I hesitated to jump into the Pocatello High School mascot issue, one of the many social-related issues that inevitably leads to strong divisiveness. My purpose isn’t to debate the decision to retire the mascot, but rather to call attention to the greater issue in play.
What frustrates so many in our community is how the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District Board of Trustees goes about making these decisions and the frequent incongruity in the district between narratives and actions.
Where is the commitment of our elected leaders to take time (beyond one week) to really listen to varying viewpoints, to allow the community time to learn about an issue and to absorb the arguments? No one proposed to drag this decision out for months, but clearly one week in the midst of a pandemic is insufficient. One trustee adamantly declared they hadn’t made up their minds at the Sept. 8 meeting as they had just learned of the proposal. Trustees spoke about the community needing education, time to absorb the change, to process and arrive at their conclusions (a process illustrated in staff experiences). Yet, exactly one week later on Sept. 15, they retired the mascot with little deliberation that focused on an effective date — an action incongruous with previous statements. The public understands the legitimate concerns about how divisive and painful this change is for many. However, leadership is about recognizing the impact some decisions have on a community and deliberately accepting responsibility, despite the discomfort, to formulate a plan and lead (not force) the community through the process.
The next decision is the selection of the replacement mascot. Despite board members speaking on Sept. 15 in favor of delaying the mascot retirement until June 1, 2021, so the community could take time, work together, heal and choose a new mascot, it was reported to the board on Oct. 13 that in the previous four weeks, a mascot selection committee (formed by one administrator) had selected criteria and narrowed 185-plus entries down to eight (now nine) semi-finalists.
Student groups were preparing ad campaigns and voting was set to start the following week. (What happened to taking time for the community to work together?) After the public voted for their top three choices, three “finalists” would be presented to the board for a final decision. However, one week later on Oct. 20, the district wrote the votes were an “advisory survey” and would be used as a “reference” for the committee to make a final recommendation to the board. If accurate, this change significantly limits the public’s voice.
After viewing the Oct. 13 meeting, I asked District 25 if there was Native American representation on the mascot selection committee? It took a second email to receive the one-word response: “No”.
Why wasn’t there Shoshone-Bannock representation on the mascot committee to narrow the selections down? It was explained that while the public’s intent years ago of using the Indian name was one of honor and respect, that wasn’t the ultimate impact. So isn’t it also possible the committee’s good intent to narrow the mascots to selections which positively tie to Poky’s history as “Indians” and with some link to Native Americans may also not have the intended impact? To exclude the advice and counsel of our Native American citizens in this process is baffling. Listening to those voices impacted by the mascot doesn’t stop at the decision to terminate the mascot, does it? More incongruity.
The committee’s first criteria for the replacement mascot was that it be positively tied to Poky’s history as the “Indians” with a link to Native Americans — a criteria that “phantoms” clearly does not meet. Yet, due to its popularity, it remained on the list of finalists.
Other criteria were that the mascot: (1) should be easily tied to a tangible image; (2) should not be viewed negatively or abused in some way to cause ridicule or to become a joke; (3) should not represent “people” groups; (4) if an animal, be native to the area. They eliminated owls because of the possible use of “hooters,” but as many social media comments have pointed out, bison wasn’t eliminated even though female bison are called “cows.” Why?
The public now knows (due to public record documents shared by Mr. McCurdy) that the PHS administration had suggested the bison as a possible mascot image. School District 25 needs to address the authenticity of the mascot selection process because there are concerns in the community that this is just a perfunctory “process” ending in a predetermined outcome, especially with three of the nine voting choices (Stampede, Thunder and Bison) all tied to bison imagery.
The community has questions. Did the committee, lacking Native American representation, thoroughly explore the role animals have in traditional Native American culture? What do these animals represent to the Shoshone-Bannock people? The bison was important to Native American life as it was hunted for its meat and its skin provided shelter and clothing. However, we cannot ignore that the U.S. government ordered the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of bison to near extinction in its quest to “conquer” the West nor the purposeful hardship this caused Native Americans. So wouldn’t it be a reasonable question to ask the tribal community if the use of this animal as a mascot is potentially a negative or painful reminder of the past? Isn’t there incongruity in overlooking this possibility?
For some Native Americans, animals are sacred and revered. Using an animal as a mascot for these individuals may be comparable to using a religious icon or saint as a mascot for a Catholic. Did the committee speak to multiple Shoshone-Bannock members who hold traditional beliefs to determine if any of the proposed animal selections might offend? And, if that’s a possibility, isn’t there incongruity in ignoring this fact?
Since Pocatello citizens with good intentions got it wrong in the past, explain why today’s process to select a replacement mascot shouldn’t involve more careful thought and consideration, more discussion, more opportunity for feedback, and more effort to obtain widespread input from the Shoshone Bannock community? Where is the cultural insight and sensitivity? When the community casts their votes, we should have assurance our intent doesn’t result in another negative impact and that another group won’t come forward in the future to request mascot removal due to an oversight brought about by haste.
Controversial decisions are bound to arise, but the District 25 Board of Trustees’ lack of oversight in the process and the district’s unabashed incongruity between what is publicly said versus done does not go unnoticed and continues to result in frustration, broken trust and less than productive outcomes for the community. Good intent does not always produce the desired impact.
Heather Disselkoen of Pocatello is a fellow taxpayer, active in advocating locally for transparency and responsible government. She aims to do her part to help educate others on the issues and encourage more citizen involvement.