Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians Tribal Councilor Matt Wesaw addressed Paw Paw Schools Board of Education on mascot issue.
Published January 19, 2017
PAW PAW, MICHIGAN — The Paw Paw Schools Board of Education held a roundtable Wednesday evening to gather input from both sides of the issue on whether to retain the “R-word” as the name of the school system’s sports name.
The meeting that lasted three hours had the flair of a Jerry Springer show because the audience became contentious–often heckling American Indian speakers–almost from its beginning. Karen Ayres, president Paw Paw school’s Board of Education, threatened to have unruly people removed by several police officers who were present throughout the meeting.
The meeting held in the high school’s performing arts center drew a couple hundred Paw Paw community members proudly wearing red shirts with the derogatory term printed on them. In contrast, there were about 100 American Indians and their allies who were there to support the removal of the name.
Non-Native P.J. Chmiel has always considered the “R-word” a racial slur.
Representatives from the nearby Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians made presentations. Matt Wesaw, tribal council member of the tribe and the former director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights discussed studies that indicate school systems that have an American Indian mascot or name create low self-esteem for American Indian students.
The crowd heckled Sam Morseau, director of education for the tribe, as he used an informative presentation that traced the roots of the R-word usage. One member yelled: “Can we move on?” Another, yelled “That was a long time ago.”
Jaime Stuck, chairman of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Tribe, provided an overview of newly established Native American Heritage Fund that will take up to $500,000 annually from gaming revenue to be used to cover the costs associated with school replacing or revising mascots or imagery that may be considered offensive to American Indians with more culturally appropriate representations or new mascots or logos.
The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi Tribe have deemed the “R-word” unacceptable and have taken steps to address the issue.
Eunice Davidson, Santee Sioux from North Dakota, spoke in favor of keeping the racist term. She maintained that she was one of many American Indians who fought to keep the “Fighting Sioux” mascot at the University of North Dakota that was ultimately eliminated.
“I see this as another genocide of our history,” Davidson stated. “I really believe if you take away our names and our images what is going to happen to our people.” She sees nothing wrong with the R-word.
Paw Paw is a small town, in southwest Michigan, located 20 miles southwest from Kalamazoo. Its population is 3,455, with .47 percent who are American Indian. While the town of Paw Paw does not have many American Indians, several American Indians in the room can trace their ancestry to the areas, as does Elizabeth Pigeon, who attended Wednesday night meeting.
Several American Indians in the crowd wondered why Davidson was invited to Michigan to speak in an area that was occupied for centuries by the People of the Three Fires (Ojibwe, Ottawa and Potawatomi).
“The meeting left me feeling pride in our Anishinabe community participants but also disappointed in the continued negative treatment and disrespect shown to our Anishinabe community by the proud Paw Paw residents and police force,” commented Elizabeth Pigeon (Potawatomi), treasurer of the Mide We Win Mide Widjig. “It was uncomfortable to walk into a room with a river of red shirts joining an ocean of red shirts filling the auditorium and seeing on the back of the shirts advertisement stating sponsored by local businesses supporting the Redsk*n mascot name staying the same.”
Cheyenne Wichtman, with her mother, attorney Karrie Wichtman was up next to speak when the meeting came to an abrupt end.
The meeting ended abruptly at 10 p.m. when the Board of Education President Ayres determined there were too many disruptions. The Board of Education is due to vote at its regularly scheduled meeting on February 8, 2017 meeting on whether to keep the racist name as its mascot.
Native News Online photos by Levi Rickert.