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‘You are not honoring me’: Native American mascot debate reignites at Illinois high schools, Part 1

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series by Shaw Media Illinois investigating the use of Native American mascots and imagery in Illinois schools.

Jimmy Holmes and Ava Bezaire, two rising seniors at Minooka Community High School, watched the George Floyd protests play out on the news and in their social media feeds. 

While watching activists demand change across the country, they began to think about their own community. 

Holmes grew up attending Minooka schools, but never thought much about the high school mascot until he was walking through the schools’ halls himself. The school cheers for the Minooka Indians, it sports a logo with a Native American headdress, even the gym uniforms read: “Fit to be an Indian.” 

The town name itself, Minooka, comes from a Pottawatomie word meaning “good land,” according to the village website. A drive through Minooka will reveal street names such as Arrowhead Drive, Blackhawks Drive, Chippewa Drive and Crowfoot Lane, to name a few. 

As debates swirled about race in America this summer, Holmes and Bezaire knew it was time to do something about their school’s mascot, one of 50 or so Native American mascots remaining at Illinois high schools. 

They started a change.org petition seeking a new mascot.

“If everybody thinks they’ll just let somebody else do it, then nobody does it,” Holmes said. “There’s got to be someone that does it.”

Similar petitions have popped up at Marengo, Morris, Lane Tech in Chicago and Waubonsie Valley in Aurora, among other schools across the state. Schools all over the country are reconsidering their Native American mascots, as well as mascots that refer to the Confederacy. 

In the NFL, the Washington Football Team (as its currently known) announced last month that it will retire the Redskins nickname, which it had used since 1937. The abrupt change came after years of criticism and years of refusing to change. 

The Washington Football Team’s change has fueled a nationwide effort to change other Native American mascots at all levels of sport. 

The petition sent to Minooka superintendent Kenny Lee and other district leaders, which Shaw Media Illinois obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, asks the district to remove depictions of Native Americans from spirit wear and school logos, to stop all Native American chants and songs at school functions, to stop dressing up as a Native Americans at school functions, to change the name of the school newspaper (“Peace Pipe Chatter”) and to no longer brand students as Indians (such as on the gym uniforms).

The Minooka petition had one thing other high school petitions didn’t: backing from a celebrity. Actor Nick Offerman, a Minooka native, threw his support behind the petition in June. Offerman is best known for playing Ron Swanson on the TV show “Parks and Recreation.” 

As of last week, the Minooka petition had more than 17,000 signatures. 

“It was definitely easier for us than other petitions because we got support from a celebrity,” Holmes said. “That very much boosted our [petition], and so we’re very thankful to Nick Offerman for that.”

During a June 17 school board meeting, the Minooka school board heard recommendations from Walker Thomas Group, which performed a third-party cultural assessment of the district. Mentioned along with other diversity and inclusion aspects was a recommendation to convene a task force to review the mascot. 

* * *

Dorene Wiese visits schools “constantly” to talk about Native American mascots and negative imagery. 

Wiese heads the American Indian Association of Illinois, a nonprofit in Chicago. She grew up on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota and came to Chicago for college when she was 18. About 50 years later, she remains active in the Chicago Indian community. 

The last big push against Native American mascots in high schools came about a decade ago, Wiese said. Over the years, the debate has gone through ebbs and flows where it is discussed often, then fades into the background. 

The George Floyd protests revived the discussion again. 

“What people don’t understand is that we’re so small in number because we’re the remnants of a huge genocide,” Wiese said. “We’re lucky to even be here at all. We’re always struggling to get any attention to our issues.”

According to the website MascotDB.com, which collects mascot names from all across the country, more than 2,000 schools still use Native American mascots in America. 

The Native American mascot has become deeply entrenched in many communities. Illinois’ flagship public university, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, demonstrates perfectly the opposition that changing such symbols encounters. In many ways, the “Chief Illiniwek” debate still persists on the campus, even though the symbol was retired in 2007. 

The same arguments are recycled year after year to defend the Native American mascots and imagery: The mascot is school history, and the mascot honors and respects Native Americans. 

One letter sent to the Minooka school board, obtained by Shaw Media Illinois through a FOIA request, implored the board to let the community vote on the mascot. 

“The Indian mascot honors strength and power with pride in teamwork and community,” wrote the community member, who identified as a longtime Minooka resident. “Never has it been a racist issue.” 

Wiese argues this assertion is simply wrong. 

“What we say, generally, is: You are not honoring me,” Wiese said. “I do not feel honored by this image, and we wish that you would please stop using it.”

In Wiese’s eyes, the mascot issue has perpetuated for so long because schools don’t teach an accurate portrayal of Native Americans in the classroom. Feathers and headdresses around Thanksgiving, celebrating Christopher Columbus, the idea that North America was “discovered” by Columbus, it’s all wrong, Wiese said. 

“You cannot separate American Indian history from American history because we were there the entire time,” Wiese said. “We were trying to exist, and we’re still trying to survive as sovereign nations. We need to be included in any effort that talks about race. We’re constantly left out.”

* * *

When a professional sports team brands itself using what many consider a racial slur, what does that say to high schools using the same mascot? What does it mean for those schools now that the Washington Football Team finally ha changed? 

The National Congress of American Indians called it “a day for all Native people to celebrate.” The organization has been at the forefront of ending Native American mascots. 

Five high schools in Illinois still use the Redskins as their mascot: Momence, Morris, Nokomis, Sullivan and Shawnee in Wolf Lake. 

At Morris, the school board heard comments from the public regarding the mascot last month.

"The board heard those comments and indicated they would like to explore the process,” District 101 Superintendent Craig Ortiz said. “They haven't made any formal decisions yet. They do want to take the time to explore what the process involves. This is not going to be a low-cost change. What will we have to do with flooring, signage, uniforms? How much time might that take?

The cost of changing a mascot is a real hurdle, and understandably so. 

Last month in New York, John Jay High School announced it would change its mascot from Indians to Wolves. According to one news report, the district superintendent estimated replacing all athletic uniforms in one year – for a school with an enrollment of about 1,000 – would cost about $69,000. Repainting the gym floor would be about $30,000. Replacing signs throughout the school would be another $25,000. 

In Buda, Texas, Hays High School is moving away from the Rebels mascot, which depicted a Confederate soldier. One report said changes at the school, with an enrollment of about 2,900, would cost $300,000 at most.  

The most recent mascot rebrand in Illinois will cost $150,000 on uniforms alone. At Rich Township High School in Richton Park, the district is closing one of its three campuses and combining athletic teams. What had been three separate schools now will compete in athletics as one. The school chose a new mascot, too: the Raptors. 

According to a FOIA request obtained by Shaw Media Illinois, the district has spent $80,000 on new uniforms and expects the number to total “close to $150,000.” 

* * *

At Minooka, and schools like it, there is a long road ahead. Petitions are met by counter-petitions. Opposition to the change remains vocal. 

“There is obviously a faction of the community that is saying no,” Holmes said. 

A Minooka counter-petition titled “Support Indian Pride in Minooka & Channahon” has garnered almost 4,000 signatures. 

In two tweets last month, Offerman urged the community to change and called the resistance “dumb and shameful.” 

“If the NFL and NASCAR can make course corrections away from racism, can’t our school system?” Offerman wrote. “Step up.”

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