Nineteen-year-old Nick Borzog-Omid died in a car accident on New Year’s Eve. Mrs. Delonas delivered his life sketch to the packed Catholic chapel on North Seventh Avenue. She had been Nick’s teacher at Jefferson Elementary and they reconnected at Poky where she was the vice principal at the time. Nick was a football star who spent more time in Mrs. Delonas’ office than either she or his mother would have liked. His family’s choice in Mrs. Delonas to give his life sketch along with her comments presented both his and her humanity in a way that will be with me forever.

At the time of Nick’s accident, I was 20 years into my career as an electrical engineer and three months into a two-year stint as a columnist for the Idaho State Journal on the side. Writing newspaper columns had never occurred to me, but during Pocatello’s fight over adding the words “sexual orientation and gender identity” to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance, the rippling effects of the horrendous public dialogue catapulted me into conversations.

They weren’t even conversations really. Letters to the editor appeared from people who had seemingly never shared a meal with someone they knew to be gay. I watched Lutheran and Mormon friends saying terrible things about “gays and their lifestyle” on social media. I had gay friends reacting out of pain and anger being equally mean. I went to City Council meetings where religious leaders touted scripture. I was hearing commentary on an issue that wasn’t about “an issue” at all. It was about people.

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people weren’t just hearing our parents argue (literally and metaphorically), we heard all of the arguments about us while we were there in the room. It was awkward and awful. I have to think that the remarks in recent months about the Pocatello Indians mascot are similarly sensed by Native Americans and other People of Color. This isn’t about a mascot or a school district’s decision-making process. This is about people, their culture and their experience.

In the Nov. 11 ISJ article “Sentiments Echoed,” we heard about the perspective and experiences of the Echo Hawk family. Fifteen-year-old Ryken is a freshman football star at Poky. His father, Paul, recalled when he was a student at Highland in the 1990s and student assembly organizers asked him to “throw on a headdress and run around the gym, chanting and hollering, before being killed by the Ram mascot.”

At a September school board meeting with a blend of honest courage and vulnerability, we heard the first-hand perspective of two young women who are Native and play basketball at Poky. Not only at the microphone, but presumably in more personal one-on-one settings, these young people have helped teachers, principals and other district employees understand the complexities and hurt inherent in Native mascots.

School leadership teams regularly make decisions in the best interest of students without public comment. The dangers of swings, teeter-totters and slides came to light, so school playgrounds have changed. Educators realized taking away recess as a punishment for kids who need to move is terrible, so the practice has been altered.

In 1988 when I began at Poky, initiation was a district-sponsored activity. Upperclassmen could “purchase” a sophomore and enter them in the Sammy Olympics. In skin-tight purple long-johns with too-small bikini bottoms over the top, I competed in various contests at Raymond Park. Although the school district took the reins and tried to do initiation “right,” it became obvious there was no right way to allow the practice to continue. As research trickled out and personal stories were shared, the long-standing tradition of initiation was halted in the 1990s without a peep of public comment.

With research about the harmful effects of Native mascots in hand and narratives from Native American students, their parents and Tribal leaders in her ears, Mrs. Delonas requested that the school board retire the Pocatello Indians mascot without public comment. She was well within her duties as a school principal to make that request on those accounts alone. For me, however, as someone who is a part of population who’s been smack dab in the middle of public comment and controversy, I was hopeful her request might prevent the ugliness that can happen when the gates of public comment are open wide and civility is trampled.

Back in 2012, my response to the tenor of public comment was to write. Out of that, my columnist wings formed. While I’ve always been grateful for the opportunity to write columns, I will stop short at feeling gratitude for the ill behavior and ignorance that paved the way. Until name-calling stops and civility leads, the hearts of many would fare better without public comment.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in business from Idaho State University. She is an engineer and community volunteer who relishes hiking and biking the mountains of southeast Idaho.