American Indians inside the board room
OKLAHOMA CITY — Native supporters were already convening in the lobby of the Oklahoma City Public Schools’ (OKCPS) Administration Building in Oklahoma City prior to 6 pm for the 6:30 OKCPS’s Regular Meeting of the Board of Education, with several signing up to make public comments during the meeting.
Social Media announcements had been made a few days earlier that the new Assistant Superintendent, Aurora Lora, attended the first ever School Environment Listening Session for Native American students on November 18th at the same building. The listening session was sponsored by the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, and the purpose was to learn about the issues and struggles Native families in the state of Oklahoma face related to education. Assistant Superintendent was reportedly moved by students’ testimonies on how the Land Run reenactment affected them and had stated the reenactment would no longer be done in the Oklahoma Public Schools.
Soon after, additional social media notices were seen stating that the Native American community wanted support at the upcoming board meeting, where the issue of changing Native-based mascots in the school system would be voted upon. Specifically, for Capitol Hil High School, which serves grades 9-12, is located in southwest Oklahoma City and is one of five traditional high school in the school district.
OKCPS as a whole serves a diverse population. According to data from 2012-2013 school year on the OKPCS website, 48% of the students are Hispanic, 26% are Black, 18% are white and 4% are American Indian. The remaining four percent is split equally between multi-racial and Asian. As a whole, the school system reported 87% graduation rate for 2011-2012.
As the new Superintendent, Rob Neu reported on the state of the OKCPS progress and areas of opportunity he would like to address in the near future. He reported alarmingly low percentages of minority graduates, including Native American students.
Prior to the floor being opened for public comment, the school system’s attorney announced there were multiple requests for comments that seemed to be on the same issue as well as the same perspective for that issue. Each speaker would get 3 minutes to share their view, but not all speakers would be given the chance to speak due to time constraints and the repetition of the views. The attorney read off several names of those who wanted to discuss issues unrelated to Native mascots and the other individuals were to meet in the hall with the attorney to reduce the number of speakers, assigning spokespersons for those who had very similar information to share.
First to speak on the subject was Cedric Sunray, an educator. Mr. Sunray had four female students with him who each introduced themselves and shared their tribe. Each expressed their opposition to the current mascot of Redsk*ns at Capitol Hill. When Mr. Sunray spoke, he expressed that the school system’s policies prohibits discrimination based upon color, race, gender and other factors, yet the mascot itself is a racial slur and having this mascot goes against board policy.
Mr. Sunray referred back to a statement Mr. Neu had made during his presentation, which was similar to, “Everyone wants results, but no one wants to change.” Mr. Sunray concluded his three minutes allotment with we need the change for positive results, even if others don’t want it.
Another young female student greeted the board in Choctaw and proceeded to explain one of the commonly accepted origins of the word Redsk*n and how this word came about. She explained the word and current use of it as it related to the school’s mascot has a negative impact on her as a student. She also requests she and her culture be respected by the Board of Education removing the current mascot.
While there were other individuals awaiting their turn to share, after input from the school system’s attorney, Chairperson Lynne Hardin requested they refrain for speaking due to time restraints and other issues on the agenda that needed to be addressed. The chairperson assured those making comment that the information was heard. From the audience, Mr. Sunray shared that one of the commenter’s perspective was different, to which Chairperson Hardin requested she stay, as she would like to speak with her at a later time. An additional commenter who had a similar viewpoint was further assured the message was heard and was told she would not be allowed to speak.
Dr. Star Yellowfish, (Cherokee, Hawaiian and Filipino), Director of the Native American Student Services department for OKCPS, proceeded to give a summary about the Listening Session. Dr. Yellowfish first explained why knowing ones family, clan, community and history is so important to Native communities, and continued with an introduction of her and her husband’s tribes and clans.
Dr. Yellowfish reviewed the top 10 concerns voiced at the Listening Tour for all those that attended from around Oklahoma and also for OKCPS specifically. Dr. Yellowfish also shared images of a newspaper clipping and a book, both indicating the word Redsk*n has been used historically to refer to the murder of Native Americans and the subsequent payment of those murders. Dr. Yellowfish apologized for the graphic nature of the discussion, but explained it was important for the audience to understand the indication of the word and how Native students might feel in regards to its use in the school system, even to the point of experiencing a visceral reaction to the term or reference to it.
Dr. Yellowfish cited research by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a psychologist who has provided testimony to Senate Indian Affairs Committee regarding the negative affects not only on Native students, but all students when Native mascots are used. During her presentation Dr. Yellowfish expressed the decision to dismiss the current mascot would be monumental, that she loves her job and would like to see OKCPS be an example by setting the precedent for the state by making it clear that this term is not acceptable.
Following Dr. Yellowfish’s presentation, a representative from the Capitol Hill Alumni Association, J. Don Harris, shared some history about the school and how the mascot was chosen 88 years ago in order to show respect for Oklahoma’s Native American history. Mr. Harris expressed he is in support of retaining the current mascot, the school’s legacy and pride.
He shared there have been many Native American students that have walked the halls of Capitol Hill and gone on to become successful adults, and until a week ago when he received an e-mail expressing otherwise, he was never aware that anyone had a problem with the name. If the name is to change, Mr. Harris expressed interested in meeting with whomever would make that decision and work on a solution together for a new mascot.
Following Mr. Harris’ input, Chairperson Hardin asked the board for any discussion. Ron Millican, District 7, shared his thoughts, stating he is proud of Capitol Hill. He referenced a study out of Cal Sate that indicated of Native Americans polled, 67% found the term Redsk*n offensive, 12% were neutral and 21% didn’t care. After pausing, Mr. Millican stated, “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This isn’t true. Words are very harmful. In my opinion the Redsk*ns name is insensitive and should be changed. It is the right thing to do.”
Ruth Veales, District 5, expressed she was feeling dual emotions on the topic, as she is a person of dual races. She certainly can relate to the issue being similar to the use of the “N-word” for individuals who are African American, but she is also an individual who is a member of the Creek Nation. Ms. Veales stated the board has an obligation to do what is right now that they are aware.
Bob Hammrick, representing District 1, indicated he felt the board was a thoughtful group, and would make the right decision for those who came and shared their thoughts at the meeting.
Board Chairperson Lynne Hardin stated as a graduate of the district, whose school had played against Capitol Hill and found them to be great athletes, she did not know about the mascot being offensive until about five days ago. However, Ms. Hardin expressed once you know, you can’t unlearn the information but can take the steps to correct things. Clarification was made at this time that as soon as the vote was done, if in favor of dismissing the mascot, it would be affective immediately.
With that, Justin Ellis, representing District 2 and the Comanche Nation made a motion at approximately 8:20 pm to dismiss the current mascot at Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Laura Massenat, District 4, seconded it. the motion passed with 8 yeas, 0 nays and 0 abstains.